Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All Latin American History Coverage

The term “coffeeland” could easily describe the United States today. Long part of daily life and culture, coffee has evolved from an inexpensive, plain cup of joe to a dizzying array of menu choices. But in this fascinating history, Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, Augustine Sedgewick digs deeper to explore the little-known saga of James Hill, an Englishman who founded a coffee dynasty in El Salvador, where he arrived in 1889 at age 19. Not only did Hill change his own family’s fortunes, he transformed his adopted country into a coffee monoculture. By the second half of the 20th century, coffee made up more than 90% of El Salvador’s exports, bringing wealth to some and poverty to others.

Sedgewick sets Hill’s story against the backdrop of the history of the coffee business, which has its roots in the mid-1500s in Constantinople. By the mid-1650s, the coffee craze had taken England by storm. The coffeehouse, and the replacement of ale by coffee as people’s daily drink, has been linked to societal transformation and innovation. But it was textiles, not coffee, that originally brought Hill to Central America. Once there, he met and married Lola Bernal, whose dowry included coffee plantations. (Today, the company he founded continues as J. Hill and Company.)

Some of the most interesting sections of Sedgewick’s narrative trace Hill’s efforts to make his coffee the best, becoming an eager student of all aspects of coffee, from production to marketing. Sedgewick also is adept at incorporating Hill’s enterprise into the fabric of major historical events that impacted the world coffee market, such as the Great Depression. Sedgewick brings his narrative to a close with a discussion of the role of coffee today, arguing that coffee has replaced sugar as the commodity that most often drives discussion about the world economy and issues of economic justice.

Impeccably researched, with an extensive bibliography, source notes and an index, Coffeeland is a rich and immensely readable journey into an aspect of 21st-century life worth learning more about.

The term “coffeeland” could easily describe the United States today. Long part of daily life and culture, coffee has evolved from an inexpensive, plain cup of joe to a dizzying array of menu choices. But in this fascinating history, Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, Augustine Sedgewick digs deeper […]

For generations, historians have gleaned their understanding of the conquest of Mexico from Spanish accounts—whether from the conquistadors, who stressed Aztec human sacrifice, or Catholic missionaries, who were sometimes more sympathetic to the indigenous Nahua people. If you’d asked why the approach was so one-sided, the scholars would have said: Because nothing else is available. 

That’s simply not true. The people Americans call Aztecs, who called themselves Mexica, had a strong tradition of historical annals that didn’t stop with the conquest. For years afterward, the descendants of Nahua nobles, both Mexica and others, continued to write Nahuatl-language chronicles.

Happily, the long neglect of those documents has now ended. Historian Camilla Townsend continues her groundbreaking work in the field in the marvelous Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, a dramatic and accessible narrative that tells the story as the Nahuas saw it.

Yes, the Mexica sacrificed humans and were unpopular enough that some of the regions they had conquered allied with the Spanish. But they were also pragmatic, funny, clever, artistic and enmeshed in a civilization as sophisticated as Spain, if not as technologically advanced. Fifth Sun helps explode denigrating myths: Moctezuma was not a coward, just a realist. He did not think Hernán Cortés was a “god.” The translator known to posterity as Malinche (really Malintzin) was not a “traitor.”

Townsend, a first-rate writer, explores each era through the lives of real Nahuas who lived through or wrote about it. Among them are a captive daughter of Moctezuma, who bore one of Cortés’ many illegitimate children; a local ruler who learned to work in a Spanish-governed world and sponsored an important chronicle; and an indigenous Catholic priest, proud of both his ancestry and his Christian faith. 

The Mexica were smart and effective, but they couldn’t overcome Spanish horses, steel and guns. Even so, they didn’t give up. As is often true after a conquest, the defeated generation’s children rebelled a few decades later, and the grandchildren pushed to preserve their history. Fifth Sun continues that crucial task. 

For generations, historians have gleaned their understanding of the conquest of Mexico from Spanish accounts—whether from the conquistadors, who stressed Aztec human sacrifice, or Catholic missionaries, who were sometimes more sympathetic to the indigenous Nahua people. If you’d asked why the approach was so one-sided, the scholars would have said: Because nothing else is available.  […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Reviews

Author Interviews

Recent Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!