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.