Book about the history of coffee in El Salvador, a crop that has created a lot of inequality in the last hundred years. The history of coffee is closely tied to macroeconomics, so this narrative weaves in an economic history of the Americas as well. Coffee is native to Arabic regions and spread to European coffeehouses during the 17th century. The story revolves around James Hill, an entrepreneur from Manchester who set out in 1889 to El Salvador to found his coffee growing empire.
Coffee at the time was produced in Brazil, Haiti, and other places in Central America (imports from Asia was rare). Brazil was known for lower-quality coffee, while El Salvador had fertile soil from its volcano and produced a higher quality crop. Coffee prices were subject to large fluctuations depending on harvests and tariffs. James Hill dealt with textiles before he managed to get a large loan to start his coffee plantation, which takes a few years to produce anything.
When coffee consumption takes off in the US, El Salvador is the ideal place to supply the coffee, so James Hill’s business profits and expands. The problem is coffee farming is very labor intensive and required a lot of manual labor to dig holes, plant the trees, pick the berries, etc. The planters (people in charge of the operation) complained that the “mozos” (natives) were lazy and did the bare minimum to earn their food.
Thus Hill and other planters needed to manufacture hunger to incentivize the workers. They destroyed other sources of food and created a coffee monoculture, and fed the workers two meals of tortillas and beans in exchange for a day’s work. Workers were expected to achieve optimal thermodynamic efficiency, similar to a steam engine where the number of calories put in as food should be equal to the amount of work done. So the workers laughing and singing while working were seen as a waste of calories.
The system proved to be unsustainable and instead of being ideal machines that Hill wanted, the workers formed human relationships with each other, took care of their children, bribed their managers, etc. This continued on for a few years until the Great Depression, when coffee prices fell. Hunger worsened and people started organizing in thousands to protest, until an attempted coup in 1932. However, the government defeated the revolutionaries in a violent massacre, in which about 25,000 natives were killed.
After the world wars, coffee drinking became the norm of American workplaces, and employers realized they can boost workers’ productivity cheaply by giving them 15-minute coffee breaks. Conditions in El Salvador did not drastically improve however, and another revolution occurred in 1979. This time, it ended with Jaime Hill (grandson of James Hill) kidnapped by the revolutionaries and held for ransom for a few months (he survived).
Overall, a well-written book with a compelling story and very detailed historical research. I liked the juxtaposition of hunger on coffee plantations with the 19th century scientific investigations involving the thermodynamic output of a human body. Capitalism is a cruel machine when it is unregulated, turning what was originally a fertile region into a monoculture with mass hunger. Regulation is probably the best solution, even if I’ll have to pay a bit more for my coffee.