Rehumanizing Coffee: Through First Bringing to Light The History of Enslavement in Coffee

Rehumanizing Coffee: Through First Bringing to Light The History of Enslavement in Coffee

Coffee’s Roots

Like most everyday commodities we enjoy, coffee has its roots deep in a history of violence and enslavement. We have since come a long way, with certifications like Fair Trade, upswings in minority coffee land ownership, and protective agencies overseeing the industry. Still, coffee remains a prevalent part of our lives without an homage to how it got there or at what cost. 

Coffee: Origination, Enslavement, & The Scars That Remain

Coffee originated in Ethiopia, one of the only countries in the world to never be colonized by European powers. Still, Europe got their hands on these amazing beans and quickly monetized their production. We can follow a legacy of enslavement from Africa to coffee colonies in the Caribbean, Asia and the Americas throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s. British colonies such as Barbados and Haiti were used as plantations for sugar and coffee alike, where enslaved Africans were forced under some of the cruelest living conditions ever documented to produce enough coffee for Europe. We now associate coffee heavily with the Americas, especially Brazil, where the average life expectancy of a slave through most of this time period was just seven years post purchase.

When coffee production declined in the Caribbean, slave labor was utilized in Java, Indonesia and Latin America. We still see some of the largest scales of coffee production today in these territories. Meanwhile the birthplace of coffee, tropical Africa, was left in tatters with decolonized states whose valuable resources had been taken out of the country and made more profitable on slave plantations in south america. Today, we see a huge gap in African coffee production scale as compared to that of Latin America; a continuation of the legacy and marginalization of African coffee farmers. Despite slavery as we imagine it legally being dismantled in the aforementioned countries, the institution still exists. As do the scars. The racial divides are still painfully obvious between coffee land owners and laborers, as they are from the farm level to the barista and cafe owner level.

Closeup of Ethiopian womans hands as she pours coffee in Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

Rehumanizing Coffee

Coffee for most of the Western world is nothing less than simplistic and delicious. For the remainder of the world, especially in coffee countries of origin, the bean takes on a different light. Our industry has been extremely white washed and the separation between our cup and the hands that made it possible is often romanticized for our own benefit. Why is this an important conversation worth having? Coffee annually employees and supports over 300 million families on the farming and milling side.

Coffee is a labor intensive crop that utilizes seasonal employees and migrant labor to bring in the harvest and process the coffee before it over ripens or decays. The industry as a whole rests on the backs of farmers, pickers, sorters and millers. When we look into sustainable practices on the farming level it is not just environmental sustainability but labor sustainability. Today we still see the reports of enslavement being used on coffee plantations yet we disconnect from the correlation between inexpensive coffee and slavery. As roasters and coffee consumers it is a tricky world to maneuver but a few things are black and white. 

Slavery is unacceptable and our legacy as profiteers from such deplorable acts is worth discussing in the hopes that we do everything in our power to end it. The responsibility of those actions does not only fall on coffee importers and roasters but also on each of us who drink coffee. Consumers set the standards, they choose what cafes to frequent, whose beans to order online and what they are willing to pay for beans. Being conscious of this takes some extra steps, it takes getting to know the people pouring your latte and researching the businesses you want to support. At the end of the day, when you take the time to purchase ethically, you are setting a precedent that stands up against the last 300 years of slavery and exploitation. That action matters and so do the people behind the coffee. 

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