Yum. Chances are you like coffee; maybe you're drinking a cup right now. If you are, it may surprise you that this delicious drink was once considered a dangerous threat to personal morality, nay, to civilisation itself!

We're pretty sure coffee originally came from Ethiopia in the tenth century, specifically from the province of Kaffa. Ethiopians used to roll it into little balls with animal fat and then eat it when they went off to war or hunting. Ethiopia at this time was a great trading nation which had links as far to the east as Ceylon (that's Sri Lanka nowadays) and their marvelous and potent bean spread far and wide, and became transformed into a drink somewhere along the way.

The first place it impacted was the Islamic world, where it became known for its restorative powers and for its ability to keep people awake during prayers. It was especially popular due to the Islamic ban on alcohol, although this meant that Muslims were prohibited from drinking the wine that Ethiopians distilled from coffee beans. Coffee seems to be well-established in the ummah by the fifteenth century, and seems to have originally entered the Arabian Peninsula through what is now Yemen. The traveller apparently -

Found that among its properties was that it drove away fatigue and lethargy, and brought to the body a certain sprightliness and vigour.

The first coffeehouse in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, opened while Süleyman the Magnificent (1520 - 1566) was boss. At first the rulers of the Empire weren't too bothered by the new drink and the institution of the coffee house, although it had been banned in Mecca several times in the 1520s. The extremely pious might complain that it was a drug and should be forbidden, but at the time things were going so well for the Ottoman Empire that it didn't seem to matter. The Safavid Empire had suffered major setbacks, Europeans were fleeing from Ottoman pirates in the Mediterranean, and Hungary had been absorbed into the Empire. Süleyman was, after all, Magnificent. However, after his death in 1566 things started to go badly for the Ottoman Empire, culminating in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. People started to wonder what was wrong.

Religious leaders in the Ottoman Empire focused their ire on moral decline. The coffee house had begun to supplant the mosque as a place of meeting, which meant that discussion and leisure was being conducted outside of the watchful eye of God. The Muslim world had never had an equivalent of the European tavern were common people could meet and socialise, and the appearance of one was met with mixed feelings by the clergy and secular rulers. During the reign of Murat IV smoking, coffee and alcohol were all banned - on pain of death! The irony of the fact that Murat died prematurely of alcohol abuse was probably lost on the executed. Anyway, the banning of coffee didn't seem to do the Empire much good - Murat IV was the last Sultan who is generally held in high esteem for centuries and it was mostly downhill from there. The moral - coffee makes you strong.

Popular stories tell us that coffee first arrived in Europe after the siege of Vienna in 1683, when the invading Ottomans left bags of weird beans lying around and someone had the idea of boiling them. However, the popular story, however cute, is wrong - coffee had been traded around the Mediterranean for several hundred years and Europeans had come into contact with it in the Crusades. However, it did not make a huge impact on the European consciousness until the sixteenth century, when some priests and moralists began to clamour for its prohibition.

The first coffee house opened in Oxford in 1650 and in London in 1652. Some Europeans weren't too keen, especially as the drink had originated in the land of the infidel. George Sandys described it as "black as soote, and tasting not much unlike it". However, most of the inhabitants of Europe seemed to disagree, and coffeehouses soon became extraordinarily popular, especially when married to the emerging newspaper and pamphlet industry which catered to the middle and working classes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The fact coffee had come from the Ottoman Empire presented another problem, represented by the fact it was branded "Satan's drink" - it was considered unholy and many Christians felt it was improper to drink it, even though there was no specific religious law proscribing it. However, some priests wanted it banned. But Pope Clement VIII decided to sample this Devil's brew in 1600, and was pleasantly surprised, famously declaring "This drink of Satan is so delicious that it would be a shame to leave it to the Infidels. Let us confound Satan by blessing it." A collection of women in Europe wrote a pamphlet complaining that coffee was "enfeebling" their men and distracting them - and men responded with a pamphlet saying women should stop complaining, because coffee was an erotic stimulant!

Coffeehouses soon became associated with the lower orders, and with something even worse - with the lower orders educating themselves. They became centres of intellectual exchange and according to French author Antoine François Prévost, were the "seats of English liberty". Charles II, more keen on the King's liberty than the people's, banned coffeehouses in 1675, branding them as "places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of his Majesty and his Ministers". His edict was quickly revoked due to mass protest, and only thirteen years later the English monarchy would suffer the Glorious Revolution and became emasculated. There seems to be a pattern emerging!

The Brits proceeded to conquer most of the planet on one gigantic caffeine buzz, which led to the colonisation of North America. When the Puritans fled Britain in the seveteenth and eighteenth centuries, they fled in the spirit of protest against religious and political oppression in their home country. You might not have known it from their early laws, with legislators in Connecticut declaring all sorts of moral acts to be punishable by reprimands ranging from fines to death - adultery, bad language, drunkenness, smoking tobacco. However, coffee became the national drink of the American states while they were still part of the British Empire in protest of the Crown's taxes on tea. A fitting tribute in the land of liberty to the institution which helped to ferment anti-absolutist movements and diffuse education in Britain - the coffee house. The American Republic, once born, never banned coffee.

The moral of this brief tale - coffee not only tastes great and increases your productivity, but it sustains liberty too. Drink up!


"Ethiopian coffee and trade", http://www.american.edu/TED/ethcoff.htm
"A Brief History of Coffee", http://www.coffeeuniverse.com/university_hist.html
"Coffee houses in London", http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/ConNarrative.128/Coffee-houses-in-London.html
"The history of coffee", http://www.lofbergslila.se/web/texter_eng.nsf/(InternaLankar)/585GWA?OpenDocument&menu1=1&menu2=History%20of%20coffee
"Rumors brewing: Beatified monk really did not invent cappuccino", http://www.nccatholic.org/print.php?ArtID=959
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Bernard Lewis, The Middle East

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