Coffeeland, by Augustine Sedgewick

Review by Dave Gamrath

 One-liner:  In Coffeeland, author Augustine Sedgewick provides a detailed history of the coffee industry, with a focus on coffee production in El Salvador over the past 150 years.

 Book Review: 

No, Coffeeland by Augustine Sedgewick is not a book about Seattle!  Rather, it’s a history of global coffee production over the past 150 years.  The book ties the history of coffee to overall global development.  Sedgewick states that coffee is “one of the most important commodities in the history of global inequality,” and explains why.  Coffeeland focuses on coffee production in El Salvador, and its ramifications. 

 Historically, land was communal in El Salvador.  The primary crops grown by natives were corn and beans, which provided a basic but healthy diet.  In 1882, the system of communal land ownership in El Salvador was abolished.  Sedgewick writes that “access to land, long a social right, became a market commodity, sold to the savviest buyer.”  Land confiscated from local indigenous people was turned into coffee production.  The process included the “privatization of land, the militarization of commerce; the strict policing of work and social life”, all biased to favor the new wealthy landowners, and punish the natives.  As a result, coffee production in El Salvador grew dramatically.

 The development of coffee in El Salvador split the country into the rich and poor, which follows the global pattern of the developed vs undeveloped world.  Sedgewick provides extensive details of the abuse of Salvadoran natives by the coffee barons that not only controlled El Salvador’s land, but also the government.  When their land was taken away, Salvadoreans lost the means to feed themselves.  Wages on the plantations came in two parts:  money and food.  Food was used to manipulate the workers.  Laborers made roughly fifty cents a day, plus two meager meals of tortillas and beans.  They became “a laborer for life.” 

 Sedgewick writes that the production of coffee in El Salvador was effectively the “production of hunger itself.”  “Some planters cultivated hunger through the most direct means available to them – violence and the fear that it bred.”  They withheld food if workers didn’t meet quotas.  Fruit trees on plantations were cut down to keep laborers hungry.  They hired “lieutenants” to enforce their rules through “the constant application of beating, stabbings, machete slashings, and threats of the same.”  The rich coffee plantation owners funded “death squads” to patrol the area and suppress the locals.

 Sedgewick’s story focuses on James Hill, a young impoverished Englishman, who immigrated to El Salvador in 1889, and worked to slowly become El Salvador’s “coffee king”.  Hill left Manchester, England, seeking a better life.  In time, Hill married into a local coffee family and took over operations.  Sedgewick describes, step by step, how Hill used analytics to try and expand coffee production.  Hill described his main job as “to figure out how to make other people do the planting and everything else.” 

 Compared to other planters, James Hill’s abuse of workers was tempered, but still outrageous.  Hill was not as physically violent as other planters, but still worked at “feeding his trees and starving his workers, producing coffee and hunger in corresponding amounts.” Hill also forced women to work, paying them lower wages than men.  He hired their children as messengers, and employed “old people” as spies.  “When Hill needed as much labor as he could get from everywhere he could get it, he offered a half ration to children who came to the plantations with their parents, in the hope that he could turn the children’s dependence on their parents into their parents’ obedience to him.”  He condoned his managers forcing women workers into sex for food.  As soon as the harvest were over, Hill fired as many people as possible.

 Sedgewick also provides a detailed history of coffee’s expanding popularity in America.  Even as far back as the Civil War, Union soldiers “consumed about thirty-six pounds of coffee beans each year, perhaps five cups per day.”  Sedgewick describes how the changing composition of the US population, as well as the changing place of the US in the world, turned coffee into a mass beverage.  “Coffee was something even the poorest Americans could afford.”  Sedgewick tells the story of Hills Brothers and other famous coffee brands, and how coffee was instrumental in the development of a new way of shopping:  supermarkets. 

 The book includes many tangents, some with such extensive detail that the reader is motivated to go get a strong cup of coffee!  Examples include the coffee production process, false advertising in coffee, historic economic trends in coffee, the types of coffees from various countries, the evolution of coffee makers, and how “the American grocery business…completely reorganized around coffee.”  Sedgewick tells the story of studies that proved how coffee was a boon to work, and became recognized as a “form of instant energy – a work drug”, and how coffee breaks became an accepted norm in the American workplace.  Caffeine is the most popular drug in the world today.

 Coffeeland provides a detailed history of the rise of socialism in El Salvador.  Workers began to look at socialism as an avenue to a better life.  Sedgewick tells the story of the failed revolution of 1932, and how the Salvadoran government, backed by rich land owners, defeated the revolution and slaughtered the natives.  Soldiers indiscriminately killed males over twelve years old, as well as women and children.  The killing became “unequivocally genocidal – focused exclusively on self-identified Indians.”  Coffee plantations became killing fields; over twelve thousand natives were slaughtered. 

 Revolution sprung up again in the 1970s.  The US funded the Salvadoran military and death squads at more than a million dollars a day.  “The countryside was again transformed into a mass grave for as many as 75,000 people,” and by 1991, when the fighting ended, a million Salvadorians, one-fifth of the country’s population, had fled their homes.

 A key message Sedgewick provides in Coffeeland is that we, as consumers, consume products without understanding their true human and environmental costs.  Coffee provides a clear example of this.  Coffee drinkers tend to be wealthier; coffee workers dirt poor.  Sedgewick writes that hunger is “the bedrock foundation of all capitalist economies”; and that in the coffee districts of western El Salvador, chronic hunger still exists in 97 percent of households.  Fair trade coffee helps, but is not sufficient to remedy the disparities. 

 As a typical Seattleite with a coffee addiction, I was eager to read Coffeeland.  I previously didn’t grasp the extraordinary abuse of the indigenous populations within coffee growing countries, all to get me my tall drip, no room.  It’s easy to blindly enjoy the benefits of relative wealth and privilege.  Coffeeland does a good job at opening those blind eyes. 

 Reviewer Opinion: 

A good read, but Sedgewick goes off on more tangents than needed.


Reviewer Rating of Book: 

Thumb up.


I am a retired science educator and naturalist. My research focuses on reptiles, mostly snakes. Also, I am interested in dogs and their evolution. Protecting the environment should be a high priority for everyone, particularly politicians. They seem to be in denial over the idea that the environment is our life support system - once it's damaged, it may not be fixable.