The intricate synergies of coffee and capitalism form the subtext of the historian Augustine Sedgewick’s thoroughly engrossing first book ...'What does it mean to be connected to faraway people and places through everyday things?' Sedgewick asks in his early pages. Coffeeland offers a fascinating meditation on that question, by rendering once-obscure lines of connection starkly visible ... Though his analysis of coffee’s political economy does owe a debt to Marx, his literary gifts and prodigious research make for a deeply satisfying reading experience studded with narrative surprise. Sedgewick has a knack for the sparkling digression and arresting jump cut, hopping back and forth between El Salvador and the wider world, where coffee was being consumed in ever-increasing quantities. He is especially good on the marketing of coffee to Americans ... He shows how coffee has long been promoted in America less as a tasty beverage or pleasurable experience than as a means to an end: 'a form of instant energy—a work drug.'
... a wide-ranging chronicle of the role of coffee in American culture and commerce and, above all, in the fascinating history of El Salvador, a small country along Central America’s Pacific Coast that is rich in coffee beans but not in traditions of political stability or broad-based property rights ... Mr. Sedgewick sets so many themes and story lines in motion that his narrative might have easily become overwhelming were it not for his deft handling of them. There is no mistaking where he stands, but one needn’t subscribe to all his righteous judgments to value the rich tapestry he has woven.
Extremely wide-ranging and well researched, Sedgewick’s story reaches out into American political history, not to mention the history of American breakfast ... The originality and ambition of Sedgewick’s work is that he insistently sees the dynamic between producer and consumer—Central American peasant and North American proletarian—not merely as one of exploited and exploiter but as a manufactured co-dependence between two groups both exploited by capitalism. 'Cravings' are not natural appetites but carefully created cultural diktats ... To be sure, Sedgewick recognizes that the actual history of caffeine and capitalist efficiency is more complicated than one might expect ... At the same time, Sedgewick perhaps ascribes undue propagandistic power to the public-relations exercises of coffee producers. Like many radical historians, Sedgewick has a passionate feeling for detail, but lacks a sense of irony ... Sedgewick’s approach can seem dutifully leftist, but the evidence suggests that socialist models of production have hardly humanized the demands of agricultural labor ... Sedgewick, in a tradition of protest literature rooted more in William Blake than in Marx, sees mankind chained to a treadmill of obedience leading only to oblivion.
... not relentlessly grim. In its last lap, it strikes some positive notes ... Meticulously researched, vivid in its scene-setting, fine-toothed in its sociopolitical analysis and, admittedly, sometimes dense going in its tackling of economic and physiological theories, Coffeeland lays bare the history and reality behind that cup of joe you’re drinking.
...[an] energising study of how an everyday commodity has ploughed up the world’s surface and hacked deep into its economic and political design ... Coffeeland is a data-rich piece of original research that shows in compelling detail how coffee capitalism has delivered both profit and pain, comfort and terror to different people at different times over the past 200 years ... could all feel dauntingly abstract, but Sedgwick’s great achievement is to clothe macroeconomics in warm, breathing flesh.
That Hill is not terribly interesting, beyond his success and his meticulous cruelty, is disguised by Sedgewick cramming his narrative with many other characters. Sometimes three or four appear on as many pages, never to appear again or only fleetingly on a second mention. Some of them call out for a book themselves ... the latter half of Coffeeland is far more gripping than the endless talk of the variation in coffee prices. A more stern editor — one perhaps fired up with their morning brew — could have condensed this book down and tightened its focus, giving it the hit and bite of an espresso. Instead, the sprawling history of a place, a product and a family left this reviewer with the impression of an unsatisfactory, watery cup.
... a book whose style and approach will appeal to some readers more than others. The text is both a curio-shop of forgotten snippets of history and quirky facts ... The attempt to turn coffee into the story of global capitalism, though not without its successes, falls short of Harvard historian Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton (2014), a masterly exercise in explaining the modern world through a single commodity...Sedgewick’s effort to do the same sometimes reads less like a well-thought-out theory and more like a jumble of anecdotes, personalities, philosophies and locations. His approach is distracting in both senses of the word. The multiple digressions are often entertaining. But the book’s overarching theme of labour exploitation occasionally gets lost in the clutter ... Still, there is much to enjoy in these pages ... Sedgewick’s attempt to make coffee the history of everything does not always work ... Sedgewick’s style can be a little too baroque. But there is much here to entertain, educate and — dare one say it of a book about coffee — stimulate.
... impressive ... People and food as much as coffee itself are the focus of Sedgewick’s concern and the nexus of some of the most surprising connections in Coffeeland ... Together, these intellectual forays constitute a powerful indictment of labour relations in El Salvador and capitalism in general ... Although Sedgewick presents ample contextual material and employs novelistic techniques, Hill is a shadowy figure. He is rarely quoted, though numerous articles, speeches and letters are cited. Hill’s son Jaime Snr comes briefly but vividly alive as we see him in 1932, on the eve of a popular uprising ... Sedgewick does not present Coffeeland as the rags to riches story of a boy from the Manchester slums. This is a cautionary tale.
By following several generations of the Hill family, Sedgewick brings agency to the commodity-centric history that historians often pursue to convey the global dimensions of modern capitalism...But focusing on global capital flows, supply chains, consumer markets and labor mobility can sometimes minimize what Sedgewick reveals so well: the actual choices made by the producers and importers and advertisers who merchandised the goods, the economic and political alliances they forged in the process and the often harsh local consequences of their actions ... As compelling as Sedgewick’s story is, I yearned for him to probe its larger meaning. Was agriculture that struggled to compete abroad doomed to be exploitative locally? What options did the Hills and their compatriots have while still succeeding in world markets? How did first-world consumers contribute to third-world inequity? Sedgewick’s satisfying brew made me thirstier for an even bolder blend.
... fascinating ... 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.
Coffee: there have been more books written about the black stuff than you’d imagine ... Few, however, have captured the mucky residue of exploitation resting in your cup of joe as effectively as Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland ... The book is essentially a modern history of El Salvador ... If Coffeeland leans at times toward a hoary humble-immigrant-to-big-shot narrative reminiscent of The Godfather Part II, Sedgewick checks this tendency by anchoring the story in the overarching contexts of an expanding global marketplace and early US imperialism ... Coffeeland – Sedgewick’s debut monograph – is at times overly didactic. In labouring the (very valid) contrast between the mundanity of the morning coffee and the nightmare of its productive process, the author occasionally over-steeps the brew. Yet the book succeeds in highlighting the gory realities underlying globalised consumption in the form of a character-rich national history of El Salvador ... In capturing the 20th-century tragedy of a small corner of that world through a breakfast staple, Coffeeland is a bittersweet triumph.
...thought-provoking and gracefully written ... The breadth of Sedgewick’s analysis of coffee’s place in the world economy astonishes, as does his ability to bring historical figures to life. Coffee connoisseurs will relish this eye-opening history.
A broad-ranging, often surprising study of the economics and political ecology of coffee ... Sedgewick casts a wide net in his capably written book ... Moreover, he links the rise of the coffee monoculture to the development of an enriched ruling class in that country but also an immiseration of the peasantry ... An intriguing account that darkens the depths of that daily cup of joe.