Long Ton – Discuss the role of the coffee house in shaping British tastes for slave-produced goods

I own I am shocked at the purchase of slaves [….]

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,

For how could we do without sugar and rum?

Especially sugar, so needful we see

What, give up our dessert, our coffee and tea?

-Excerpt from ‘Pity for Poor Africans’ by William Cowper, published in 1788 –


In 1788 William Cowper mocked his contemporaries’ taste for lavish and slave-produced goods in his poem Pity for Poor Africans, goods that were made readily available to the British through the exploitation of African people in a systematic, dehumanising and violent Transatlantic Slave Trade that lasted over hundreds of years. Coffee and sugar from the Caribbean, tobacco from the Chesapeake, cotton and chocolate from the Americas and tea from China, were all consumed in an ever increasing scale in the British Empire. But the conquest of these new and exotic goods was not an easy one, nor was it rapid. Of those goods, the three main beverages, coffee, tea and chocolate had a particularly bitter taste. A taste, that was only made palatable to the British with the addition of sugar (Walvin, 2001). The history of the development of the British taste for these exotic commodities is strongly connected to the cultivation of sugar through slavery and the establishment of the British coffee house in the Empire’s economic and cultural centre: London. The rapid rise of the coffee house of the late 17th century, provides historians today with a unique opportunity to study that distinctive political, social, economic and culinary space that occupied both the domestic and public sphere of late 17th and 18th century British history. Not only did the coffee house serve as a public house in which the sale and consumption of hot beverages was primary, it was also a cultural centre in which all sorts of social strata were able to socialise, exchange news of the day or discuss their political climate. As coffee houses and its culture grew, so did its reliance on slave-produced goods. Earlier, academia has discussed the role of the coffee house in shaping early urban Modern British society. Markman Ellis published his conclusions in 2004 in his book The Coffee-House – A Cultural History, in which he argued that the coffee house may not be simply viewed as a result, but a symptom of early Modern societal developments in its wider and urban context. Brian Cowan presents similar theories of the coffee house as a space of social emulation in The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeeehouse, published in 2005. The topic of sugar and its cultivation within the context of slavery in the British Empire has been discussed notably by Ahmed Reid, Russell R. Menard, Richard B. Sheridan or Richard Dunn. Although sugar remains central to these authors, it is often viewed through the lens of the plantation system, economics or cultural development of slave societies. Yet, few have bridged the topic of sugar/slavery with the British coffee house, to explain the rise of the early Modern British consumer society in its socio-economic and cultural context. James Walvin has made considerable contributions to close this gap in the historiography of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in his books Black Ivory, first published in 1993, or The Trader, The Owner, The Slave – Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery, first published in 2007.

By discussing the role of the coffee house and why people started to drink coffee, tea and chocolate, we must first identify key developments of late 17th and 18th century Europe and how these developments are resolved in academia. Most importantly, the British Empire experiences the birth of a true consumer society, in which its subjects are able to buy and trade commodities, that have either not existed on the market before or were simply too costly to acquire but are now becoming readily available to a wide range of consumers (Walvin, 2001). The massive growth of early Modern British population, paired with a growing culture of curiosity and commercialised world centred around London, also contributed to the breadth and demands of that society (Sheridan, 1994). In this new social world, it became apparent that the transformation of opinions through societal communication in, what Jürgen Habermas theorised as the new public sphere, opened up an emerging urban and bourgeois society, in which the ideas of the Enlightenment were readily shared and discussed by drinking a new non-alcoholic beverage and abstaining from mind-clouding ales and liquors (Ellis, 2004). Brian Cowan convincingly argues, that the initial push to adopt certain goods in a marketplace is led by ‘subjective motivation [stemming] from ideological or cultural impulses’ (2005, p. 10-15) which he identified in the English virtuosi societies. These developments evolved alongside each other and were the leading causes of stimulating market demands: exotic/slave-produced goods became desirable, not because they were available, but because these were products that succeeded in adapting to the needs of a diverse British marketplace (Cowan, 2005). By reconstructing the culture surrounding the coffee house, we will also establish its distinctive conditions and stimulants of growth.

The coffee house, as first established in the Oxford milieu as a supplement place to further one’s traditional university education, quickly became known as Penny universities and spread to the London, the commercial, political and cultural centre. For the cost of a penny per cup of hot coffee, the first customers of those coffee houses were able to express and share virtuosi ideals, the quest for knowledge of the world and its occupants, in an environment of curiosity and sociability (Cowan, 2005). The British gentleman virtuosi was able to consume a wide variety of new and exotic and most importantly: non-alcoholic drinks, now made palatable with the addition of sugar, which cost was steadily falling. This reliance on slave-produced goods created a sobering, refreshing and mind-sharpening market-alternative to other public houses, such as vice associated alehouses or taverns. Slowly, but surely the coffee house became a space where different social strata intersected, where the rich met the poor and the learned met the unlearned (Sheridan, 1994), emulating learned virtuosi sociability, consuming goods that were marketed to be beneficial to one’s health and giving into cultural impulses set forth by only a small virtuosi-community. The rise of British coffee houses transformed and evolved British society into a new consumer society, whose market demands for slave-produced goods grew in a steady and fast pace.

Of all the exotic goods that reached the British Main Isle, it is sugar and its cultivation in the plantation system that enabled the British’ sweet tooth. By careful manipulation of the consumer market, the British Empire promoted not only its own goods in the reaches of its own empire, but stimulated its other ‘brands’, such as tobacco from the North American Colonies, chocolate from the Americas and Africa, tea from China and coffee from the West Indies (Walvin, 2001). But the fact remains, backed up by historical sources on sugar prices in the mid-18th century, that without market intervention, such as a de facto English monopoly in its own market, the funding of the sugar industry by London merchants and a skilful market adaptation to patterns and increases of sugar consumption in the British Empire (Menard, 2006), the British Empire not only created a market boom, but a self-perpetuating economic machine in which the systematic exploitation ofslaves bodies from birth to death, was the only fuel that would keep that machine going for decades to come.

The decline of the British coffee house of the late 17th and 18th century may be attributed to several key developments. The abolition of slavery in the early 19th century was of course an important contributing factor of the decline of the highly costly sugar plantations and its workers. Other financial and credit crisis of the late 18th century also contributed to risk aversion by creditors in investing money into the West Indies. But the wider geopolitical ramifications of the British abolitionist movement and increasing fear of further revolts after the Haitian Revolution far outweighed short-term economic dips, which the plantation systems were highly efficient to adapt to (Sheridan, 1994). As commerce with Asia increased in the 18th and 19th century, tea also slowly overtook coffee as Britain’s national drink and made way from the public sphere into the highly contested and valuable economic market of the domestic sphere. But the contention with slavery, sugar and other exotic goods fuelled by the slave economy have sparked a recent interest in academia and literature. Most notably, Erika Rappaport’s The Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World, Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World and James Walvin’s Sugar: The World Corrupted from Slavery to Obesity are prime examples of looking at the British Empire’s past from an increasingly global scale. And as globalisation affects the people of the 21st century, we still deal with the same issues than 300 years ago. In the Starbucks and Mobile Generation only few people realise where our beverages come from and how the working and living conditions of those people are, who harvest those goods on a global scale. Few people realise that their daily mobile devices contain various precious rare earth metals and minerals, which is mined and processed in working conditions that some human rights organisations deem as ‘modern’ slavery. As long as the disconnect between the consumers’ demands and the products still exists and the humanity behind every commodity is being washed off through clever PR-marketing, we may also have to face our future generations and answer for our lack of perception of current state of affairs and our failure to act.

Long Ton


Cowan, Brian. (2005). The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ellis, Markman. (2004). The Coffee-House: A Cultural History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Menard, Russell R. (2006). Sweet negotiations: Sugar, Slavery and Plantation agriculture in early Barbados. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Sheridan, Richard B. (1994). Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775. Kingston: Canoe Press.

Walvin, James. (2001). Black Ivory (2nd Edition). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

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