By Blair F. Bertaccini


November 4, 2020



 Coffeeland – One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug by Augustine Sedgewick, Penguin Press 2020 433 pp.


During the 1980s and 90s the author of this review was an active participant in solidarity activites that supported the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and the revolutionary movement in El Salvador led by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).  These activities included many trips to the region to meet and work with Nicaraguans and Salvadorans engaged in liberation struggles at various levels. This book by CUNY professor Augustine Sedgewick provides fascinating socio-economic background to these struggles by tracing the history of coffee cultivation and marketing by focusing on James Hill and his descendants. Sedgewick’s history is not just about coffee and the growth of its consumption in the US and Europe, but how the measures taken to increase its cultivation brought about, “. . .the transformation of a relatively equal, peaceful place into one of the most unequal and violent countries in the history of the modern world.”

James Hill emigrated from Manchester England to El Salvador in 1889 after ascertaining that his prospects were bleak if he remained in England.  So after studying Spanish, he set off for adventure and a new life in the smallest republic of the Western Hemisphere. It was a nation whose European descendent elite wanted to modernize and make more “civilized”.  After independence in 1821 over a quarter of El Salvador’s arable land was still in a communal system dedicated principally to growing food crops. On the lands surrounding the Santa Ana volcano coffee was being planted as an export crop, but most of the land was still dedicated to growing corn.  “Through this conflict, the problem of economic development  was recast as a racial problem.  Indians were labeled ‘backward’ and blamed  for the ‘evils’ that had resulted in commercial stagnation.  Liberal elites, many of whom claimed European descent, dreamed of using the land to produce coffee and cash and civilization.  They credited themselves, in advance,  with all the promise of the future and moved to ‘cut. . .with a firm hand, the chains that enslave agriculture.’ “

First the Indian population was required to cultivate coffee and when that did not produce enough coffee, communal land holding was abolished and the elites grabbed all the land surrounding the Santa Ana volcano for coffee.  James Hill started working for this elite, mainly as an accountant or administrator, but in 1894 he married into a coffee plantation owing family and . soon via his wife’s inheritance became a planter himself.

Hill unlike some of his fellow planters did not use force or intimidation to get the dispossessed Indian peasants known as “mozos”, but rather used hunger.  One of the most revealing chapters of the book is the one entitled “The Hunger Plantation.”  Sedgewick explains, “What was needed to harness the will of the Salvadoran people to the production of coffee, beyond land privatization, was the plantation production of hunger itself.”  To accomplish this Hill systematically cut down all fruit trees on his lands and uprooted any vegetables found growing. He planted madre de cacao trees to shade the coffee trees.  Anyone living on his lands was not allowed to own chickens.  He also exterminated any wildlife that might be hunted for food.  Several varieties of beans were planted, but with a twist.

“Bean plants. . .returned nitrogen to the soil, sent down roots that held the soil to the steep sides of the volcano and provided another layer of shade that helped keep moisture in the ground. But beans were not simply beans. Near new trees, Hill planted cowpea. . . especially good for enriching the soil.  In steeply sloped areas he planted cowpea or jackbean, whose deep roots prevented runoff and erosion. [But] once the beans were harvested, they were to be buried as fertilizer holes immediately, lest they become food for people rather than the trees. . .”

Hill controlled the hunger by constructing kitchens nears his fields and his coffee mill “Las Tres Puertas” at which his workers were given two meals a day of corn tortillas, beans and salt. This was sometimes changed to three meals depending on the work being done and the particular moment in the coffee production cycle.  Thus this became the principal diet in the coffee and later cotton production areas of El Salvador.

Hunger and misery reigned for decades in the Salvadoran countryside no matter what the international price of coffee in European and American markets. As any good revolutionary knows such conditions alone do not produce revolution capable of changing the situation, it takes organization. After the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the founding of the Soviet Union, some Salvadorans saw this as the way to organize and rid their nation of the elite that dominated its economy and politics. Augustin Farabundo Marti, Miguel Marmol and others founded the Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS) in March 1930.  The Great Depression had worsened the already dire situation of the working class and peasantry.  Communist organizers led successful strikes and circulated among the peasants in the coffee growing areas.

At the time El Salvador was ruled by General Maximiliano Hernández who has taken power in coup after being elected vice-president. Worker and peasant agitation increased until the PCS decided to launch their revolution in January 1932. “Between five and seven thousand people, divided into coordinated battalions and armed primarily with machetes, rose up at the peak of the harvest season to overturn the order of coffee production, to ‘make the workers the owners’. Some of the revolutionaries were members of the Communist Party of El Salvador; the ‘great majority’ were people who had worked on coffee plantations and decided they could not live that way another day.”

The revolutionaries were initially successful in seizing some plantations and rural villages. However machetes are no match for machine guns and well trained troops.  Marmol and Marti were arrested in the capital.  Marti was executed and Marmol survived his execution by feigning death and then fleeing.  The repression became known as La Matanza or The Massacre.  It is estimated that at least 30,000 mostly indigenous Salvadorans were killed and the revolution was crushed.

This counterrevolution cemented the racial and economic hierarchy into place for decades.  Hill and his descendents went on to increase their coffee production and wealth.  Sedgewick details how the marketing and roasting of coffee developed in the US as well as how coffee producers particularly in Brazil attempted to control the international coffee market through various strategies of both withholding and swamping the world with coffee. Interspersed with such chapters are more that examine scientific developments in the 19th and 20th centuries that influenced the production of coffee.

Sedgewick also documents coffee’s effect on the American workplace and how the concept of the “coffee break” became enshrined in our work culture.  He even details the how a US court decision led to the Department of Labor’s regulation that breaks of 20 minutes or less had to be paid as work time.  The book is very well researched with the footnotes and bibliography occupying 70 pages. Fortunately his footnotes contain little text and are principally a guide to the materials in the bibliography.

The book is bookended by the kidnapping and ransoming of one of James Hill’s grandsons, Jaime Hill, in 1979, by the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), one of the five parties forming the FMLN.  Sedgewick connects El Salvador’s second and much more protracted revolution with the production of coffee and the social system it generated.  In the late 20th century the country was said to be ruled by fourteen families, Hill’s often included among them.  But which families comprised the fourteen and whether there was a greater number of them has been debated.

Sedgewick looks at the current situation in coffee producing areas of the world, including El Salvador and finds the lot of the coffee workers still has not changed for the most part even in this day of “Certified Fair Trade” coffee. He cites a 2005 study of food insecurity in “El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico, generally thought to be a more prosperous producing area than comparable regions in Africa and Asia.  Among the nearly five hundred households surveyed, almost two-thirds struggled to meet their most basic food needs.  Another focusing specifically on the coffee districts of western El Salvador found chronic hunger in 97 percent of the households.”

Coffee workers like their counterparts in other food and beverage products still await and organize for the world that will bring an end to the Hunger Plantation.