In the second half of the 19th century, what is often referred to as a “coffee revolution” swept large parts of Latin America, especially southern Brazil, northern South America (Colombia and Venezuela), and Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua). The consequences of this revolution were profound, transforming land-use patterns and relations of production and exchange within individual nation-states, especially through the privatization of collectively held lands (owned either by Indian communities, the church, or the state); providing a sound fiscal base for emergent states, and thus permitting the robust growth and modernization of state administrations and bureaucracies integral to Latin America’s liberal revolution during this same period; and integrating Latin American economies more tightly within the developing global capitalist system, particularly the nexuses connecting Latin America with Europe and North America.
Coffee is among what historian Sidney Mintz called the “drug foods” of the Americas and other tropical zones; these foods also include tea, chocolate, tobacco, rum, and sugar. Three of these tropical export products—coffee, tea, and chocolate—are bitter and were generally consumed as drinks, facilitating their consumption along with sweetening substances like sugar and molasses. In a widely accepted argument, Mintz maintains that the consumption of these drug foods by urban wage earners was part and parcel of the growth of urban working classes in Europe and North America during the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 19th century. In France, for instance, coffee consumption increased fivefold from 1850 to 1900 (from 50 to 250 million pounds annually); Germany saw a fourfold increase during this same period (from 100 to 400 million pounds annually); the figures for other European nations were comparable. This was also an era in which African slavery was on the decline, wage labor and European migration to Latin America on the rise, and liberal reformers in Latin America’s newly independent nation-states were actively seeking greater foreign investment, free trade, and secure sources of tax revenue. All of these factors and more came together to generate Latin America’s coffee revolution.
Of African origin, coffee was cultivated in the Americas from the early 1600s, usually on lands unsuitable for sugar and tobacco, the principal export crops. European consumption of coffee rose dramatically from the 1650s, especially in urban coffeehouses, which in turn prompted increased coffee production in the Americas, usually by slave labor. But it was not until the 1820s and 1830s, with the explosive growth of urban working classes in Europe and North America, and the ending of Latin America’s colonial status, that the industrializing world’s explosive demand for coffee prompted renewed Latin American attention to this traditionally secondary (or tertiary) export commodity.
Large-scale coffee production required not only fertile, well-watered, well-drained soils, but substantial long-term capital investment and an ample supply of labor. Land first needed to be cleared and coffee seedlings planted. Coffee trees generally take three to six years from planting to first years of fruit production, requiring during this period careful tending and weeding. Coffee trees also tend to deplete soils of nutrients; thus, without application of fertilizers, production declines and new lands are needed. Also, unlike sugar, which generally requires large plantations to exploit economies of scale, coffee carries no such requirements and can be grown and marketed profitably on large plantations as well as on small farms utilizing primarily family labor.
The history of coffee in Brazil, Latin America’s largest coffee producer, illustrates these patterns. Before the 1830s, Brazil had undergone a series of export booms: brazil wood, sugar, tobacco, gold, and diamonds. In the 1830s coffee production surged, and by the 1840s coffee became the country’s leading export product—a position it held for the next 130 years. In the 1840s coffee made up more than 40 percent of total exports; by the 1890s nearly 65 percent; and by the 1920s nearly 70 percent.
The region around Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the south became the center of the coffee revolution, with the city of Rio de Janeiro emerging as the country’s leading financial and commercial center and principal port city. The city’s financial and transport infrastructure of banks, brokerage houses, and port facilities modernized rapidly. The decline of sugar production in the northeast and growth of coffee production in the south combined with the decline of the transatlantic slave trade to generate a brisk internal trade in slaves and a shift in the country’s demographic, economic, and political center of gravity southward to the coffee zones.
By the late 1840s competition for lands suitable for coffee production intensified, prompting the national government to issue a new land law in 1850 that in effect favored large producers and made land acquisition much more difficult for smallholders. During this same period, large coffee growers sought to promote European immigration, both to “whiten” the country’s population and to provide an adequate labor supply for their expanding plantations. The scheme faltered, however, as European immigrants balked at the slavery-like labor conditions and the lack of economic opportunities—a failure that in turn buttressed large planters’ commitment to slave labor.
The final abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 prompted not only the fall of the empire by military coup and the formation of a republican government in 1889, but a surge in European immigration, much of it related to coffee production. By 1900 more than two thirds of the world’s coffee was produced in Brazil. Coffee remained the mainstay of the export economy until after 1945, but even as late as 1970 coffee revenues made up more than one-third of Brazil’s export sector.
The precise nature of Latin America’s coffee revolution unfolded differently in different countries and regions, varying widely according to local traditions, preexisting landholding patterns, and power relations between large landholders and smallholders, and many other factors. Overall, coffee production and commerce tended to favor large producers over small, but this gross generalization masks important national, regional, and local variations. Costa Rica, for instance, the first Central American nation to undergo a coffee revolution, is often cited as an example of a Latin American nation whose coffee revolution favored smallholders, which in turn fostered the development of democratic institutions. Scholars generally agree that this was indeed the case. Yet even in Costa Rica, different regions experienced the coffee revolution in distinctive ways. The province of Cartago, for instance, saw large coffee farms predominate (59 percent with more than 20,000 trees), while in the country as a whole, most farms were smaller scale (60 percent with fewer than 20,000 trees). Tremendous local and regional differentiation, in short, was the norm, and not just in Costa Rica but across Latin America.
The coffee revolution’s timing also varied greatly. Venezuela, like Costa Rica and Brazil, saw surges in coffee production in the 1830s and 1840s; by 1900 Venezuela was Latin America’s second-largest coffee producer after Brazil. The approximate sequence in Central America was Costa Rica (1830s–40s), Guatemala (1860s–70s), El Salvador (1870s–80s), and Nicaragua (1880s–90s). Honduran coffee production remained limited through the 19th and early 20th centuries, reaching Costa Rica’s 1860s production levels only in 1949.
Colombia’s coffee production boomed in the late 1870s and 1880s (reaching around 14.3 million pounds in 1880), and again in the 1910s and 1920s (approximately 309 million pounds in 1921). Colombia also developed a coffee economy more akin to Costa Rica’s than Brazil’s, in which small, family-owned and -operated farms tended to predominate—again, with significant regional variations, with smaller farms predominating on the coffee frontier region of the central cordillera and larger production units in zones with greater abundance of labor and capital, such as southwestern Cundinamarca Department.
Everywhere, the coffee revolution introduced a host of changes generally associated with Latin America’s liberal revolution: the privatization of lands formerly unclaimed or owned collectively; the formation of more modern structures of state administration and bureaucracy; the increasing importance of wage labor; the modernization of transport and communications infrastructure to facilitate production for export; state and elite-led promotion of free trade, foreign investment, and European immigration; greater vulnerability to the boom-and-bust cycles of the world market; and tighter integration into the structures of global capitalism. The specifics of these transformations in various national and subnational contexts comprise the subject of a voluminous literature.
- Bergquist, Charles. Labor in Latin America: Comparative Essays on Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986;
- Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking, 1985;
- Stein, Stanley J. Vassouras: A Brazilian Coffee County, 1850–1900: The Roles of Planter and Slave in a Plantation Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985;
- Williams, Robert G. States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
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