Coffee in Britain: A Legacy of Slavery
London, England

Coffee in Britain: A Legacy of Slavery

The exploration and awareness of the part slavery played in the history of coffee in London can offer hope for the future.

London is littered with coffee shops, with over 3,700 open today. Few consumers, however, appreciate that these shops are just the latest manifestation of London’s long relationship with coffee and that it is impossible to separate the history of coffee in the United Kingdom from colonialism and slavery. 

Coffee’s journey to London began nearly a thousand years ago when a man—Kaldi, a goat herder from the Galla tribe—wandered into the wilderness of Northeastern Africa. That day, while tending his animals, Kaldi noticed they were more energetic after eating what he thought were cherries. He took these cherries to local monks who declared they were sent from the devil and threw them into the flames, thus roasting them. When the monks later poured hot water over their remnants, they surprisingly found that it tasted good and helped them to stay awake. 

By the 11th century, this brew went on to become widely adopted in the region. The Galla traded it with Yemen until Yemen was conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate, who prized it greatly and smuggled it into their empire. They began to cultivate it themselves, until, as Paul Chrystal, author of Coffee: A Drink for the Devil, states,By the 16th century, coffee was the beverage of choice throughout the Middle East.”

It was not until the 1700s, however, that coffee began to make its mark on Britain, having entered Europe via the traders of Venice. According to the diarist Samuel Pepys, the first coffee house in England was opened in Oxford in 1650 and was called The Angel.

Two years later, it was followed by London’s first coffee house, which was little more than a wooden hut structure patronized by customers who collected their coffee in all likelihood over a wooden counter. This shop was opened in St. Michael’s Alley near St. Michael at Cornhill Churchyard by a man called Pasqua Rosée, who is said was a valet of businessman Daniel Edwards, an importer of coffee from Turkey. This coffee house, it seems, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. But soon, the infamous Jamaica Coffee House stood on roughly the same site. Known for hosting every kind of mercantile business, legal or otherwise, Jamaica Coffee House became a byword for the slave trade as it was there where many deals were struck. 

Today, the site of Jamaica Coffee House is marked by a plaque, but omitted is the fact that it lay at the center of the London slave trade. As tour guide and historian Ildiko Bita says on her tours of London website associated with Black history, this connection is all but invisible today.” 

So keen is the authority of the City of London to gloss over this unsavory chapter in coffee’s London history that there is also no such commemorative plaque marking the nearby site of 2 George Yard, where in 1787, the first meeting of what would go on to become the Abolition Movement met. Neither is James Phillips’ printing house commemorated, where the now-infamous image of Brookes slave ship was first printed, showing the public for the first time the full horrors of 454 enslaved people packed onto a ship, chained in appallingly unsanitary conditions. 

Such images had a significant impact and as William Dickinson, an abolitionist, wrote in 1792, they were displayed in coffee houses with excellent effect. The cause gains ground.” The abolition debate gradually began to infiltrate the politically charged atmosphere of the coffee houses, and their reputation as centers for the abolition debate grew. 

Right from the start, these houses were about more than drinking coffee; they were about money, politics and profit, with Pepys writing that he “found much pleasure in (the coffee house) through the diversity of company and discourse.” He was not the only one to be impressed by the coffee and the company, and by 1675, there were over 3,000 coffee houses in England, most of which were centered in the capital. 

To supply this increase in popularity, by the mid-1600s, colonial occupation in Africa and the Caribbean was well underway. Demand for coffee overlapped with the increasing demand for sugar. Tobacco fueled the slave trade and established the “triangle trade” where the journey from Europe to Africa carried manufactured goods, and the journey from Africa to the Carribean and America carried captured Africans who were then forced to work as slaves on the growing plantations in the New World. 

From such locations as Jamaica, coffee was transported back into the U.K., usually landing at the Docklands in East London, primarily at West India Quay. By 1660, this arrangement was formalized when the Royal African Company was founded to trade along the western coast of Africa. This company, as historian Derek Wilson argues in his research, would ship more slaves to the Americas than any other company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade.” 

Once in England, the coffee was distributed throughout the coffee houses of London. These coffee houses served, as students at Queen Mary University of London argue in a statement regarding the areas history, as “local financial markets connecting goods and capital streams with seekers, which only helped facilitate slavery and amplify the exploitation of Black slaves” through their treatment as commodities. Advertisements offering rewards for the capture of runaway slaves were plastered over many a coffee house wall, one offering a 10-shilling reward for the return of “a negro boy named James” who had run away from his “owners.”

In a curious juxtaposition to such inhumanity, 17th-century coffee houses were referred to as “penny universities” which could deliver an education to visiting customers with discussions commonly ranging from poetry to politics. Of course, it was in these universities where the abolition debate was taken up. 

This fact means the issues surrounding coffee and London’s legacy of slavery are not clear cut. One of London’s most prominent slave traders, George Hibbert, led the construction of the West India Docks. He grew immensely wealthy on the back of his trade in slaves, who were sent to his plantations to grow coffee for consumption in London; but he used this money to fund numerous charitable causes including hospitals, poor relief, and founding the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Danielle Thom, former Curator of Making at Museum of London, clarifies in an interview,such was the reach of the slave economy, and so heavily intergrated was it into British life that seemingly innocuous things like botany or hospitals were funded by it,” illustrating just how complex slavery and coffee’s legacy is and continues to be in Britain.

It is this legacy today that seeks to be reclaimed by Black-owned coffee houses and cafés throughout London. Many of these are featured on Black Owned London, a website that allows customers to easily identify them and give them a platform on which to express their views. Businesses such as Saint Aymes, which is a Black-owned coffee shop run by two sisters, Michela and Lois Wilson, create, as they say, “a truly special space for Black customers looking to escape into excellence in the heart of London.” 

Another Black-owned coffee house owner, who wishes to be referred to as Joe, states that his coffee shop is a way for him to “reclaim his ancestry.” His ancestors worked on Caribbean plantations and he feels that “Black people need to reclaim their legacy in London and make sure people know that coffee houses were founded on slavery—or else how can we learn from our past?” 

His is a view shared by historian Bita, who hopes that a new slavery tour of London, hosted by herself and Six in the City, will “bring this hidden history to the wider public attention.” 

Today, this public attention has, however, raised its own issues with some people arguing that descendents of slaves brought to Britain or made to work in coffee plantations against their will should be compensated. Those who owned slaves were compensated when the Slavery Abolition Act was established. Companies such as the Greene King brewery received compensation as former slave owners, but they have “promised to pay back large sums to Black ethnic communities to make amends.” Nick Mackenzie, Greene King’s chief executive, says while he “doesn’t have all the answers, it is inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery and argued against its abolition in the 1800s.” 

This money, Black Lives Matter argues, should be used to “reclaim the London legacy of slavery and be used by Black people to found coffee shops of their own—places where debate is welcome.” 

There are no easy answers, but the presence of Black-owned coffee houses to inform and table such debates can only be a good thing, enabling and facilitating debates on the subject across large swathes of society.

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