Ambrosia Arabica: Books and Coffee in History

By Henry Wessells

[Originally published in slightly different form in AB Bookman’s Weekly, December 15, 1997. Copyright 1997, 2023, by Henry Wessells. All rights reserved.]


Arbre du Café, from Voyage de l’Arabie heureuse, 1716

For many readers, a cup of coffee is the ideal accompaniment to a carefully chosen volume. The recent vogue of uniting bookstores with coffee shops that is rippling through the book world is but a modern revival of older custom. For of all foods and beverages, coffee has perhaps the closest and most interesting connections with the printed word. Its introduction into 17th-century Western Europe from the Middle East came at a time when geographical and scientific knowledge was increasing, and in turn the rise of the coffee house transformed many areas of social, intellectual, and commercial life.

     Newspapers, the Lloyd’s insurance and maritime intelligence operations, the New York Stock Exchange, the British postal system, and political and social clubs are some of the diverse institutions that trace their origins to these places where people gathered to drink coffee. Coffee figures in early botanical, medical, and Orientalist books, and in numerous volumes recounting 17th-century travels and explorations. In literature and the arts, coffee is at the core of a similar array of books and musical and theatrical compositions.

     To be sure, wine has a longer literary heritage, with various threads extending back to Ancient Rome, Persia, and China. In the end, however, the fruit of the grape induces somnolence rather than the alertness and perspicacity that are characteristic of many book people. So with all due apologies to those who favor a glass of port and a comfortable armchair for their reading on a wintry evening, this essay will look at the relationship between coffee and modern culture, with particular attention to the printed book. One of the most venerable myths about coffee — concerning its introduction to Vienna — will be dispelled, and the truth made known.

     The origins of coffee in Southern Arabia are well known, but it is interesting to trace how the beverage spread through the Middle East in the middle of the 15th century. Many of the dramatic — even revolutionary — social changes that unfolded in London and continental Europe in the late 17th century were almost identical in nature to the changes coffee brought to Islamic society.  The coffee tree (Coffea Arabica) is a flowering evergreen shrub indigenous to Ethiopia and Yemen in Arabia. (Related species C. liberica and C. robusta were discovered growing wild in other regions of Africa.) The earliest mention of coffee may be a reference to bunchum in the works of the ninth century physician Razi (akin perhaps to bunn, the Arabic word for the coffee berry and tree), but more definite information on the preparation of a beverage from the roasted coffee berries dates from several centuries later.  Qahwa is the Arabic word for the beverage. All European words for coffee are derived through the Turkish pronunciation of the word, kahveh.

     The most important of the early Muslim writers on coffee was cAbd al-Qadir al-Jaziri, who in 1587 compiled a work tracing the history and legal controversies of coffee entitled `Umdat al safwa fi hill al-qahwa. He reported that one Sheikh Jamal-al-Din al-Dhabhani, mufti of Aden, was the first to adopt the use of coffee (circa 1454). Its usefulness in driving away sleep caused it to become popular in Sufi circles.  Al-Jaziri’s manuscript work is of considerable interest in the history of coffee in Europe, as a copy reached the French royal library, where it was translated in part by Antoine Galland as De l’origine et du progrès du Café. Sur un manuscrit arabe de la Bibliothèque du Roy, published in Caen (Normandy) in 1699.  Galland, an important Orientalist and numismatist, was the first European translator of the Arabian Nights, Les Mille et une nuits (1704-1717). There is a strong measure of the exotic in his translation of al-Jaziri, which traces the spread of coffee from Arabia Felix (the present day Yemen) northward to Mecca and Medina, and then to the larger cities of Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Istanbul.  The 19th-century orientalist Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy edited the first two chapters of al-Jaziri’s manuscript and included it in the second edition of his Chrestomathie Arabe (Paris, 1826, 3 vols.). Galland’s 1699 work was recently reissued (Paris: Editions La Bibliothèque, 1992).

     Religious disapproval followed swiftly when it became clear that the new coffee houses were places where men gathered to sing, dance, and play musical instruments as well as the games of chess and mancalah (rules for which are given by Galland). Coffee was held by some religious leaders to be analogous to wine and thus forbidden to Muslims. Public consumption of coffee was suppressed for a time in Mecca in 1524 and in Cairo there were religious riots against the coffee houses in 1534.  The first coffee house in Istanbul was opened in 1554 and as in Cairo outbursts of religious zeal against coffee occurred between approximately 1570 and 1580. It is at this time that the first European reports of coffee began.

     Not surprisingly, these 16th-century government prohibitions of coffee houses failed to legislate morality. The coffee house in its many forms remains a central part of the culture of Islamic countries in the Middle East and North Africa to the present day. An excellent treatment of the early history of coffee in the Middle East (with English translations of portions of al-Jaziri’s work) is to be found in Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East by Ralph S. Hattox (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988).

From Mocha to Martinique
The German botanist and physician Leonhart Rauwolf of Augsburg traveled to Jerusalem (1573-1576), and upon his return published Aigentliche beschreibung der Raiß ... inn die Morgenländer in Lauingen in 1582. Rauwolf’s account of his journeys represents the earliest printed reference to coffee in Europe.  Venetian traders in Istanbul were also aware of the beverage, and the Italian physician and botanist Prosper Alpinus took note of coffee on his voyage to Egypt in 1580, and published discussions of coffee in De Medicina Aegyptorum Libri quatuor (1591) and De Plantis Aegypti Liber (1592). The latter volume, on the flora of Egypt, includes the first published illustration of the coffee plant.  The first mention in English (as chaoua) appears in an edition of Linschooten’s Travels translated from the Dutch and published in London in 1598. A more recognizable form of the word can be found in Sherley’s Travels (1601), in a passage describing "a certain liquor which they call coffe." The spelling was still in flux, for in 1603 the English adventurer Captain John Smith (founder of Virginia) refers to "coffa" in his volume of travels.

     The Venetians were in fact the first Europeans to import coffee, in 1615. The Dutch first shipped it directly from Mocha in Arabia the following year, although regular importations were still some decades away. Articles for preparing coffee were among the household effects carried by the Pilgrims on the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620, but not until 1670 was coffee sold in Boston.  Early mentions of coffee are to be found in the works of Francis Bacon, in Historia Vitae et Mortis (1623) and Sylva Sylvarum (1627), as well as in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1632). The first botanical description of coffee in English was published by Parkinson in Theatrum Botanicum (1640).  The use of coffee spread rapidly throughout Europe after mid-century. Venice was the site of the first coffee house, opened in 1645, and one was opened in London in 1652. In Lyons in 1671, Philippe Sylvestre Dufour published De l’Usage du Café, du Thé et du Chocolat. Dialogue entre un médecin, un Indien, et un Bourgeois, the first substantial work on coffee in French. The first coffee house in Paris opened the following year.

     One of the most important and widely read works on coffee, although somewhat later, is Jean de la Roque’s Voyage de L’Arabie heureuse ... (1716), which recounted the history of French expeditions in the Red Sea from 1708 to 1710 and a second mission to the port of Mocha and the court of the King of Yemen during the years 1711 to 1713. La Roque described the coffee tree (with engraved plates), and provided a critical discussion of the history of the introduction of coffee into France in the latter part of this work, entitled Un Mémoire Concernant l’Arbre & le Fruit du Café.   The Paris edition was followed by one published in Amsterdam the same year, with newly engraved plates. Gründliche und sichere Nachricht vom Cafée und Cafée-Baum, a German translation of the portion of the work concerning coffee, was published in Leipzig in 1717. An Italian translation of the entire work appeared in Venice in 1721, and English editions in 1726, 1732, and 1742.  A notable Italian work dealing with the origins, cultivation, roasting, and preparation of the coffee, Ambrosia Arabica overa della Salutare Bevanda Cafe, by Angelo Rambaldi, was published in Bologna in 1691.

     The Dutch were the first to experiment with growing coffee outside Arabia. Early plantations in Ceylon from the 1650s were followed by efforts to establish coffee in Java in 1699. A coffee seedling from Java was successfully transported to Amsterdam in 1706, and a plant grown from a seed of that tree was presented to Louis XIV of France in 1714. It was in this period, 1715 to 1725, that coffee was first grown in Surinam in South America, on the Caribbean island of Martinique, as well as on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Coffee was introduced to Brazil from the settlement at Cayenne in French Guiana in 1727.

Intrigue, Insurance and Literature
The history of coffee and coffee houses in London is particularly revealing of how coffee shaped the emergence of modern society. The first coffee house opened in London in 1652. A man named Bowman, servant to a merchant in the Turkey trade, opened it in partnership with Pasqua Rosee in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill. An advertising handbill from the shop, The Vertue of the Coffee Drink, is preserved in the British Museum. The first newspaper advertisement for coffee dates from 1657, the year in which chocolate and tea were first sold publicly in London.  Political activity was linked with the coffee houses from the beginning. Pepys notes the formation of the Coffee Club of the Rota in 1659, a forum for exchange of republican views which met in the Turk’s Head. The number of such establishments (most near the Royal Exchange) grew markedly following the Restoration, so that by 1663, there were licensing requirements.  These early coffee houses offered minimal accommodations, often consisting simply of a large room with several tables. Neither the plague years 1664-1665 nor the Great Fire of London in 1666 diminished the growing role of the coffee house. In fact, the rapid reconstruction of the Royal Exchange (completed by 1669) was accompanied by the opening of many new coffee houses.

     Controversy accompanied the introduction of the new drink. Broadsides and pamphlets such as A Coffee Scuffle (1662) or The Character of a Coffee House ... by an Eye and Ear Witness (1665) presented opposing views of the social, cultural and even medical questions raised by coffee. In the 1670s, political intrigue was the chief focus of concerns. Coffee houses were characterized as "seminaries of sedition." King Charles II issued an order for the suppression of coffee houses in late December 1675, but this was rescinded before it ever took effect. Coffee houses were again at the focus of inquiries into the Popish plot of Titus Oates in 1679-1680.

     "In a coffee house just now among the rabble, I bluntly asked, which is the treason table?" was how a 1681 comedy described the state of affairs. And yet, as a place where political opinions were exchanged, and where news, newsletters, and mail were distributed, coffee houses played an undeniable role in the growth of English political liberty.

     At a time when the streets of London were largely unpaved and only barely passable, and when few merchants had offices, coffee houses served an equally important function for the trading community. The most celebrated example is Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in 1691. Lloyd had special arrangements to receive news of shipping, and the Lloyd’s insurance institution as well as the Register of Shipping originated in these gatherings. Similarly, London stockbrokers first met in Jonathan’s coffee house. Some years later, the Tontine coffee house played an identical role in the formation of the New York Stock Exchange, just as the City Tavern, or Merchants Coffee House in Philadelphia was a gathering place for political leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton. The East India Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, and the African, Russian, and Levant Companies all met in coffee houses in the early years of their operations. Coffee houses even served as the forum for slave trading upon occasion.

     The 18th century was the heyday of the London coffee house, and scenes from life in these establishments were recorded by authors such as Addison, writing in the Spectator, Steele, in the Tatler, and Mackay, in Journey Through England (1724). The literary gatherings that were held at the Turk’s Head in the Strand from 1763 to 1783 included such figures as Samuel Johnson, his biographer Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith, the actor David Garrick, Edmund Burke, and Sir Joshua Reynolds the painter. Other members of the circle were Thomas Percy, historian Edward Gibbon, and economist Adam Smith.

     At the beginning of the 18th century, coffee houses were a central part of the life of upper and middle class men. Over the course of the century, more formal associations were formed, so that by the close of the century, the London club came to serve a similar function. The decline of the London coffee house was further cemented by reforms in the governmental postal system and by another fire at the Royal Exchange in 1838. It was not reopened until 1845, and thereafter coffee houses played a much lesser role in British commercial and public life.  A classic work on this period is Edward Forbes Robinson’s The Early History of Coffee Houses in England (London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1893). A more recent work, London Coffee Houses: A Reference Book of Coffee Houses of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries by Bryant Lillywhite (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1963) is a vast compendium of information on the complex social, economic, and political history, arranged alphabetically by the name of coffee house.

All About Coffee
The single richest source on the cultural and commercial history of coffee remains the second edition of All About Coffee by William H. Ukers (New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1935). Ukers (1873-1954) was for many years the editor of The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal and brought a truly encyclopedic perspective to this book. The original edition of 1922 was the first serious and comprehensive treatment of coffee in English in several decades (and won a gold medal at the 1923 Brazil Centennial Exhibition). The second edition of All About Coffee is abundantly illustrated with photographs, engravings and line drawings on all stages of the growth and processing of coffee, as well as the history of coffee house. There are also numerous reproductions of title pages and other early printed references to coffee. Ukers divided his work into six books, exploring historical, technical, scientific, commercial, social, and artistic facets of coffee. His chapters on the evolution of coffee apparatus and preparing the beverage provide a particularly diverse range of illustrations, while his selections of poems and references to coffee in literature and in the arts are witty as well as wide-ranging.  The work includes a coffee dictionary and a substantial bibliography of books and periodical works, as well as a coffee thesaurus of "Encomiums and Descriptive Phrases Applied to the Plant, the Berry, and the Beverage." These range from the poetic ("the most exquisite perfume of Araby the blest" and "favored liquid which fills all my soul with delight") to the banal (slogan such as "the family drink" or "the King of the American breakfast table").  This edition of All About Coffee is much sought after by collectors of works on culinary history. It was reprinted in 1976 by the Gale Research Company of Detroit, Michigan. Ukers was also author of All About Tea (New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1935, 2 vols.) and The Romance of Tea: An Outline History of Tea and Tea-Drinking Through Sixteen Hundred Years (New York, Knopf, 1936).

Coffee and the Siege of Vienna
Legend has it that Georg Franz Koltschitzky established a coffee house in Vienna in 1683, using beans left behind in the aftermath of the Turkish siege of city in that eventful year. This story, repeated by Ukers and even in such recent works as Mark Pendergast’s Uncommon Grounds (1999), is entirely apocryphal.

     The actual pioneer was Johannes Diodato, an Armenian, who opened the first coffee house in 1685, the same year that Bevanda Asiatica ..., by the Italian naturalist, diplomat and bibliophile Count Luigi Marsili was published in Vienna. Another key figure is Isaak de Luca, der bürgerlicher Cavesieder, the "citizen coffee-maker," whose Imperial Privilege was granted somewhat later. The life and exploits of the Polish-born Koltschitzky and origins of Viennese coffee houses are discussed in the monograph Die Einführung des Kaffees in Wien: Georg Franz Koltschitzky, Johannes Diodato, Isaak de Luca by Karl Teply (Vienna: Verein für Geschichte der Stadt Wien, 1980).

     Another essential source for information concerning early works on coffee is the Bibliographie des Kaffee, des Kakao, der Schokolade, des Tee und deren Surrogate bis zum Jahre 1900 by Wolf Mueller (Bad Bocklet: Walter Krieg Verlag, 1960). Mueller described his work as "the fruit of decades of collecting and research activity." In his foreword, Mueller wrote that he had published separate essays on the bibliography of coffee and cocoa in German journals during the early 1930s. During the Nazi era, Mueller’s professional activities were restricted (for undisclosed reasons), but he continued to have access to the former Prussian State Library, and so devoted himself to bibliographical work. Mueller also noted the importance of a wide range of international correspondents, including Ralph Holt Cheney, author of Coffee: A Monograph of the Economic Species of the Genus Coffea L. (New York: New York University Press, 1925), a work that Cheney dedicated to Mueller.  Mueller’s bibliography provides title page transcriptions, date, size, pagination, as well as brief identifying notes (in German only) describing the author or particular significance of the work. Later editions and translations of popular works are also noted.

Oceans of Coffee
This essay has looked at a few of the highlights of the vast literature of coffee. Equally enormous and rich in anecdote is the subject of coffee in literature. Four examples will serve to hint at the variety of coffee lore. Voltaire, for example, was said to have drunk 50 cups of coffee a day, and also composed a pseudonymous comedy, Le Café, ou l’Ecossaise (1760), purportedly translated from the English of "Mr. Hume."  Balzac (1799-1850) also seems to have subsisted on coffee and perhaps it hastened his death — one modern-day Philadelphia coffee roaster named a blend La Mort de Balzac ("The Death of Balzac"). Balzac also composed a Treatise on Modern Stimulants, in which he linked coffee with the movement of ideas "like the battalions of the grand Army on the battlefield ... Things remembered arrive at full gallop."

     The 19th century Dutch author Multatuli (Edward Douwes Dekker) published a scathing satirical attack on colonial policies in the Netherlands East Indies, Max Havelaar of de Koffiveilingen der Nederlandsche Handelsmaatschappy (1860). His bourgeois character Droogstoppel (Drystubble) is an Amsterdam coffee broker of excruciating respectability. Multatuli’s book was altered (and considerably toned down) by it unscrupulous first publisher, and not until 1875 was the author’s intended text published. In an introduction to the 1927 Knopf edition of Max Havelaar, or, the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, D.H. Lawrence compared Multatuli’s "passionate, honourable hate" to Mark Twain’s acerbic satires on human nature. Max Havelaar ultimately provoked a dramatic reassessment of Dutch policy in the East Indies, and remains one of the key works of anti-colonial literature.

     In The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, the detective Philip Marlowe narrates in considerable detail making coffee in his kitchen before driving his friend Terry Lennox to the Tijuana airport. This is but one instance of the oceans of coffee consumed by the hard-drinking Marlowe in the course of Chandler’s novels.

     Some three centuries after its introduction, coffee still retains a considerable mystique. Ukers writes, "There is something more to coffee than its caffeine stimulus, its action on the taste-buds of the tongue and mouth. The sense of smell and the sense of sight play important rôles. To get all the joy there is in a cup of coffee, it must look good and smell good, before one can pronounce its taste good. It must woo us through the nostrils with the wonderful aroma that constitutes much of the lure of coffee." This survey of some aspects of the connections between books and coffee will perhaps add an intangible and exotic dimension to the next cup of coffee that finds its way into the reader’s hand.

[Originally published in slightly different form in AB Bookman’s Weekly, December 15, 1997. Copyright 1997, 2023, by Henry Wessells. All rights reserved.]