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  • Nina Studer is a historian with a focus on French colonies in the MENA region. She is currently a postdoc at the University of Bern and is conducting research on the participation of women in protest movements in Syria and Lebanon during the French Mandate.

No drink repres­ents the 21st century as fully as coffee – stimu­la­ting, omni­p­re­sent and “to go”. Yet it was also hailed as the drink of the 18th century – the sober middle-class drink of the Enligh­ten­ment – and later as the drink of the indus­trial revo­lu­tion. Since the 18th century, world­wide coffee consump­tion has conti­nu­ally risen, and in the 20th it became, through new deve­lop­ments in produc­tion and prepa­ra­tion, like the paten­ting of the first espresso machine and the spread of the recently invented instant coffee, truly global. Coffee has now pene­trated the last form­erly non-caffeinated parts of the globe; today more than two billion cups of coffee are drunk globally every day.

Is coffee a drink that brings people toge­ther? Is coffee a great leveller? If you look past the confu­sing variety of modes of prepa­ra­tions and forms of consump­tion, it doubt­lessly is, but focu­sing on this neglects the fact that the global coffee produc­tion – speci­fi­cally the condi­tions of culti­va­tion and the supply chains – is still marked by the lasting impact of colo­nia­lism. And not so long ago, the images in coffee adver­ti­se­ments regu­larly used colo­nial stereo­types (dark skin, dark eyes and black coffee). Today, it seems that these forms of exoti­sa­tion in coffee adver­ti­se­ments have mostly disap­peared (instead they focus on George Clooney, who is above all suspi­cion, smiling behind a cup of Nespresso). We can only hope that it will stay this way – and be reminded, through looking at the situa­tion in 19th century colo­nial Algeria, that, in the past, coffee was about very differ­ently.

The example of colo­nial Algeria illus­trates how closely the consump­tion of coffee and discus­sions about its diffe­rent physical and mental conse­quences were connected to theo­ries of diffe­rences among races and genders. Descrip­tions of these diffe­rent conse­quences among the French and Muslims on the one hand, and among male and female coffee drin­kers on the other, fitted both contem­porary ideas of deep-set diffe­rences among the genders and theo­ries of biolo­gical racism preva­lent during this period. Coffee was used to “prove” that male and female bodies of diffe­rent “races” were dissi­milar enough for them to react “differ­ently” to external influ­ences, like the climate and the envi­ron­ment, but also to food and drinks. In the minds of French colo­nial doctors, “diffe­rent” usually meant infe­rior and this alleged “infe­rio­rity” justi­fied the diffe­rent treat­ment of the colo­nised and women.

The Drink of Colo­nial Soldiers and Sett­lers

Meeting point for intel­lec­tuals: The Café de Flore in Paris, 1920s; source: pinterest.com

In Algeria, coffee had been estab­lished centu­ries before the French colo­ni­sa­tion, and was conse­quently as much part of the culture of the colo­nised as of the colo­nisers. Despite this, descrip­tions of coffee-drinking European sett­lers and colo­nised Muslims on the one hand, and men and women on the other, differed widely in French medical manuals, news­paper arti­cles and travel reports. While coffee, a drink initi­ally from Ethiopia and Yemen, had been appro­priated by Europeans as the drink of reason, indus­tria­li­sa­tion and civi­li­sa­tion, even as the “intel­lec­tual drink” par excel­lence, in the 19th century, non-Western coffee consump­tion was often portrayed as lacking the civi­lised quali­ties that made Western coffee drin­king enligh­tened.

From the begin­ning of its spread across Europe in the 17th century, doctors had casually discussed whether coffee was healthy, and, by the 19th century, it had been widely accepted in medical circles as one of the few truly healthy drinks. The French navy doctor Pierre-Just Navarre declared in 1895 that coffee was a “hygienic” (i.e. healthy) drink ever­y­where in the world, “but the most hygienic [drink] that exists among the tropics.”

During the conquest and colo­ni­sa­tion of Algeria in the 19th century, French people lived in a hot, hostile climate, according to the narra­tives of the time, and they actively looked for ways to compen­sate for these disad­van­tages. In this context, coffee was framed as a medi­cinal drink; it was even believed to protect against malaria. As coffee powder was rela­tively easy to trans­port, French soldiers and sett­lers were able to drink coffee even in the most remote corners of Algeria. Later, French soldiers and civi­lians bought ground coffee from European merchants and from Alge­rian vendors, and drank coffee in the French estab­lish­ments that began to appear with the spread of the army.

As a gover­ning mino­rity surrounded by a suppressed majo­rity, French sett­lers feared losing control. They drank coffee because they believed that it protected them from diseases and provided them with crucial physical advan­tages over the Alge­rian colo­nised, stimu­la­ting their brains and ener­gi­sing their bodies. This had the bizarre conse­quence that coffee was regu­larly portrayed as having played a crucial role in the colo­ni­sa­tion of the region. The famous French doctor Apol­lin­aire Bouchardat stated in 1887, without a hint of irony: “Without coffee, several parts of our Algeria would have been unin­ha­bi­table to European sett­lers.”

Languor in the Coffee­houses

coffee house in Algir, ca. 1899; source: wdl.org

Colo­nial Algeria offered 19th century French authors the oppor­tu­nity to combine the rela­tively new consensus on the inherent health bene­fits of coffee with contem­porary race theo­ries. Coffee became the epitome of exotic languor and timel­ess­ness when consumed by the Alge­rian colo­nised. The physical and intel­lec­tual advan­tages of coffee drin­king that French soldiers and sett­lers hoped for were enti­rely lacking in the descrip­tions of Muslim drin­kers. Instead, their coffee consump­tion was framed as costing France money, as the Alge­rian Muslims could have worked produc­tively in the facto­ries, farms and house­holds of the French during the time that they spent idly chat­ting, drin­king coffee and smoking. Descrip­tions of tradi­tional Muslim coffee­houses were a distil­la­tion of Orien­ta­list fanta­sies, racial preju­dice and economic anxie­ties.

In 1859, the French doctor Adolphe Armand essen­ti­ally described Arab men consuming their “favou­rite drink” in tradi­tional coffee­houses as a waste of time and produc­tivity, stating that “the idle Moor, and that he is often, passes 4/5 of his dreamy exis­tence” drin­king coffee and smoking. According to French colo­nial publi­ca­tions, the most obvious effect of coffee drin­king on Alge­rian Muslims was the increase of a specific idleness that many colo­nial offi­cers and doctors already suspected was inherent in the whole “race”.

Coffee and Female Bodies

While coffee was recom­mended to all classes of European men in Algeria, many French obser­vers believed that it could not be as unequi­vo­cally recom­mended to European women. The “drink of reason” was unders­tood to be better suited to men than to women, as women were believed to react differ­ently to it and alle­gedly grew more easily addicted to coffee than men. While both the bodies and the brains of French men were unders­tood to need the addi­tional stimu­la­tion provided by coffee in France’s colo­ni­sing project, French women were recom­mended to show restraint in their consump­tion, princi­pally because their invol­ve­ment in France’s colo­nial expan­sion – and, more gene­rally, in all aspects of poli­tics and intel­lec­tual work – was overall unders­tood to be of less impor­t­ance. No need, there­fore, to expose them to the dangers of addic­tion.

Compa­rable to the diffe­rences of coffee drin­king European and Muslim men, the coffee consump­tion of women was referred to in a vastly diffe­rent manner, depen­ding on whether the drin­kers belonged to the colo­nisers or the colo­nised. Analo­gous to the descrip­tions of French women, French doctors believed that Muslim women consumed coffee “differ­ently” to men and that they displayed diffe­ring reac­tions. The coffee consump­tion of Muslim women was mostly hidden from the eyes of French obser­vers during the whole period of the colo­ni­sa­tion of Algeria, which did not stop them from imagi­ning and describing it. Indeed, in colo­nial descrip­tions not only of Algeria but of the whole Muslim world, the harem, this epicentre of Orien­ta­list fanta­sies, was often popu­lated by sexu­ally allu­ring, leisu­rely, coffee-drinking women. Coffee was again the very symbol of idleness, yet it was a desi­rable, titil­la­ting languor, that fasci­nated European obser­vers.

Diffe­rent Coffee, “Diffe­rent” People

Albert Guil­laume, Caféine du Yémen, moulue. Café de santé, ca. 1890; source:

This fasci­na­tion with female Muslim coffee drin­kers can also be observed in French adverts of the time. Various coffee products enticed French buyers with depic­tions of exoti­cised Muslim women prepa­ring, serving or drin­king coffee. French men and women, who drank coffee adver­tised by these fantasy harem women in France, were probably unaware of the medical theo­ries that warned of the conse­quences of coffee drin­king in Algeria. They might have inno­cently imagined them­selves as sipping a taste of the Orient at their break­fast table when in reality they were expo­sing them­selves to the conta­gious vice of languor!

The drin­king habits of Alge­rian men and women were docu­mented by French authors covering the whole colo­nial period as noti­ce­ably “diffe­rent”: The colo­nised drank at diffe­rent times and in diffe­rent places than the French, and their bodies were unders­tood to show a vastly dissi­milar reac­tion to the drink. When consumed by the colo­nised, coffee led to languor and lack of produc­tivity, instead of health and energy. Even the coffee produced by the Alge­rian colo­nised was described as distinctly diffe­rent. While the French boiled water then added ground coffee powder, the Alge­rians were described as adding coffee to the water before heating it. Further, instead of adding a small amount of sugar, milk and often alcohol to the drink – like the sophisti­cated French –Alge­rians were suspected of adding exces­sive amounts of sugar and some­times even spices to their coffee, rende­ring it at once diffe­rent and suspi­cious to French obser­vers. This exoti­ci­sa­tion of an essen­ti­ally fami­liar product can be inter­preted as the final piece in the colo­nial effort of arti­fi­ci­ally crea­ting diffe­rence in an other­wise shared habit between the colo­nisers and the colo­nised.

Coffee has slipped out of the contem­porary discourse about “cultural” diffe­rences and the “others”. Nevertheless, descrip­tions of Muslim men as primi­tively lazy and immo­de­rate, and Muslim women as myste­rious, secluded and sensually languid, have staun­chly remained and must be read as an echo of a colo­nial medical discourse. Even though racists no longer talk about coffee and even though coffee adverts no longer use meta­phors that connect the black drink to people of colour, one should not unde­re­sti­mate the long-term effec­tiveness of such images and ideas, of which coffee is just one example.

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  • Nina Studer is a historian with a focus on French colonies in the MENA region. She is currently a postdoc at the University of Bern and is conducting research on the participation of women in protest movements in Syria and Lebanon during the French Mandate.