I conjured an image of a room throng with merchants, traders and messengers in an air thick with tobacco smoke, a concoction of bitter-sweet aromas, the allure of brewing coffee, and a rumpus of voices buying and selling my ancestors – all made more pertinent as the only black face in a classroom of others.
Lured by Beauty, Troubled Spirit
So struck by the black and white video still of this beautiful woman that was so the likeness of my friend Kathryn, I was compelled to take a closer look. The British Film Institute (BFI) film short, West Indies Calling (1944) made by West Indians led by Una Marson and Learie Constantine as part of the popular wartime BBC radio series charted the significant efforts of Caribbean people during the war. It is one of ten short clips featured during Black Black History Month, which are all well worth a peep.
It was another film extract, Coffee Houses and the Slave “Trade” which, in the wisdom of the ancients, ’troubled my spirit’, vividly casting to mind a myriad of images and memories – recollections bonded to this notion of a ‘Café Society’ and its Caribbean retrospective. This faltering consciousness is an awakening of the lifestyles “we” lead in bustling metropolitan centres: New York, Miami, London, Toronto, and in trendy Caribbean hotspots in Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, and the like. So… this is perhaps cathartic. I write to remember. I remember to understand.
Donned in uniform of spray-starched white shirt and a grey trousers ‘invisibly’ patched at the knee, I recollect a dreaded school trip by bus into the bowels of London. I had long out-grown those school trouser, which had an identity crisis as its length hovered between ‘handmedown’ pantaloons and wide-legged Capri pants – a painful fashion statement for any teenage boy. Love you Mom, Dad! For those in the know, I can hear your echoes of laughter about ‘crossing Rabacca Dry River.’
The visit to Lloyd’s of London (Lloyd’s), the international insurance market that owes its birth to an enterprising Edward Lloyd running a coffee shop around the 1680s, is emblazoned in my memory. Lloyd’s and London as a global financial centre is deeply embedded in empire legacies of commerce, coffee, slave, sugar, commodities and maritime trade. Ambling through the cold, cobbled pavements to Lombard Street to the site of Lloyd’s Coffee House, I conjured an image of a room throng with merchants, traders and messengers in an air thick with tobacco smoke, a concoction of bitter-sweet aromas, the allure of brewing coffee, and a rumpus of voices buying and selling my ancestors – all made more pertinent as the only black face in a classroom of others.
Birth of Café Society
Free market enterprise is nothing new, and my imagine unfolded a London scene peppered with coffee houses on corners, in alleys and main streets. By the mid-17th century some 300 had opened and the city flourished. Elsewhere, in England, Austria, France, Holland and Germany drinking coffee had become highly fashionable, ‘en vogue’, as coffee houses became the centre of the social scene. Some attracted elite patrons with a shared interest – shippers, brokers and artists. They were often called ‘penny universities’ because for a penny for a cup, one may engage in stimulating conversation – the birth of Café Society.
Three hundred years after the Enlightenment, French and American revolutions, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and Britain’s emergence as a global power through conquest, control and industrial revolution, “we”, that is you and me, find ourselves scurrying into our favourite café in East and West Village and Park Slope – New York; Covent Garden, Soho and Spitalfields – London; Hastings – Barbados; San Juan – Trinidad and Tobago; or Cotton House – Mustique. We huddle over iPads, smartphones and laptops scanning for free WiFi to surf, Facebook, Tweet and Skype with friends around the world. My choice of brew changes with my mood, the weather, scarcity of time, and if I need one to go. It varies between double espresso with a tad of cold milk, macchiato or Americano; and if I am feeling cheery with a bounce in my step, a chai latte. A few days ago my friend, the young British model/actor Keith Simpson Porter posted on his Facebook page: “A Venti Caramel Hot Chocolate from Starbucks… Because Top Nutritionist’s say you are what you eat”, such is the power of coffee in our daily lives.
Affordable Luxury, International Lifestyle
We are bombarded by luxury coffee blends from afield as Java, Kenya, and Jamaica’s Blue Mountain, places many of us may never visit. Our kitchens are adorned with sleek machines, cafetières, and designer crockery, collecting dusts. My brother-in-law possesses a tasty Italian deluxe and as a home-styled barista even his two young children have their special brew of “Babyccino”. Realtors advise to infuse our homes with the aroma of fresh brewed coffee when buyers come to view. No wonder a U.S. survey revealed that 69 per cent of American coffee drinkers consider the beverage as “affordable luxury.” Today’s Café Society has evolved little since the New World era, in spite of democratised consumption and international lifestyles accelerated with the advent to technology, advances in digital communication and greater mobility of world citizens.
One Penny a Cup, Bill Paid
Yet my spirit remained troubled. The privilege to laze on Sunday morning over weekend papers at a pace I choose, at a place I choose, usually sunken deep into my favourite chesterfield sofa at a hide away café off Bethnal Green Road, East London; or preferably nestled in the shade away from the encroaching blazing Bajan sun at Italia Coffee, Rockley, Barbados, came at a price. Keith’s caramel venti concoction costs a lot more than a penny, but the much larger bill has already been settled… sort of! You see, I remember the opening lines of my first essay as a still spotty undergraduate. I remember too quoting historian James Walvin, who said “the three beverages – coffee, chocolate and tea – all had a naturally bitter taste – what made them palatable to European was the sugar. And the invisible ingredient which placed these exotic goods on the tables throughout the western world was the toil of black slaves.”
This story needs no recounting. In the late 17th century, some 18 million coffee trees thrived on the island or Martinque over a 50 year period, and from this stock, plantations spread throughout the Caribbean, South and Central America. For 100 years coffee created new wealth for nations. Fortunes were made and lost. Men and women bought and sold. Freedom captured and denied. Between 1511 and 1886 over 1 million slaves were imported into Cuba to cultivate the coffee crops, deals which may well have been done in Lloyd’s Coffee House. Today, coffee remains as important a commodity with over 2.25 billion cups consumed in the world daily. Poorer countries account for over 90% of production, while consumption mainly occurs in industrialized countries. It is reported that 25 million small producers around the world rely on coffee for a living, performing labour-intensive duties, and its cultivation has widely been associated with child labour.
Invisible Ingredient in Affordable Luxury
The passage of time naturally leads us away from our pasts. We readily forget the bloody price tag paid for the pleasure we have to luxuriate in freedom in pursuit of our life’s passions. And if I was ever doubtful of the usefulness of events like Black History Month, I accept with certainty the vital role these play in keeping our minds fresh and memories alive. I’m thankful for Kathryn because she made me take a closer look at myself. I now pay greater attention to the coffee I buy and drink in the hope that I may actively apply the lessons learned – that is, how the astute choices in something as simple as choosing a coffee shop and my blend of the day, may positively affect the lives and livelihoods of the ‘invisible ingredient’ that feed my addiction to ‘affordable luxuries’.