Coffee, Print, Prose & Politics

And now, alas! The drench has credit got,
And he’s no gentleman that drinks it not.

A Broadside against Coffee, 1650s

With its introduction into seventeenth century Western Europe from the Middle East, coffee arrived at a time when geographical and scientific knowledge was increasing. In turn, the rise of the coffeehouse transformed many areas of social, intellectual and commercial life. Newspapers, Lloyd’s insurance, the postal system, political and social clubs are some of the diverse institutions that trace their origins to the places where people gathered to drink coffee. Coffee figures in early botanical and medical books, and in numerous volumes recounting early travels and explorations. Many of the dramatic social changes that unfolded in London and Continental Europe in the late seventeenth century were almost identical in nature to the changes coffee had brought to Islamic society at an earlier stage.  In the early days, coffee was associated with the gathering of news and information, the sharing of science and knowledge, with trading and auctioneering, and a range of other activities.

The coffee tree is a flowering evergreen shrub indigenous to Ethiopia and Yemen in Arabia. The Arabic term for coffee is qahwa, but the European word for coffee is derived through the Turkish pronunciation kahveh. In 1587, Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri compiled a work describing the history of coffee in the Muslim world entitled Umdat al safwa fi hill al-qahwa. A copy of this manuscript work reached the French Royal Library, where it was translated in part in 1699 by Antoine Galland as De l’origine et du progrès du café.1 The author dates the first use of coffee around the mid-fifteenth century and traces the spread of coffee from Arabia Felix (present day Yemen) northward to Mecca and Medina, and then to the larger cities of Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Istanbul.  The first coffeehouse in Istanbul opened its doors in 1554. Religious disapproval followed swiftly when it became clear that coffeehouses were places where men gathered to sing, dance, and play instruments or games. In spite of attempts to suppress the coffeehouses, they became central to the culture of Islamic countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

In 1615, the Venetians were the first Europeans to import coffee. They were followed the following year by the Dutch. Articles for preparing coffee, brought with them from their exile in Holland, were among the household effects carried by the Pilgrims on the 1620 voyage of the Mayflower. 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. The coffee bean found its way to Britain by way of the Muslim world and its Mediterranean trade routes. Early advertisements refer to coffee as ‘the right Turkie berry’. The first written mention of coffee in English appeared in 1598 in an annotated translation from the Latin of Jan Huyghen van Linschoten’s voyage to the East Indies by Bernardus Paludanus. The first botanical description of coffee in English was published by John Parkinson, pharmacist and chief botanist to Charles I. His Theatrum Botanicum: the Theatre of Plants (1640) is the most extensive herbal in the English language with a description of 3,800 plants.

Initially, coffee was hailed as a potent medicine. Once the wholesome effects of drinking coffee appeared in print, the word started to spread . Coffee, it was suggested, dredges the liver to regulate the flow of liver, purges the gallbladder, opens the heart orifices and warms the blood circulation. In early European reports on coffee these medicinal benefits were widely reported and repeated. Robert Burton added a reference to coffee in the 1632 edition of his Anatomy of Melancholy and placed it in the chapter on ‘Medicines’. The reference is not to be found in the first edition of the book (1621) which indicates that knowledge of coffee spread only gradually through Britain. The very first printed advertisement for the sale of coffee in England appeared in the weekly ‘Publick Advisor’ of 19 May 1657. In recommending the beverage, the advert lists a number of maladies coffee would cure 2:

In Bartholomew Lane on the back side of the Old Exchange the drink called Coffee (which is a very wholesome and Physical drink, having many excellent vertues, closes the Oriface of the Stomack, fortifies the heat within, helpeth Digestion, quickneth the Spirits, maketh the heart lightsome, is good against eye-sores, Coughs, or Colds, Rhumes, Consumption, Head-ach, Dropsie, Gout, Scurvy, Kings Evil, and many others) is to be sold in the morning, and at three o’clock in the afternoon.

This advertisement not only points to the many diseases the age was suffering, but also to the anticipation with which new herbs such as coffee, tea or tobacco were received. Even the consumption of wine was considered by some as a wonder drug that made it possible to live ‘humane life from infancy to extreme old age without any sicknesse’.3 The seventeenth century was riddled with disease and society was obsessed with miracle cures and overnight remedies. High hopes were pinned on exotic herbs that were brought into the country from the far corners of the earth and reported in print. Printing appeared to be a powerful tool in the improvement of social health and wellbeing. Significantly, the very first recorded title-page in English was a booklet of 1482 dealing with pestilence.

In 1609, Protestant Levant Company chaplain William Biddulph published The Travels of Certaine Englishmen in Africa, Asia, etc. This book is an epistolary narrative in which the author relates a visit to Constantinople and gives an eye-witness account of Turkish coffeehouses4:

Their most common drinke is Coffa, which is a blacke kinde of drinke, made of a kind of Pulse like Pease, called Coaua … which is more holesome than toothsome, for it causeth good concoction, and driveth away drowsinesse … Their Coffa houses are more common than Ale-houses in England; but they use not so much to sit in the houses, as on benches on both sides of the streets, neere unto a Coffa house, every man with his Fin-ionful; which being smoking hot, they use to put it to their Noses & Eares, and then sup it off by leasure, being full of idle and Ale-house talke while they are amongst themselves drinking it; if there be any news, it is talked of there.

The spelling of the word coffee was still in flux in those years. The author stresses the medical virtue of coffee and – interestingly – observes that the coffeehouse was a centre for the gathering and spreading of news. This element would be central to the explosive development of the coffee habit in London and elsewhere later in the age.

Knowledge of the coffee in Britain bean remained limited. It is significant that William Shakespeare does not refer to coffee, chocolate or tea. Given the range of references to food and drink in his plays, it seems to suggest that a more general knowledge of their presence did not occur until after his death in 1616. If coffee was known at all, it was not through the taste of the beverage, but by the printed accounts given by travellers and merchants. The printed word preceded the bean itself. Francis Bacon mentions coffee twice in his work. In the Historia vitae et mortis (1623) he makes a casual reference to the Turkish herb of caphe. A year later, whilst working on his Sylva sylvarum (1627), he seems to have taken notice of earlier accounts left by travellers. In fact, the passage concerned points directly to Biddulph’s words quoted above 5:

They have in Turkey a drink called coffee, made of a berry of the same name, as black as soot, and of a strong scent, but not aromatical … and they take it, and sit at it in their coffa-houses, which are like our taverns. This drink comforteth the brain and heart, and helpeth digestion.

To judge from this account it seems unlikely that Francis Bacon himself had ever tasted coffee. The interest in new beverages such as tea and coffee coincided with specific developments in medical science (blood circulation, urology). In 1628, William Harvey had explained the circulation of blood in De motu cordis et sanguinis. This first edition of his study appeared in Frankfurt, but most subsequent editions were published in the Netherlands where between 1628 and 1671 seven editions of the book were issued, only two in England. In fact, as John Aubrey relates in his portrait of Harvey in Brief Lives, the book had a negative effect on his status in England. Envious colleagues ganged up against him, and the whisper went around that the good doctor was ‘crack-brained’. It took two or three decades before Harvey’s contribution to the development of medicine was acknowledged. Aubrey informs us that Harvey himself ‘was wont to drink coffee, which he and his brother Eliab did before coffee-houses were in fashion in London’. This was probably a cherished taste with Harvey and a medical experiment at the same time. He suffered badly from gout. There had been some indication that coffee was a ‘secret remedy’ against the affliction. It is not surprising that Harvey was aware of the coffee habit. Both his brothers Thomas and Daniel Harvey were ‘Turkey merchants’, admitted to the Levant Company in 1616.6

Opposition and Fascination
Coffeehouses became a much loved London institution from the post-Elizabethan period onwards. Whether some of these coffeehouses were actually run by Muslim proprietors is a matter for conjecture. Proprietors did have a liking for exotic names. Up to fifty-seven different Turk’s Head coffeehouses have been recorded in one form or other. Then there were the Jerusalem Coffee House; various types of the Blackamoor or Ye Blackmore’s Head; the Oriental Cigar Divan; the Saracen’s Head; the Africa and Senegal Coffee House; the Sultaness; the Sultan’s Head; Solyman’s Coffee House; Morat Ye Great, and many others. Some historians have noted that the prevalence of names such as Turk’s Head or Solyman’s Coffee House refer to Sulayman the Magnificent, one of the great Renaissance monarchs of the sixteenth century. His rule had made an impression on the court of Elizabeth I and his name was adopted as the pulling factor for these establishments, ‘where Turkey coffee was sold’. Diplomatic trends influenced the perspectives of the wider population, so much so, that styles and even clothing of the Islamic world became fashionable in English society. Hogarth’s self-portrait wearing a turban is an example. Muslims influenced the lives of the Tudors, Stuarts and their heirs sufficiently that they found their way into the plays, novels, magazines and poems of the age.

Opposition to the bean was vocal. Many rejected coffee as a substance that would morally corrupt and attract ‘renegades from Christianity’. Coffee became associated with the Qur’an. The antics of the Barbary corsairs did not improve the popularity of Muslims. London society was split into those who supported coffee and those who did not. It was not so much a choice of taste, but rather one of politics. A true patriot did not drink coffee. After all, the impact of the corsairs was considerable. From 1609 to 1616, England lost 466 merchant ships to Barbary pirates. From their North African ports they preyed on non-Islamic shipping in the Mediterranean. They made raids, called ‘razzias’, on European coastal towns to capture Christian slaves. It is estimated that from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, pirates captured more than a million Europeans from seaside villages. At the same time, piracy was part and parcel of early European diplomacy. France encouraged the pirates against Spain, and later Britain and Holland supported them against France. Frequent wars among European states gave the pirates many opportunities of holding rival powers at ransom. In spite of many tales of Barbary cruelty, it intensified European curiosity about the East and resulted in a cultural fascination which, during the Georgian period, translated itself into a vogue for the Oriental in art and literature.

During the eighteenth century the so-called Ottoman Grand Tour became an extension of the European Grand Tour. The golden age of the Grand Tour in the Ottoman Empire was the period between the French invasion of Italy in 1796 and the outbreak of the Greek war of independence in 1821. The wars of the French revolution and Empire, rendering travel in Europe, especially Italy, more difficult, made travel in the Ottoman Empire more popular. By 1810 Athens had become as fashionable as Rome had been twenty years earlier. John Montagu, future Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty, was among the early English travellers who sailed on from Italy to the Ottoman Empire. He returned with a learned manuscript full of new information, and a collection of antiquities including what proved to be the oldest dated Greek inscription then known. When Lord Byron returned to London from his journey, he was painted in Albanian dress by Thomas Phillip. Similarly, Montagu was painted in Turkish dress by Joseph Highman. Such portraits were the standard visual ‘trophy’ from the Ottoman Grand Tour. Back in London, the Earl of Sandwich, under the assumed name of Sheikh Pyramidum, founded both the ‘Egyptian Society’, open to ‘any gentleman who has been in Egypt’, and under the different name of El Fakir Sandwich Pasha, the ‘Divan Club’ open to gentlemen with the intention of going to Turkey.

Public Opinion
In his account of a visit to London in 1698, French traveller Henri Misson refers to coffeehouses in the following manner (the English translation dates from 1710)7:

These Houses, which are numerous in London, are extremely convenient. You have all Manners of News there: You have a good Fire, which you may sit by as long as you please: You have a Dish of Coffee; you meet your Friends for the Transaction of Business, and all for a Penny, if you don’t care to spend more.

The London coffeehouses provided a gathering place where, for a penny admission charge, any man who was reasonably dressed could smoke his clay pipe, sip a dish of coffee, read the newsletters of the day, or enter into conversation with other patrons. During the Commonwealth and the Restoration, coffeehouses offered a forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions. Proprietors tried to encourage restraint and avoid disharmony by printing and displaying a long bill of regulations which was addressed to men only, since women were barred from the English coffeehouses at the time. The proclamation began thus:

Enter, Sirs, but first, if you please,
Peruse our civil orders, which are these.

The list is a long one, no quarrels, no swearing, no noise, no blasphemy, no games, no gambling, etc. The fear for intervention by the authorities comes over clearly from these regulations. What caused this anxiety?

At a period when journalism was in its infancy and the postal system was unorganized, the coffeehouse provided a centre of communication for news and information.  Runners were sent round to report events and current newsletters and gazettes were distributed chiefly in the coffeehouse.  Most of the establishments functioned as reading rooms.  In addition, bulletins announcing sales and auctions covered the walls of the establishments, providing information to the businessman who conducted much of his business from a table at his local coffeehouse which he often used as his postal address. This dissemination of news led to the fermenting of ideas or, as George Macaulay Trevelyan observed8:

The ‘Universal liberty of speech of the English nation’ … was the quintessence of Coffee House life.

By 1663, eighty-two coffeehouses were counted in London. The popularity of these establishments led to opposition. In 1674, a broadside called ‘The Women’s Petition against Coffee’ was published. Not only do the women complain that their husbands idle their time away in coffeehouses, they also claim that coffee makes ‘men as unfruitful as the deserts where the unhappy berry is said to be brought; that since its coming the offspring of our mighty forefathers are on the way to disappear as if they were monkeys and swine’.9 On 23 December 1675 Charles II issued a ‘Proclamation for the suppression of coffee houses’. His edict banning the sale of coffee, chocolate, sherbet and tea was motivated by the anxiety that coffeehouses provided a meeting place for the disaffected to spread rumours about court, king and government. Charles II may have sensed the dangers of what later would be called ‘public opinion’. The outcry against the draconian ban was such that the king decided to back off and no further mention was made of his edict. Free discussion was born in coffeehouses.

The 1685 revocation of the edict of Nantes forced many Huguenot scholars, publishers and printers out of France. They settled in Holland and England. The number of English books translated into French increased sharply. Dutch printing presses played an important part in this process, publishing works in translation by John Locke (1710), John Law, Isaac Newton (both 1720), Richard Cumberland (1744), David Hume (1754), and others, thus contributing to the exchange of ideas, so crucial for the spread of the Enlightenment. The Rainbow Coffee House Group was a circle of mainly Huguenot intellectuals who met informally at the Rainbow Coffee House in Lancaster Court, off St Martin’s Lane, where they exchanged books, correspondence, and ideas, and engaged in discussion of philosophical and theological topics. With close links to Paris and to the Low Countries, its members formed part of the international network for the free exchange of ideas between Catholics, Protestants, and those with an interest in unorthodox views.

The Rainbow was in existence from 1702 to 1755, and until about 1730 it was known as a meeting place for many of the French intellectuals who had found their way to London. Situated close to the Huguenot community in the area of the Strand and Covent Garden, with its chapels at the Savoy and in Leicester Fields, the Rainbow was also near the French bookshops established by Paul Vaillant and Pierre du Noyer in the Strand. Not far away was the Grecian Coffee House in Devereux Street, off the Strand, which was frequented by members of the Royal Society including Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley, and Hans Sloane. The driving force behind the group was the Huguenot journalist, editor, and biographer Pierre Des Maizeaux. He promoted the circulation of English scientific and philosophical ideas on the Continent through his contributions to French-language periodicals published in Holland, and maintained an impressive network of contacts throughout Europe, with regular correspondents in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.

Although there is no precise record of the group’s membership, it included several important members of the Huguenot community in London, some of them known for their interest in unorthodox ideas. Religious questioning was at the centre of philosophical debate at that period, with long-held beliefs being undermined by recent scientific developments. Pierre Coste was a close friend of Des Maizeaux and his translations of John Locke and Newton facilitated the circulation of their work throughout Europe. Michel de la Roche, a close associate of Des Maizeaux, was a journalist and translator who worked on the first English translation of Bayle’s Dictionnaire critique. He played a major role in the dissemination of English science and philosophy abroad, and conducted a passionate campaign in favour of religious toleration. The literary career of Maty underlines the close Anglo-Dutch-French circle. In 1740, Utrecht-born Matthieu Maty, a multi-lingual descendant of Huguenot refugees, obtained degrees in medicine and philosophy at Leiden University after which he settled in London. Mixing with journalists and intellectuals in the London coffeehouses, he gained a contract with the publisher Henri Scheurleer in The Hague, becoming the sole editor of the Journal Britannique (1750-1757: 24 parts), introducing aspects of English cultural life to his Dutch and French readers. Maty would eventually rise to the position of Principal Librarian of the British Museum.

Poetry and Prose
Thomas Garraway opened one of the earliest coffeehouses in London at his dwelling in Sweeting’s Rents by the Exchange, and he may well have been the first retailer of tea in England. Later he moved to Exchange Alley, and it was here that his famous coffeehouse began to flourish as an important centre of mercantile activity. Garraway’s was a celebrated coffeehouse for two centuries. It served as a place of sale, exchange, auction and lottery. Beginning in the 1670s, auction sales of ships, bulk goods, wines, and rare books were held here, and these sales became a regular occurrence in the eighteenth century. However, it was as the favoured resort for City stock-traders that Garraway’s made its fame. Along with Jonathan’s Coffee House, which was also located in Exchange Alley, Garraway’s can rightly be regarded as one of the birthplaces of the British stock exchange and a key nexus in the development of the City of London as a centre for world finance.

Different coffeehouses acted as the meeting place for different groups of customers. In fact many people would give a particular coffeehouse as the address where they might be contacted. For example Child’s Coffee House near Gresham College, was frequented by the clergy. Lloyd’s Coffee House, founded by Edward Lloyd in the 1680s, had ship owners and merchants as customers. It moved to Lombard Street in 1692 and, having specialized in insurance, it became Lloyd’s of London. The Grecian attracted those interested in philosophy and science. The house was located at Devereux Court and first opened its doors in 1702. It was re-named the Devereux Tavern in 1813. It was here that Richard Steele wrote his contributions to the ‘Tatler’. It was also patronized by fellow journalist Joseph Addison. The 1709 issue of the ‘Tatler’ described the Grecian as ‘attracting men of learning where the arguments become so intense that swords were often drawn leading to death’. This is not just an exaggeration. An anecdote has survived about an incident that occurred at this coffeehouse when an argument over the pronunciation of a particular Greek word resulted in an all-out brawl where one man smashed the door with his sword. In the tenth issue of the ‘Spectator’ Addison expressed the hope that the journal had brought philosophy out of schools and colleges to dwell in clubs and coffeehouses. Scholars and scientists did give liberal patronage to the Grecian. It was a common thing for meetings of the Royal Society to be continued in a social way at this coffeehouse, with Sir Isaac Newton, the president, frequently joining the party. He was often accompanied by Edmund Halley, the astronomer, on his weekly visit to London from Oxford.

The coffeehouse became associated with the development of scientific thinking. It was a place to lecture. These were not just impromptu speeches. They were properly advertised and usually consisted of an extended lecture series. Because of this educational function coffeehouses were often called ‘Penny Universities’ – the name arising since they charged an entrance fee of a penny. Gradually the traditional function of the coffeehouse was usurped by private clubs and other institutions. Yet for over a hundred years coffeehouses had been central to English cultural life. They affected literary conventions themselves. Coffee sparks conversation. The coffeehouse was a centre of argument, controversy and eloquence. This engendered stylistic changes in writing. The rise of the prose dialogue as a favourite literary form coincided with the popularity of the coffeehouse. The ‘Tatler’ contributed to that development, but there had been predecessors. Ned Ward had a hand in two short-lived, but related periodicals called The Weekly Comedy as it is daily acted at most Coffee Houses (1699) and The Humours of a Coffee-House (1707/8). During the first decades of the eighteenth century innumerable works appeared that used conversation as the model for literary entertainment and instruction. Even poetry became more direct, talkative, less elegant, more prosaic maybe. The age of prose was imminent – and prose means politics.

Unlike poetry or drama, the novel is a recent literary genre. The novel was defined as a lengthy fictional narrative, written in prose, presenting a realistic picture of feasible characters and events. After a long process of diversification within the genre, there has been a general movement away from verisimilitude despite the early associations of the novel with realism. Yet, it remains generally true that every good novel has a political layer. The theory that freedom and equality find their true home in the novel has been expressed from the outset. In other words, the novel represents democracy in art. To Saint-Simon, artists formed an avant-garde responsible for the spread of new social ideas and ideals. Art served the political cause. The idea persisted in left wing circles. Novels, stories, and pamphlets were weapons in the various campaigns of the Party and in the socialist education of the masses. To Jean-Paul Sartre the novel was a political instrument. He used the pen as weapon. Politics to Sartre meant neither policy-formulation nor persuasion. He used the novel for taking a stand or, alternatively, for rejecting compromise. The novel was but a tool in the many battles he fought, against De Gaulle, America, liberalism, etc. However, there has been a tendency to overstate the ‘liberating’ political effect of the novel. In fact, a strong case can be made – think of Jane Austen’s conservatism – for the idea that many novelists did not chose the side of equality and progress. Instead of radicalism, they defended the values of the old order and used the novel as a force of stability and conservation in a sea of socio-economic change. In the words of Evelyn Waugh: every artist must be a reactionary. He has to stand out against the tenor of the age, he must offer some opposition. That, however, is a political choice as well


Antoine Galland is better remembered for Les mille et une nuits (1704-1717), the first European translation of the Arabian Nights.
Cited in: Steven Starker, Evil Influences: Crusades against the Mass Media, (London: Transaction Publishers, 1989), p.38.
Whitaker, Tobias, The Tree of Humane Life, or, The Bloud of the Grape: Proving the possibilitie of maintaining humane life from infancy to extreme old age without any sicknesse by the use of wine, (London: printed by I[ohn] D[awson] for H[enry] O[verton], 1638).
William Biddulph, The Travels of Certaine Englishmen in Africa, Asia, and to the Blacke Sea, (London: printed by Th. Haueland for W. Aspley, 1609), pp.65/6.
More holesome than toothsome: healthy rather than good tasting.
Fin-ion or Finjan: oriental porcelain coffee-cup.
‘Turcae habent etiam in usu herbae genus, quam vocant Caphe …’ (The Turks use a kind of herb which they call caphe) – Francis Bacon, Works, (London: Bohn, 1850), vol.2, p.579. Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum – in: Works, vol.2, p.99.
John Aubrey, Brief Lives, (London: Secker and Warburg, 1950), p.132.
Henri Misson, Memoirs and Observations in his Travels over England, translated by Mr. Ozell. (London: printed for D.Browne etc., 1719), pp.39/40.
George Macaulay Trevelyan, England under Queen Anne, (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), p.83.
Cited in: E.R. Emerson, Beverages, Past and Present, (New York/London: Putnam’s Sons, 1908), vol.2, p.47.