In This Review

Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug
Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug
By Augustine Sedgewick
448 pp, Penguin Press, 2020

In 1889, the teenage James Hill emigrated from the industrializing British city of Manchester to El Salvador, where he married the daughter of a rich coffee planter. He went on to apply modern methods of industrial organization, the latest agricultural innovations, and muscular brand-marketing strategies to the cultivation and sale of coffee. The Hill family prospered immensely, becoming prominent leaders of the local oligarchy. With government complicity, the planters dismantled indigenous communal farms to make way for their private enterprises, transforming, as the historian Sedgewick describes in this highly readable, provocative new book, “a relatively equal, peaceful place into one of the most unequal and violent countries in the history of the modern world.” Plantation owners paid their laborers near-starvation wages, which, Sedgewick contends, led to violent popular rebellions in 1932 and 1979. But Sedgewick provides little fresh quantitative evidence to support such polemic assertions. He briefly sketches an alternative system of “food sovereignty,” which frames the local production and consumption of varied and healthy food as a human right.