Coffee’s Consequences

This article is the fourteenth of an ongoing series from EuroClio providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series here.

Coffee has become a ubiquitous commodity worldwide. While students might not yet be coffee drinkers themselves, the bitter drink is still likely to be present in their daily experience through advertising, film and television, ever-present Starbucks stores or their tired teachers downing cups as they hurry through the hallways. Coffee thus provides a great opportunity to take something very familiar and look at it in a whole new light by putting it under the historical microscope.

Historiana’s recent source collection How did coffee become a global commodity? aims to do just that. The source collection explores the spread of coffee from Sufi orders in Yemen in the 15th century, to the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, across Europe in the years that followed and as part of increasingly complex global networks up to the present day. The collection invites students to consider the impacts of historical developments such as colonialism, industrialisation and globalisation on the spread of coffee and the consequences this had, in turn, for various societies around the world.

In this print a woman pours coffee in a wide plate; it is an old practice to have the coffee
cool down faster. Source: Young woman drinking coffee, Bonnet, Louis Marin, 1774, France, Rijksmuseum via Europeana.

Ideas for teaching with this source collection
The source collection offers a broad overview of coffee’s journey as a global commodity throughout space and time. As it is a far-reaching collection, there are a number of ways it might be used in the classroom, depending on your needs. Some examples include using the collection as:

 A case study for units related to globalisation
 A springboard for deeper study of issues such as colonisation, the Enlightenment, industrialisation, slavery, trade and so forth
 A way of investigating continuity and change by considering the evolution of coffee as a commodity over several centuries
 A way of developing students’ understanding of causation by examining the impacts of global developments such as conflict, exploration, and colonisation on the spread of coffee
 A way of developing students’ understanding of consequence by examining the impacts coffee had on various societies throughout time

Indian workers harvesting the crop on a coffee plantation. Coloured lithograph by Deroi, c.1850, after Johann Moritz Rugendas. Wellcome Collection via Europeana

Example online activity: Coffee’s Consequences
The eLearning Activity, Coffee’s Consequences, on Historiana provides an example of the way this collection might be used to examine the historical concept of consequence. The activity makes use of the newly launched Highlight tool which enables students to highlight and annotate text.

The activity begins by providing some background information before posing the key inquiry question: “Has the impact of the global spread of coffee been positive for societies past and present?” The question is designed to be debatable and to invite students to use evidence from the sources to develop a historical argument. It is recommended that the activity be preceded by a discussion about how one might draw conclusions about what is “positive” or “negative” and the complexity of applying present-day morality to historical times. In this way, students can also engage with what Peter Seixas terms the “ethical dimension”, one of the key historical thinking concepts.

Students then see a number of sources with information about key moments in the development and spread of coffee as a commodity over time. For each source, students are asked to highlight passages in the text which suggest an impact on a given society and provide an annotation explaining the consequence they believe this indicates. The first source is already done for them as an example which they are able to use as a model for their own responses. Once students have completed this close reading of a range of sources, they are asked to use their findings to present a final, justified response to the inquiry question.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.


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