Originally published on Geschichte der Gegenwart and republished here with their permission.

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

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

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”.

“Cardamom Black” from “Honey & Co”, London, 2022 – the contemporary exoticisation of coffee from the Middle East and North Africa. Photo courtesy of Nina S. Studer.

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

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.

About the Author

Nina Studer


Nina S. Studer is a historian and Arabist with a strong focus on gender and the history of psychiatry in the colonial Maghreb. Her Ph.D., which she has written at the Universities of Zürich and Oxford on descriptions of Muslim North African women by French colonial psychiatrists, was published as a monograph under the title The Hidden Patients: North African Women in French Colonial Psychiatry in 2016. She has also conducted research into women’s agency and women's movements in the Arab world and into medical and psychiatric descriptions of drinking habits in the colonial Maghreb. She has written a series of articles and chapters on these topics. She has taught at the Universities of Zürich, Bern, Heidelberg, Hamburg and Basel and is currently writing a book on the history of absinthe.

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