Coffee and its Dark Past: Java


As a kid one of my favorite movies was George of the Jungle. There’s a scene in the movie where George drinks far too much coffee and proceeds to run around and bounce while repeatedly saying “java, java, java, java.” My mom would always quote this section of the movie when she wanted coffee (which was often) or when she felt overly energetic (which was also often). Even now, as I work in a coffee shop, I can hear her voice saying the word “java” over and over again. Coffee was something that was always present at home. My dad grew up drinking it with his Italian grandmother and he instilled the family passion for the drink in us. My mom is never without a cup at breakfast. My childhood is full of the acidic, earthy smell of coffee. I always thought that the word “java” was an Americanized expression of a very European drink. The word is used commedically in movies and for businesses, such as Java Software. But the word “java” is far more complex than I had ever thought it could be.

Coffee beans come from Latin America, Asia and Africa where the climate is ideal for the beans to grow and get their unique flavors. The Dutch were likely the first to use the term “java” in reference to coffee. Arabica coffee is a desired single origin coffee (coming from one type of bean plant) due to its unique flavors that came from Java Island. However, leaf rust ravaged the island’s plants and the coffee farmers were forced to grow liberica and robusta which are considered cheaper strains of coffee beans. Now “java” has been used to refer to coffee in general and not the high quality desired coffee it was originally.

When colonization was really becoming large in the 1600’s products like sugar and coffee were highly desired for trade due to their popularity and value. Thus places in which these were grown were desired. In the early 1600’s the Dutch landed in Indonesia and discovered the Island of Java of its coast. The island is full of everything colonizers would want. There was game to hunt for sport, huge exports available for profit, and a people who were easily taken over due to internal conflicts. The Dutch stole the land from its original people and turned the island into a business enterprise. Throughout history as the Dutch gained and lost power to Britain, Java was used as a bargaining tool. The people were slaves without being called slaves. They no longer had any rights to their land and were used to increase the production of exports that were turned for profit.

While I originally thought “java” was just a fun word to use in reference to coffee it is far from that. The history of this word is full of tragedy. Colonization is never beneficial for the colonized. It took well over three-hundred years for Java to regain any semblance of independence and the natural resources the island began with were never the same. The Javan Rhino has been hunted for sport so that only fifty individuals remain, the people were used for profit and deforestation devastated the island to make room for coffee and rice productions. This is important. People in Europe and America cherish their coffee. As a barista I have people come in and discuss in depth the differences of beans and blends in depth. People are so privileged that they think of their own favorable tastes and not what goes on behind the scenes of those tastes. Learning about just one word has opened my eyes to the tragedy that we have inflicted upon people in order to gain money. If we are to appreciate coffee, if we are to joke about java and use it in logos, we need to recognize what we have put an entire people through in order to do so. It’s easy to ignore it. It’s easy to sip on an African single-origin and just think of the coffee. But there is flaw in doing so. We need to recognize the mistakes we’ve made and do our best to fix them in order to deserve the right to reek the benefits of them. I love coffee and will always appreciate having it in my life and childhood. However, it is important to know why I, and may other, have been able to do so.