Mixed brew in “The Coffee Trader”

Book review by Ernie Yap –
This is a book about coffee (view image) and how it became traded and valued as one of the most popular drinks in the world. Newsrooms, classrooms, boardrooms, hospitals, office complexes, and whole governments today would be a lot drowsier and more slow-moving without it. It is almost apt to describe this strong-coloured and smelling brew to be the fuel of today’s world economy.
Indeed it is hard to imagine this ubiquitous wonder brew was once a humble, unwanted commodity, considered eccentric and low-class. Liss, the author of the remarkable A Conspiracy of Paper, spins an interesting yarn on how it all came about, in the year 1659 in Amsterdam, Holland; the world’s first Commodities Exchange.

Here is the place where trading ships from all over the world dock. Their cargo of treasures and merchandise is bartered or haggled over – some in hindsight think they have been cheated – all conforming to a still-infant standard of measure and exchange. At such a place, the first man who possesses the foresight to recognise the potential of the coffee bean and the resources to “corner” the market would undoubtedly be the wealthiest in the industrial era, his fortune spilling over to his modern-day descendants as the whole world gets hooked on this caffeinated liquid.
In the midst of this cosmopolitan activity is Miguel Lienzo, a plucky Jewish trader waiting for his luck to change. It does, in the form of Geertruid Damhouder, a mysterious dame who advises Miguel to corner the coffee market. That is to buy up all the bean shipments, wait for the population to catch up on coffee drinking, then sell at whatever price they wish, a simple and not-yet-illegal plan. Although coffee beans are relatively unwanted and are therefore relatively cheap, they still need a considerable loan to buy up every single bean on the market. Also, they need to act before the “Big Brother” of the Exchange, the British India Company, gets wind of this pot of gold.
But, first of all, as a typical merchant, Miguel has to overcome his own doubts about the potential of this “stinking brew” the bean brings about. Will there be a soaring demand for this blackish fluid, as predicted by Geertruid? Their “simple” plan will either lead them to undreamed of riches or total ruin.
The author gives some vivid descriptions of Amsterdam in the 17th century, its bustling commodities market filled with foreign traders of all shapes and colour. The rich with their long flowing colourful silk robes; the poor with their grey rags. Different languages fill the air. Exotic merchandise from far away lands being unloaded from the harbour and promoted. This is the place where most common modern-day etiquette and traditions evolve. I imagine it to be almost like a modern-day circus.
Here at the Exchange, where friendships, partnerships, and brotherhood are as unpredictable as fortunes, which are made and lost in a blink of an eye, Miguel’s ambitious quest is under constant threat.
His status as a Jew places him under the protection and obligation of the Ma’amad, the council of Jewish elders. One needs to bear in mind that the 17th century is witnessing the ashes of the Spanish Inquisition, and anti-Semitic sentiments still run high. It is not advisable to run afoul of the Ma’amad. But what if someone within the Ma’amad wants ruin him?
I never knew reading about coffee could be so exciting. The author neatly shatters the romantic images of the Renaissance Dutch immortalised by artists who draws colourful, static pictures of dreamy characters. The Coffee Trader presents a dynamic portrayal of the first commercial market, a place of desperation and heartlessness where men answer to greed, not conscience, as they eke out a living in a harsh world.
It is also funny to read how the 17th century man considers the pot of coffee with much suspicion and disgust, something his great-great-great-great-grandson today would just down without a second thought, and which some simply cannot live without.
Back to the tale. Miguel is unknowingly aided by a fellow Jew, Alonzo Alferonda. This kingpin of the Amsterdam underground has a mysterious personal agenda.
Stalked by competitors and racing against time, Miguel, with the wile and cunning of a European Aladdin, eludes and counter-strikes the schemes his enemies lay in wait for him. To complicate matters, Miguel’s enemy within the Ma’amad is allied with Daniel, Miguel’s brother, a difficult man whose cowardice has made him a most uncomfortable villain. In the end, which will triumph in him? Is it loyalty to the Ma’amad, brotherly love, or personal gain?
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Indeed, the characters here are hardly cardboard, thanks to the author’s talent and imagination.
Although Liss’s intention to weave this complex interplay of personal ambitions, personalities, greed and altruism with the ultimate destiny of coffee is achieved, I do lament his appearing to want to end the story a little too quickly. There are disputed unsolved mysteries. The elusive Geertruid, the first person to notice the infinite value of the bean, was not given much exposition. The story ends on a sour, somewhat bitter note with many holes unplugged – a mismatch for such a spectacular beginning.
There is much to be done too about the character of Hannah, Daniel’s wife, who seems to serve no particular purpose except to insert the element of adultery into the story, a totally unnecessary and revolting manoeuvre.
Nonetheless, I trust that reading it will be a most entertaining and enriching experience for most coffee lovers – as it was for yours truly.
Source: Star Online

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