The Swedish King Who Tried To Kill A Prisoner With Coffee
Coffee is, by now, an almost universal experience. While it might not be absolutely everyone's beverage of choice, it’s hard to deny it’s global reach and impact. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a world before coffee existed, but if the history books are anything to go by, apparently that’s true!
It’s widely believed that Ethiopia is the original birthplace of coffee. In fact, many experts who have studied the origin of coffee believe that in the very beginning, coffee was actually indigenous to Ethiopia alone, and was found nowhere else on earth. The somewhat apocryphal origin story of coffee involves an Ethiopian goat herder by the name of Kaldi, and has been told and retold countless times throughout the ages.
The story goes something like this: Over a thousand years ago, roughly in the 9th Century, a boy named Kaldi lived with his family in Ethiopia. His family were nomadic and so would settle down and spend some time in one place looking after their animals and trading with the other nomadic people in the area. After a while they would pack everything up and move again to literal greener pastures and so the cycle would continue. Kaldi would spend his days in the misty valleys of Ethiopia, tending to his flock of goats and passing the time any way he could.
One day Kaldi grew bored of watching his goats and lay back against a tree and began playing songs on his wooden pipe. He lost himself in the music and when he realised how long he’d be playing for he snapped his eyes open, only to see that all of his goats were gone. He wasn’t overly concerned and so got up and began walking through the fields, looking for his goats and playing his pipe as he went.
Finally he stumbled upon his herd in amongst a grove of trees and bushes full to the brim with little red cherries. When he looked closer he realised that his entire herd of goats were leaping about and dancing among the trees. He noticed too that their mouths were stained red from the little cherries they’d been eating from the bushes. As the story goes, he was intrigued as to what was making them behave in such a manner, and so he picked a few of the red cherries from the bushes around him and began to chew on them. He began to feel tingles work their way from his head all the way down his spine and into his feet. His heart began to beat a little faster and he found himself playing his pipe and dancing alongside his goats.
Intrigued with what he had discovered, and sensing that there may have been something magical stored with those beans, he took some to a local Sufi monastery.
The monks were understandably skeptical and even somewhat afraid of the power in these beans if what the boy said was true. They met as a group and decided that no good could come of this, and anything that altered the mind in such a way surely had to be the work of the devil. So the monks gathered up the remaining beans that Kaldi had brought them and tossed them into the fire where they belonged. A few moments passed and all of a sudden the room was filled with such a heavenly aroma that the monks began to look at one another, questioning their hasty decision. Realising their mistake, one of the monks shouted that nothing of the devil could ever smell this sweet and so they began to rake the beans from the fire, crushing them as they strove to put out the remaining embers. In order to preserve these charred beans they stored them in a jug, pouring hot water over them to protect them.
Some time later the monks sampled the water in which the charred coffee beans had been soaking and that night realised that they were able to stay up for many hours longer, praying in a state of spiritual ecstasy that none of them had experienced prior to this moment. Kaldi, in bring these beans to the monastery, had not found the devils brew, but had in fact stumbled upon a vehicle for prolonged spirituality.
And while we can be fairly certain that this tale is not 100% true, it is certainly likely that the native Oromo people, of who Kaldi was said to have been a part, were the very first humans to experience the effects of caffeine through their harvesting of the coffee beans.
From this relatively poor nation near the horn of africa, came one of the worlds most beloved drinks. It initially spread from Ethiopia across the Red Sea and into Yemen and Saudi Arabia where trade routes were more established. It was from here that it began to wend its way westward into Europe, eventually becoming a big part of the Colonial powers export ambitions. The Dutch started immense coffee plantations in Java and Indonesia while the Spanish and French took the beans to start their own plantations in their colonies all across the globe. Just a few centuries later and coffee had conquered the world.
Coffee made its way slowly, up from the middle east, through Europe and in the 17th Century it finally reached the small Scandinavian country of Sweden.
Nowadays the people of Sweden are mad for their coffee. They are the world's sixth most caffeinated country with a whopping average of 18 pounds of coffee being drunk per person each year in Sweden. It seems like everyone in Sweden has been mad for coffee ever since it first arrived, well almost everyone that is.
You see, as world trade opened up and coffee was growing in popularity there was one Swedish King who utterly detested the rich, dark electrifying brew. The kings name was Adolf Frederick and he believed that coffee, when drunk by the common man, made people behave terribly. He didn’t outright ban the drink initially, but in 1756 he did try to price the commoner out of the market by imposing impossibly heavy taxes on any coffee imports. Even worse than this, he also instituted a consumption tax meaning that anyone caught drinking coffee without having paid their tax to drink it, would be punished by, wait for it, having their cups and saucers confiscated.
Not content to stop there, later that same year the king banned coffee altogether. He decreed that coffee was un-Swedish and implored his people to rather consume other more civilised drinks. The problem was that the upper classes, as they are sometimes wont to do, chose to flout the rules and keep on drinking coffee anyway. A black market had sprung up and with it came a flourishing coffee bootlegging trade that made sure that anyone with enough money could go on enjoying their coffee just the same as before.
The ban went on for years and on the 12th of February 1771, King Adolf Frederick died. Now, if you’ve been following this show for a while you’ll know that i’m fascinated by the strange variety and the sheer amount of food people used to consume. Well in my research of King Adolf Frederick I came upon this stunning nugget of information surrounding his death. Here’s what it says:
“Adolf Frederick died in Stockholm, after having consumed a meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, kippers and champagne,”
Now that’s already a lot, but we haven’t even reached dessert yet. Here we go:
“This meal was topped off with 14 servings of his favourite dessert: a plain bread bun served in a bowl of hot milk.”
I think it’s safe to say that, on this evidence, he really wasn’t the right guy to be making the call about what people should or shouldn’t be consuming.
After his death his son Gustav the Third came to power and, having lived with his father all his life, shared his disgust for coffee. He was convinced that coffee had a variety of negative effects on one’s health and was so against it in fact, that he decided he would perform a scientific experiment to prove once and for all, just how dangerous coffee really was.
In the time of Gustav the Third there wasn’t really any sort of ethics board, and so he decided that he would perform his experiment on a couple of human subjects. Specifically he had called for two convicted murderers to be the so called guinea pigs for his test. He chose to perform a control test of sorts, and if either of the men survived the experiment they would have their death sentences reduced to merely life in prison.
Knowing what we know about the brutality of medieval monarchs and their methods of experimenting on and torturing prisoners I’m sure you’re primed for yet another tale of horrific suffering at the hands of a mad king. Well brace yourself.
The two murderers were brought to a special part of the castle and locked in adjoining cells. Each day, three times a day they would have to endure the mad king's experimentation. So what was this terrible torture they had to undergo? Well one of the men was made to drink a cup of coffee at morning, noon and night, while the other man was made to drink tea.
Gustav laughed and laughed, in a maniacal way of course, assuming that soon the coffee drinking prisoner would go mad and die after being forced to drink coffee each and every day. But as each day passed neither of the men showed any ill effect from the liquid regimen they had been put under. The coffee drinker kept on living, and in a rather ironic twist of fate, ended up outliving Gustav himself. To be fair that wasn’t entirely in Gustavs control. In 1792 Gustav was brought a mysterious letter, written anonymously, telling him that should he attend the masked ball that evening at Stockholms Royal Opera House, he would be assasinated. Showing again his ability for critical thought he rejected the letter as nonsense and attended the ball anyway.
Just as the note had warned, at some point in the evening he was surrounded by masked men who shot him in the back. What they didn’t realise was that Gustav had never drunk coffee and so was impervious to both bullets and death. Well, that’s obviously not true, in fact, while he survived the initial shooting his wound became infected and he was dead within a few weeks.
It is widely regarded as having been his fellow noblemen who attacked him that night, opposing his ongoing campaign against their political privileges. He had wanted more power for himself and had begun the dangerous task of removing that power from the hands of the nobility leading to their unrest and ultimately his own death.
Not only did the two prisoners outlive their king, but in fact also ended up outliving the doctors who were appointed to oversee them, with one of them living to the ripe old age of 83.
The late King Gustav was not alone however in his hatred for coffee. The Prussian King Frederick the Great was also a believer in the ill effects of the dark beverage that was sweeping across the planet. He followed suit, first banning coffee altogether, but then taking it one step further in order to stop his people from creating a black market like the Swedes had. He banned coffee roasting altogether, and to enforce this new law he implemented a truly bizarre new form of law enforcement. He formed an entire regiment of what he called Street Sniffers whose sole job was to walk through the streets, stopping people so that they could smell their clothes for any hint of the pungent coffee aroma. In an almost laughable quote from his 1777 anti-coffee manifesto, King Frederick wrote the following:
“It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, everybody is drinking coffee….My people must drink beer.”
I’m sure there are a few people who would love to have lived under his rule with quotes like that one, but in hindsight, it is such an absurd notion especially when comparing the two for the sake of health and wellness.
9 years after this manifesto was written and coffee outlawed, King Frederick died on August 17, 1786 at his palace in Potsdam outside Berlin. After his death the ban on coffee was lifted and his people rejoiced. Despite this strangely specific form of control he imposed, he was remembered well as strong militaristic leader, and one who drew a special admiration from certain other strong military minds who also had ambitions at conquering all of Europe.
Napoleon Bonaparte, after defeating the Prussian army in battle in 1806, made a special trip to visit the tomb of the deceased king. Fast forward almost a century and a half and Hitler himself took special care in hiding the body of King Frederick in an abandoned salt mine so as to protect it during the allied bombings of World War II.
Coffee it seems has a rather polarising effect on people. Whether it’s kings banning it for personal or political reasons, or the common man waking up and starting his day over a good cup of coffee, it seems that no matter what coffee has been at the heart of everyday life since it hit the big time.
Next time, we’ll hear a story about a Middle Eastern Sultan who would dress up and cut off the heads of anyone he suspected of drinking the devils brew. We also take a look at patriot americans and their significant switch from tea to coffee.
So join me next time for more fantastic history of food (and drink).