Coffee drinking under siege: A not so cozy history (Part 2)

By Perry Luckett, CoffeeMan1

Welcome to part two of our series on historical coffee bans. Last time, I discussed Sultan Khair Beg of Mecca and Pope Clement VII of Italy.  Today’s post covers bans by two rulers who feared the effects of allowing coffee drinkers to congregate in coffeehouses and plot against them. Although both had similar reasons for banning public drinking of coffee, they established very different levels of punishment for those who ignored the bans.

Murad IV in Istanbul —You could lose your head over coffee

Murad IV became Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1618 when he was only 11 years old. As a result, he spent the first five years of his reign under stewardship of his mother, who was affiliated with the Grand Viziers. These Viziers condemned coffee drinking as an inspiration for “indecent behavior” and claimed coffee would “dry up the cerebrospinal fluid” and paralyze drinkers.

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A more important objection came from the Grand Vizier who visited a cozy Istanbul coffeehouse and returned with a grim warning about the dangers lurking there. Steward Lee Allen, author of The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, claimed this fellow “observed that the people drinking alcohol would just get drunk and sing and be jolly, whereas the people drinking coffee remained sober and plotted against the government.” Believing coffeehouses harbored people who planned sedition and uprisings, Murad IV saw them as a real threat to his rule and the Ottoman Empire.

When Murad IV claimed the Ottoman throne in 1623, at age 16, he quickly forbade public coffee drinking in the cozy coffee houses of Constantinople. Just to be safe, he included alcohol and tobacco in his ban and ordered execution for breaking it. More bizarrely, he reportedly patrolled the city’s streets and lowest taverns in civilian clothes at night, enforcing his command by casting off his disguise on the spot and beheading the offender with his 100-pound broadsword.

As a result, Murad gained the reputation of a ruler who put an end to the lawlessness and rebelliousness of the Empire and restored order. Of course, one person’s “order” is another’s repression and murder, but when it came to the influence of our evil elixir, a boy Sultan couldn’t be too careful.

After Murad IV died in 1640, his successor—brother Ibrahim—maintained the prohibition against coffee drinking in public for several years. In 1656, during the war with Candia, and for largely political reasons, Grand Vizier Kuprili closed the coffee houses and prohibited coffee again. This time, the prohibition was enforced. For the first violation the punishment was a beating. But those caught in a second offense were sewn into a leather bag and thrown into the Bosporus river to drown—a severe case of ““a word to the wise is enough.”

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You probably won’t be surprised to hear that, despite these severe penalties, the citizens of Constantinople were still unwilling to give up their addiction for strong morning and evening jolts of java. As it happens, so were the rulers who made the laws. Murad IV himself drank coffee and alcohol daily in the palace. In fact, he drank so much alcohol that he died of cirrhosis of the liver at 27 years of age. But remember, his bans covered only public drinking of coffee and alcohol to protect against possible subversion, so nothing kept people from enjoying it in their homes.

England—women and coffee banned from coffeehouses

When coffee started arriving in England in the 1660s, the coffeehouses that served it quickly became cozy go-to places for political conversation, socializing, and roughhousing. Go-to for men, that is, because women were banned by paternalistic laws from congregating in public houses.

Detractors from the coffee craze came out of the woodwork, possibly encouraged by London’s competing distillers and pub owners, who lamented their loss of business. Some associated coffee drinking with the “godless Turks” who brought coffee over from Constantinople. A 1663 broadside entitled A Cup of Coffee: or, Coffee in its Colours, derided those who had turned into Turks by drinking coffee. These “Pure English Apes,” the author charged, “might learn to eat Spiders."

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In 1674, “The Women’s Petition Against Coffee” circulated in England, perhaps as a kind of revenge for their having been banned from drinking it in public. The petition blamed coffee consumption for sexual impotence in men, which the women called “the grand inconveniences accruing to their sex from the excessive use of that drying, enfeebling liquor.” Wives argued their husbands were forever absent from the home and family, neglecting their domestic duties—“turning Turk,” and all for “a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water.” There’s no evidence this petition had much effect, however. By 1675, more than 3,000 coffeehouses had spread throughout England.

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Impotence may have been a concern to the women, but the proliferation of coffeehouses in England posed a more serious threat to the monarchy—again because of their reputation for harboring deep religious and political discussions. Polite conversation led to reasoned and sober debate on matters of politics, science, literature and poetry, commerce and religion—so much so that London coffeehouses became known as “penny universities” because that was what a cup of coffee cost. Also, anyone of any social class could frequent them, so they became associated with equality and republicanism.

“What’s wrong with that?” you might say. Well, too often these conversations weren’t favorable to King Charles II, and we’ve seen what happens when rulers think people are plotting against them. So Charles issued a proclamation in 1675 titled “For the Suppression of Coffee-Houses” to ban coffeehouses and to forbid people from selling coffee, chocolate, sherbet, and tea from any shop or house. “Leave well enough alone Charles,” we might have counseled him, and indeed his proclamation created such a howl against the monarchy that he had to withdraw it a short time later.

This withdrawal didn’t quell the criticism of coffee and coffeehouses from some circles, though. Unless they were prostitutes, women continued to be excluded from coffee houses and made their resentment known. In a 1696 “Essay in Defence of the Female Sex,” an indignant Mary Astell wrote: “A coffee house habitué is someone who lodges at home, but he lives at the coffee-house. He converses more with newspapers, gazettes and votes, than with his shop-books, and his constant application to the publick takes him off all care for his private home. He is always settling the nation, yet cou’d never manage his own family.” Do you think some folks at Starbucks or other local coffee shops can feel their ears burning now?

Attacks on coffee continued well into the 18th century and beyond: in Sweden and Prussia. I’ll cover them in Part 3 of this blog post, so stay tuned and keep your java cozy with Koffee Kompanions’ great Thinsulate™-insulated products. They keep coffee and tea hot and flavorful, cold drinks cold, and ice cream pints from melting too quickly!

References for Constantinople and Murad IV

  • Marea Harris, “Dangerous Brew: Coffee Drinkers Lost their Heads under this Sultan’s Rule,” August 17, 2018.

  •, “Murad IV”

  • Steward Lee Allen, The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee. NY: Soho Press, 1999.

References for London and England

Perry LuckettComment