The Coffee Trader is a good book for you, a friend told me and sent me a second hand version by post. My friend was right. What a story about trade in 1659 Amsterdam, where cultures and religions vary and new ways of doing business occur in the markets. David Liss is a writer who knows the word research: he depicts the 17th century with many details of context and history. A great book!
The Coffee Trader tells about Miguel Lienzo, a Jew who lived in Portugal as a converso – a Jew converted to Catholicism – like many other Jews. However the conversos in Portugal were still facing discrimination and many had to fear for their life. So he flew to Amsterdam, at that time a safe haven for Jews. Jews in Amsterdam could practice their religion and be active in trade – although there were plenty of rules between Jews and non-Jews. That in itself is a story so interesting that it is worth to read the book for it. You’ll learn how different communities found a way to live together in a religiously and culturally divided city and have relative peace and justice; at that time, unique in Europe.
Also it is intriguing how converted Portuguese Jews rebuilt their ‘identity’ in Amsterdam. A well organised structure supported those who knew little or nothing about that identity. I particularly liked the description of a woman’s position, Miguel’s brother’s wife Hannah who was brought up in ignorance, thinking she was a Catholic and unable to read or write. In Amsterdam, she is suddenly a Jew, supposed to adhere to a religion and a people that she had learned to despice. She is not walking on that path automatically.
New for me was also the idea of a Mahamad, an 17th century authority in Amsterdam that dealt with all matters for Jews: religiously, politically and legally. Together with rich Portuguese tradesmen they supported the poor Jews, so that the Dutch in Amsterdam would not complain about a burden on their back that came with the Portuguese refugees. However, when tudescos, Jews from eastern countries like Poland arrive in Amsterdam, that attitude is less generous. Most of the tudescos are poor. Although they faced very severe persecution in eastern Europe, the Mahamad takes measures to make their life difficult in the hope that they will choose other destinations than Amsterdam. There are really surprising details about the historical context in The Coffee Trader – and by the way nothing that could not be seen today…
Miguel lives in an era where tradesmen can easily become very rich or the opposite: loose everything they have. This period in Holland is called the Golden Age and brought a lot of wealth but it was risky. Miguel lost almost everything in the trade of sugar and now wants to try his fortune in a brandnew product: coffee. He wants to acquire the monopoly over this new drink that he estimates to be very promising. His strategy is breathtaking. And so is his playing field. There are so much rumours and hidden agendas around the trade market of Amsterdam that the story is a dazzling experience for the reader. It is really difficult to remember all that’s happening or has been said or might be possible. And that was exactly the reality for tradesmen in 1659 Amsterdam. How can they make their daily decisions without an excellent memory and the right focus?!
Many ethical questions come with the way business was done amid rumours and hidden agendas. Intriguing is the fact that in the end, the hidden agendas Miguel expected were exagerated. Half of them can be interpreted as misunderstandings or even imagination. An interesting lesson learned – but still, when bankruptcy is around the corner for tradesmen who do not watch their backs in the all or nothing market of 1659 Amsterdam, maybe inevitable.
Even though The Coffee Trader appeared already in 2000, this book is of great interest also in 2020. In the light of history, these 20 years do not matter at all. Go read it if you love Amsterdam, if you love trade, if you love history, if you love Jews and the Dutch, if you love risk taking and of course: if you love coffee!
The Coffee Trader exists in Dutch under the title Handelaar in koffie.