In 1652, London’s first coffee house opened its doors. Historians have celebrated the vibrant coffee-house culture of the early modern period, and have argued that coffee houses offered a venue which made possible new kinds of political debate and participation in a developing public sphere. A slightly different companion story is, however, suggested in the nickname the first coffee house quickly gained amongst the local community: the Turk’s Head.The coffee shop was a joint venture between Pasqua Rosée, the Armenian servant of Daniel Edwards, and his master. Edwards was a trader in Turkish goods who imported the coffee and helped Rosée establish his premises in Cornhill. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, the link between coffee and Islam became firmly rooted in the popular imagination. As Nabil Matar points out: ‘Nearly half the surviving coffee-house tokens from the Restoration period carry the sign of a Turk’s head, particularly the face of the Sultan “Amorat” (Murad)’ (115).
In The London Spy (1703), Ned Ward described coffee as a ‘Mahometan gruel’, whilst in 1665 an anonymous description of The Character of a Coffee-House insisted on its title-page that ‘When Coffee once was vended here, / The Alc’ron shortly did appear’. Another anonymous writer launched A Broadside against Coffee: or, The Marriage of the Turk in 1672.
Recognising the foreign roots of this increasingly popular drink, English writers worried that the potency of the fashionable beverage might cause imbibers to ‘turn Turk’, or become muslims. This was a surprisingly common fear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as Matar has shown, fuelled by stories of Englishmen prospering as muslims. Stories of conversion and compulsion persisted, despite the fact that Islam was much more tolerant of other religions than were the Christian churches and that the Qur’an accords a special place to the two other religions of the book: Christianity and Judaism.
Coffee might affect body and soul together: changing the complexion to a swarthier hue and, as ‘an ugly Turkish enchantress’, putting the drinker under the ‘spell’ of another religion (The city-wifes petition against coffee (1700)). In 1663, the writer of a broadsheet description of A Cup of Coffee: or Coffee in its Colours complained:
For Men and Christians to turn Turks, and think
T’excuse the Crime because ’tis in their drink,
Is more then Magick, and does plainly tell
Coffee’s extraction has its heats from hell.
The complaint at coffee and its apostasizing effects seems to have had numerous causes: a patriotic attempt to keep native industries alive by persuading Englishmen to keep drinking the more traditional ale and beer; a fear of the very real military might of the Ottoman Empire; and a way to explain the physical effects of coffee (argued by some to be an aphrodisiac, whilst others complained it turned English husbands into ‘Eunuchs’).
What the connection between coffee and conversion helps us to understand is the way in which physical and spiritual effects were understood to be interlinked (to drink a foreign drink was to incorporate — very literally — the customs and beliefs of a foreign culture), and to see the ways in which fears around religious difference could become a commonplace of society and culture, at odds with the particular experiences of those English men and women who did visit the Ottoman Empire, and even, on occasion, chose to embrace a new faith.
More than that, it demonstrates the fact, still pertinent today, that military conflicts or tensions could be explained as products of religious difference instead of political and social circumstance, allowing the natives of one country to demonise and dismiss those of another without trying to understand the politics and history of the divides they perpetuated.
To find out more about early modern coffee houses, see Antony Wild’s Coffee: A Dark History and Mark Pendergrast’s Uncommon Grounds: the History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World. The idea of the public sphere was influentially laid out by Jurgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. This post draws heavily on Nabil Matar’s fantastic study of Islam in Britain, 1558-1685.