The Coffee Trader

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The Coffee Trader
The Coffee Trader 1st ed cover.jpg
First edition cover
Author David Liss
Cover artist View Down a Corridor, by Hoogstraten
Country United States
Language English
Genre Historical novel
Published 2003 (Random House)
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 394pp
ISBN 978-0-8129-7032-6
OCLC 49531074

The Coffee Trader is an historical novel by David Liss, set in 17th century Amsterdam. The story revolves around the activities of commodity trader Miguel Lienzo, a Jew who is a refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition. Recovering from near financial ruin, he embarks on a coffee trading scheme with a Dutch woman; kept secret because it is forbidden by his community council. The scheme involves coffee, a new import to Europe. Miguel navigates the social structures of the Amsterdam business world, the politics of the council, and the plots of competitors.

The character of Miguel Lienzo is the uncle of Benjamin Weaver, the protagonist of Liss's first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper. This novel is set about thirty years earlier, but is not a prequel.

Plot summary[edit]

Miguel Lienzo is in financial trouble as a result of some trades in sugar that have gone disastrously wrong. He is being pursued by his creditors and is looking for a way out of his current problems. Fortunately for him, one of his friends, a Dutch widow called Geertruid, arranges a meeting, at which her right-hand man Hendrick is present, and tells him about a new commodity that she believes is about to take off – coffee. Miguel knows very little about it so she gives him a cup to drink and, after an initial reaction of distaste, Miguel actually starts to like it. Geertruid gives him some beans for his own personal use and he takes to grinding them and then mixing the powder with wine until he tastes the superior drink of coffee mixed with hot water.

He is currently living with his younger brother Daniel and his young wife, Hannah, who is pregnant. There is a rivalry between the two brothers, enhanced by Miguel's current difficulties, and he is living in the cellar of the house made continually damp from the floods. Hannah is a Catholic who was only informed of her Jewish origins on the day of her marriage. She is unhappy with her marital situation and her domestic affairs are made worse by her pretty Dutch maid, Annetje, who has a powerful hold over her as a result of secrets revealed to her by Hannah during the early stages of a friendship that has now soured. Hannah feels sympathy for Miguel's plight but is powerless to do anything as a formal distance has to be maintained with her more attractive and characterful brother-in-law.

Miguel tells Geertruid he needs to have time to think over the whole idea of coffee but finally agrees to consider its possibilities. Complicating matters for Miguel is a Dutchman named Joachim Waagenaar. Miguel invested five hundred guilders on his behalf in the same sugar trade and all the money was lost. Joachim is following him around Amsterdam in an attempt to get his money off Miguel, and his mental and physical condition is steadily deteriorating as a result of his financial plight. Miguel does his best to avoid his pursuer and believes his life is in danger when Joachim threatens to murder him. Another complication for Miguel is that the self-same Parido also is antagonistic towards him since he failed to marry his daughter, Antonia (Parido is a close friend of Daniel's and this arrangement was made to strengthen their commercial ties) after being caught in flagrante with the girl's maid. However, one day Parido comes over to Miguel on the trading floor and offers to forget their past animosities by helping Miguel sell some loss making brandy holdings to a Frenchman; Miguel does so only to see the price of brandy rise just before close of trading.

He is also helped to regain financial solvency even more by Alonzo Alferonda, another Portuguese Jew, whose family Miguel helped escape the Inquisition when he was a young boy, and who now secretly wants to assist his benefactor. Alferonda is also out to obtain revenge against Parido, a rich merchant and parnass on the Jewish Ma'amad, the local council that controls the affairs of Sephardic Jews living in exile in Amsterdam. Parido was angered by Alferonda's acting against his combination in a salt trade and managed to have him excommunicated from the Jewish faith for helping unwanted and poorer "Tudesco" (the Portuguese word for Ashkenazi) Jews arriving in Amsterdam broker their jewels to Portuguese merchants (any trading with gentiles was an official transgression). One day Alferonda advises him to buy whale oil in anticipation of a price rise based on some market manipulation by Parido's combination. It is whilst making a successful trade with Ricardo, a fat Jewish broker, that he is struck by a brilliantly simple an idea that revolves around creating a monopoly in the market. Currently, only small amounts of coffee bean are dealt in, and this primarily by the East India Company that controls the trade from its port in the city Batavia (present-day Jakarta). With Geertruid ardently backing he scheme, he starts to send out letters to various friends and agents in different countries and also arranges with a friend and broker called Isiah Nunes to arrange a shipment of ninety barrels of coffee to Amsterdam.

The action switches to Hannah who secretly attends a Catholic service with Annetje. As they are making their way back, she spots Geertruid talking to some Dutchmen and she comes up to Hannah and says that their chance meeting will remain a secret. Back in the house, Miguel has an argument with Daniel and later Hannah comes down to his basement and unintentionally reveals a lock of her hair which he finds incredibly sensual (it was forbidden for a Jewish woman to show this to a man other than her husband). He starts to receive positive letters back from his brokers and chases up Ricardo for his payment which is unforthcoming. He also encounters Joachim threatening Hannah and her maid and manages to lead him away. He returns to comfort Hannah and, over bowls of steaming coffee, she takes up the courage to flirt with him which pleases rather than offends. Things now start to heat up for Miguel – Nunes demands an upfront payment for the coffee delivery, Parido is warning him off the coffee trade and Daniel is asking for a return of his loan. In addition, he is summoned before the Ma'amad but manages to evade the charge of trading with gentiles – all he receives is a one-day excommunication called a cherem. Parido also approaches Alferonda to find out what he has planned with Miguel but his advances are spurned.

The head of a pig is left outside Daniel's front door which causes Hannah to faint and threatens the baby. Miguel informs his brother after a huge argument that he will have to choose between himself and Parido, and also learns that Daniel himself is in debt. He also talks intimately to Hannah and learns from her about the meeting with Geertruid Damhuis. Nunes informs him that there will be a delay with the shipment. As Miguel leaves the tavern, he encounters Joachim and pushes him violently to the ground – an offence for a Jew – but the latter does not press charges, recognising their former acquaintance. He also encounters some trickery in a tavern which leads him to conclude that Geertruid is in the service of Solomon Parido.

Joachim visits Miguel at his house and a plan is hatched with Alferonda for the day they wish to corner the coffee market. Miguel then asks Geertruid for 1,500 more guilders – having spent much of the first loan to cover his debts – and she is angered but finally acquieces. Joachim also informs Miguel that Nunes is in the pay of Parido and Miguel also learns from Annetje – who is now a whore – that she was paid by Geertruid to keep an eye on Miguel's comings and goings – in fact, she was instructed to say this by Alferonda who is in the next room. On returning home, he meets Hannah and they almost embrace but Miguel backs off, aware of the full consequences if they are discovered.

The day for purchasing the 90 barrels that Nunes secretly has delivered to Parido's warehouse finally comes about and Miguel is confident of beating Parido at his own game. There is a crucial moment when the price of coffee is falling and then set to rise but some Dutchmen start weighing in with their own bids and Miguel's puts. Now wealthy, Miguel purchases his own house and also claims the 2,000 guilders Daniel owes him on the whale-oil (he was the purchaser behind Ricardo). He is then able to offload his 90 barrels at a high price before his overseas agents start to sell coffee which lowers the price. Geertruid arrives at the exchange and is staggered to observe his actions and Miguel accuses her of deceiving and betraying him, but promises to return her 3,000 loan to cover the debts she now owes to the Iberian agents. Hannah deceives Daniel by informing him their baby is actually Miguel's and, along with his bankruptcy, he informs her he is leaving the city and will grant her a divorce. She goes to Miguel's house and she is taken in by him as his wife. Miguel also seeks out Geertruid, who he finds drunk one day in a pub, and she tells him she and Hendrick are the real Charming Pieter and his Goodwife Mary, a couple of renowned Dutch thieves, and informs him she is leaving Amsterdam. Hendrick turns up at Miguel's door and confirms he has beaten up Joachim according to Miguel's former instructions – given before their reconciliation – and demands his fifty guilders. Miguel is appalled but hands over the money and finds out that Joachim and his wife have fled Amsterdam fearing more retribution. Miguel and Hannah have a son, Samuel, and another boy whom he favours just as his father favoured him, and his prosperous future now lies securely in the coffee trade.

Sources[edit]

  • The Coffee Trader, David Liss, Random House, 2003