Den andra delen av tre i bloggens serie av (påtvingat) engelskspråkiga essäer om udda fenomen under det glada 1700-talet, ursprungligen skrivna för första numret av Vogue Scandinavia.
Scandi Noir or How Sweden Tried to Ban Coffee
My books deals with an strange interim period of Swedish history. Let’s recap: In the year 1792, king Gustav III went to the opera to attend a masked ball. He was a man of courage and intelligence, having consolidated his power to reign supreme like no other Swedish monarch since Charles XII. His path, sadly, led him over the corpses of every lofty Enlightenment ideal that he had harbored at his ascent to the throne, accomplished through a bloodless coup d’etat two decades past. By the 1790’s, he had grown increasingly paranoid, fearing the influence of the French Revolution on the populace and on the rising merchant class. His draconian reforms strove to appease these threatening elements by disenfranchising the men of yesterday, namely the nobility. Alas, they were the ones with gunpowder, treason and plot; they armed a scape-goat, killed the king and pretty much got away with it. Among the veiled faces of March 16th, 1792, the assassin waited, drew close and discharged his gun at the king at point-blank range, lodging a fistful of nails and scrap iron in the small of his back. King Gustav lingered for a fortnight until he succumbed to sepsis. The only child of his unhappy marriage was only thirteen years of age, and while being crowned nominal king, power fell to others, for the realm to be kept safe until his eighteenth birthday, in 1796.
Cue baron Gustav Adolf Reuterholm, the unlikely man of the hour, a nobleman of Finnish descent (Finland being a part of Sweden at this time, as you will remember). Vain, shrewd, a ruthless manipulator, and with an axe to grind. As a youth, Gustav Adolf saw his father Esbjörn briefly imprisoned as an opponent to Gustav III, and in the following weeks succumbing to an ailment for which the son would henceforth blame the conditions in the jailhouse. Now, Gustav Adolf Reuterholm would have his vengeance, no less sweet from being served cold. For the five years of the regency, he would do all in his might do sully the memory of the fallen monarch, and to ruin all those who still felt loyalty to the dead. His vision turned out to be a less than ideal basis for the government of a kingdom. What followed was an erratic period of fiscal and political incompetence, infamous among the few who choose to recall it at all.
In the year 1794, Reuterholm decided to ban coffee. On the surface, this was not as unreasonable as it may seem: The mercantilist doctrine of the age decreed that expensive foreign goods were a thing of evil, leeching the kingdom of its currency. The real reason was rather more personal. Ever since the divine bean was first introduced to Sweden at the turn of the century, it had been love at first taste – to this day, Sweden remains second only to Finland when it comes to consumption per capita (and not to seem like a sore loser, but again, Finland was Swedish at this time). To accommodate the swelling crowd of coffee-drinkers, a new breed of establishments popped up all over Stockholm: the coffee-houses. These became fora of public opinion and gossip, and here like no place before, the classes would intermingle. Ideas would spread quickly across hitherto well-guarded social borders. As famine and inflation fanned the flames of discontent with the Reuterholm regime, his person was ridiculed over cups of steaming black liquid. Vain little Reuterholm would not sit on his hands while this slander grew ever courser, poking fun at his pompousness and affection for handsome courtiers; legislation was rushed into place. For good measure, clothes of strong color were also outlawed. The prevalence of gray on the streets of Stockholm quickly lead to a popular term for the time being coined – the Iron Age.
There are many surviving descriptions of how the ban on coffee was celebrated by the stricken. Odes and poems in the style of epitaphs were written and delivered to those in mourning. Symbolic burials were held, where beautiful porcelain coffee sets were lowered into newly-dug graves. As has ever been the case throughout history, the ban gave rise to a black market, and those willing to run the risk could continue drinking coffee at, naturally, a steeper price. Certain establishments continued to offer coffee in secluded quarters, the main problem being the distinct aroma. In order to mask the smell of brewing coffee, strips of linen would be set afire over the pots, these in themselves soon being identified by the city corps the garde as a sign of ongoing crime. One imagines uniformed soldiers at the sniff, following trails through the alleys like bipedal bloodhounds, accentuating the absurdity of Reuterholm’s despotism with every flare of the nostril.
By the end of the 18th century, Sweden had not been a power of note on the European stage for a long time. To be sent to the court of Sweden as a diplomat was not regarded as a reward, to say the least. Punishment rather. Swedes were boorish and provincial, especially now that the francophile former king and his lofty cultural ambitions were fading into memory. Stockholm was a reeking cesspool, a city grown too big too fast, and too far north to ever be gifted proper sewers by Roman engineering, a place where one could hardly balance one’s precarious way through the gutters without risking a sudden shower of night soil flung from some window overhead. And let’s not get started on the climate; eight months of winter, four of mosquitoes. At least there was coffee for comfort. Up until now, that is.
The diplomatic corps had their own club, located at what is today known as Gustav Adolfs Torg in Stockholm. Here, the exiled ministers established an outpost of civilization. They secured the services of able chefs, they had a library complete with newspapers as up-to-date as communications would allow, comfortable seating, a roaring fire. Most of all it was a room of their own, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, a salon where exiled men of the world could socialize freely, and bring expatriate guests to converse at their leisure. What jurisdiction governed the club was unclear: All diplomats enjoyed certain universal rights, and maintained their independence to the Swedish crown. Regardless, they had no intention of quitting coffee in their privacy just because some ridiculous bureaucrat told them to. After three months of illicit coffee drinking at the diplomatic club, the insubordination came to the attention of the court, and of Reuterholm in particular. He was not amused.
The Swedish language has bestowed the lingua franca of the world with the terms smorgasbord and ombudsman. Sadly overlooked is arga lappen, “the angry note”, a time-honored tradition in our famously shy culture where open conflict is avoided at all cost. In modern times, this phenomenon would most often be observed in the shared spaces of communal living, where one party would leave a written note outlining various grievances, failure to empty the tumble-dryer of residual lint being a textbook example. The passive-aggressive, officious prose and the quasi-anonymity of the writer will insure a similarly snarky reply in the same medium, and what could easily have been resolved on a person-to-person basis will slowly but surely escalate into a bitter feud which can simmer for years. Something similar happened in Stockholm in the winter of 1794, albeit with more dramatic results. A very formal complaint was lodged with the diplomatic club and signed by the chancellor of the realm, who left no doubt about the fact that said club in no way, shape or form enjoyed any higher status than any common pub or boarding-house as far as the crown was concerned, and that all imbibing of coffee must therefore cease forthwith.
The diplomats felt ill treated over a negligible matter of principle. They answered in kind, after which, in perhaps the most generous concession they could make, they maintained an injured silence, hoping that someone with more wits than the chancellor would see the affair for the political nightmare it could easily grow into. They must have gotten their hopes up when they received a joint summons to the Palace concerning an unnamed but vital issue – important business was afoot, perhaps news of the war on France, let’s let bygones be bygones in the light of greater duties, etc. No such luck. It was all about coffee. On Reuterholm’s orders, the chancellor let loose one verbal broadside after the other upon the gathered diplomats – and I quote from a contemporary diary – “as if they were schoolboys overdue for chastisement”. The diplomats were ordered to apologize formally. Right this minute. What had been an issue concerning choice of beverage quickly became a question of honor.
Among the diplomats present was the 24-year old Briton Lord Henry Spencer, out of whose family tree would later spring branches bearing such names as Winston Churchill and princess Diana. Of all those whose feelings were hurt that day, his may have stung the most, born as he was just a brother’s-width from the dukedom of Marlborough. Spencer declared that an apology was the last thing on his mind, and that he believed that he spoke for his colleagues as well, any slight upon whom is also to be taken as a slight upon their sovereigns. With Reuterholm’s mandate, the chancellor haughtily stated that until such time as a formal apology was issued, neither he nor any other representative of Sweden would have anything to do with the diplomatic corps.
Little did the baron Reuterholm know that this ultimatum was kind of the antithesis of the Trojan horse; not a gift revealed to be a trap, but rather a threat revealed to be a gift. The long-suffering diplomats had just been presented with their golden tickets out of dreary Sweden, hopefully never again to darken its borders. One after the other, they left. With their absence, Sweden’s foreign relations ground to a halt. This would not have been quite as disastrous if the current regime had not deepened the holes that king Gustav had dug in the state coffers, and that the foreign subsidies – money granted from brother nations in order to cement all kinds of alliances, trade- or otherwise – were all that kept Sweden from destitution.
Yet Reuterholm came to that most human of conclusions; that pride is a treasure beyond measure. One route remained, and one only. There was but one single actor on the world stage left to turn to, one that had quite a lot of funds to dispose of, since the landed gentry had recently donated all their assets to the state in such a hurry they even forgot their own heads in the Place de la Concorde. It just so happened that Sweden even had something to trade, something we could afford: Legitimacy. Thus, after swift and desperate negotiation, Sweden became the first sovereign nation to publicly acknowledge the French Republic. Knowing France as we do today, this may not seem that radical, but in the wake of the French Revolution and in the years immediately following the Reign of Terror, republican France was an abomination, a perverse affront to the laws of God and men, the scum of the earth, striking terror into the heart of European monarchy still mired in feudalism. The outcry that followed was tantamount to Stefan Löfven coming out and endorsing the storming of the Capitol in exchange for lavish crowdfunding among the Qanon fanbase.
You’re surely thinking it by now, and yes, it is the honest truth. I will write it for all to see: If it wasn’t for the Scandinavian love of coffee, France would not exist today. Let that soothe your rage when next your order goes ignored by Parisian waiters.
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