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<   No. 3401   2015-07-05   >

Comic #3401

1 Mordekai: There's a library in the great city of Rivendeep. Reputed to be the largest in the known world.
2 Kyros: Excellent choice. We'll either find the tome I seek, or someone who can tell us where it is.
3 Lambert: Or someone who can tell us where someone who can tell us where it is is.
4 Kyros: So which way to Rivendeep?
4 Mordekai: No idea.

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I am myself currently reading a hefty tome about a great city: London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd. I bought it some time ago because I've slowly grown more interested in history over the years, and I've been following Ackroyd's History of England series (three volumes so far: Foundation, Tudors, and Civil War*) and enjoy his writing style. The book about London is not exactly a history, in that it isn't laid out in chronological sequence. Rather, the chapters deal with themes, each of which is explored in the context of London throughout the ages. For example, there are chapters on the sounds of London, the rivers of London, the crime of London, the children of London, and so on.

One chapter is about eating and drinking establishments of London, and this contains much fascinating information about one particular type of establishment which has had a surprisingly large influence on history. The story begins, however, not in London, but in north Africa and the Middle East.

Depending which history you read, some time from the 12th to the 15th century Arab traders brought a plant from the highlands of Ethiopia to the southern end of the Arabian peninsula and began cultivating it locally in the region now known as Yemen. Certainly by the 15th century, Sufi practitioners were collecting the seeds of these plants, roasting them, and using them to brew a drink for use in religious ceremonies. The plant was Coffea arabica, and the drink was coffee.

Coffee berries
Coffee berries, on the plant. Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial image, by David Amsler.

By the early 16th century, the drink had become popular and was consumed socially as well as for religious purposes. It spread northwards, reaching Mecca, where a new form of mercantile institution opened up. Traders brewed coffee and provided a room for people to drink it and socialise, creating the first coffeehouses. In this atmosphere of convivial socialisation, conversations quickly began to turn political - so much so that conservative imams issued a ban on both coffeehouses and the drinking of coffee for Muslims. This didn't last long though, and soon coffeehouses were spreading across the Muslim sphere of influence, quickly reaching Syria, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire (of what is now Turkey).

At this time, the city of Venice was a strong naval merchant power, sending trading ships to all corners of the known world. They made contact with the Ottoman Empire and brought coffee back to Venice. At first there was some resistance to this strange foreign brew, with many seeing it as a "Muslim drink" (somewhat ironically given the earlier conservative Muslim attempts to ban it). But in a story which may perhaps be apocryphal, in 1600 church officials begged Pope Clement VIII to issue a religious ban on coffee, calling it a "bitter drink of Satan". Clement, however, tasted his first coffee and was so delighted that he (allegedly) declared: "This devil's drink is so delicious... we should cheat the devil by baptising it!" Regardless of the truth of the details, Clement declared coffee a "Christian drink", thus ensuring its widespread adoption across Europe.

By the mid-17th century, coffeehouses were springing up all over the continent, and by 1652 they had arrived in England. The Queen's Lane Coffee House was opened in 1654 in Oxford, and still exists today. By the 1670s there were thousands of coffeehouses across England. But it was not smooth sailing and expansion by any means.

17th century English coffeehouse
Queen's Lane Coffee House, Oxford. (the pale building on the corner) Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial image, by Flickr user dave_in_lincolnshire.

In 1657, the Rainbow coffee house in London's Fleet Street was prosecuted by authorities for being "a great nuisance and prejudice to the neighbourhood", with complainants concerned about "evil smells" and the danger of fire. In the 1660s and 70s, the social aspects of coffeehouses began to worry authorities in much the same vein as occurred in Mecca. People gathered in these places began arguing about matters political and religious. This so alarmed the king, Charles II, that he also attempted to ban coffeehouses. This crusade against coffee was joined by a proportion of the female population, who were themselves banned from the all-male domain of the coffeehouses. A group known as the Women's Petition Against Coffee issued a declaration that the heathen coffee was robbing their menfolk of their virile powers.

Despite all this, the coffeehouses flourished. Besides coffee, they were places for social indulgence in tobacco. One can imagine the dank, dark rooms, choked with the strong fumes of coffee and tobacco, as well as the smoke of greasy lamps or candles attempting to beat their way through the gloom. The wooden furniture would be stained, and there would be a hubbub of noisy conversation mixed with the scrape of chairs against dirty wooden floors. But despite all this, they were insanely popular, and the men who gathered there found them a natural place to discuss not just politics and religion, but also business.

17th century English coffeehouse
English coffeehouse in 17th century. Public domain image, from Wikimedia Commons.

In this period of history, it was common for lawyers to meet clients at a coffeehouse. The burgeoning trade of the British Empire led also to the profession of buying shares in mercantile enterprises and in cargoes on speculation. These shares, or "stocks" as they were called, could themselves then be traded, at various prices set by the interactions of supply and demand, as well as news of the success or otherwise of the ventures in question. The people who carried out these abstract transactions became known as stockbrokers, and they met their clients to conduct business in the coffeehouses too.

By the late 18th century, this practice of dealing in stocks was becoming too difficult to carry out amidst the clamour of a regular coffeehouse. One of the primary coffeehouses for the conducting of stockbroking was known as Jonathan's Coffee-House in Change Alley. Rather than continue the business here, the stockbrokers retired to a nearby new establishment which they named New Jonathan's. But in 1773, they changed the name of New Jonathan's to The Stock Exchange. This was the establishment of what would become the London Stock Exchange.

But that's not all of the major financial institutions that the London coffeehouses gave birth to. In roughly 1688, Edward Lloyd opened a coffeehouse on Tower Street, named Lloyd's Coffee House. Rather than lawyers or stockbrokers, this establishment attracted merchants, ship owners, and sailors. Lloyd encouraged their patronage by collating and disseminating shipping news. In particular, Lloyd was interested in news and dealings regarding the then-thriving African slave trade. He had a keen head for business and knew that reliable information on shipping and weather would be valuable for his customers, so collected and collated the most accurate information available.

This vast information resource led to Lloyd being able to offer insurance to his customers, based on his canny assessments of the risks, as well as the legal principles in establishing the causes of any misfortunes at sea. Before long, Lloyd had established a virtual monopoly on insurance of the shipping involved in the slave trade. In 1691, the coffeehouse moved to a new location in Lombard Street. Lloyd himself died in 1713, but his successors continued to offer insurance to merchants and by the 1730s began to dominate all aspects of shipping insurance.

The discussion and arrangement of maritime insurance between interested parties continued to be held in the new Lloyd's Coffee House premises until 1774, when they moved to the Royal Exchange. The Lloyd's name followed them though, as an umbrella term for the conflux of insurers and merchants. Eventually, in 1871 the British Government passed the Lloyd's Act, which gave the institution now known as Lloyd's of London the authority to acquire property, to make by-laws, and to prosecute anyone underwriting insurance in the name of Lloyd's without proper authority.

Lloyd's building
Lloyd's building, London. Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike image, by Robin Baumgarten.

And so to the present day, Lloyd's of London is not a single insurer, but a partly mutualised marketplace of insurers, who come together to pool and thus spread the risk associated with underwriting insurance policies. This gives it the ability to insure things which no single insurance company would dare risk, making it possibly the best known name in insurance on a global scale.

And it all began with a humble plant native to the mountains of Ethiopia.


Note: This annotation was actually inspired by reader Doug A., who requested an essay on this topic as part of his Patreon supporter reward. If you'd like me to write an extended annotation on any topic you care to name, or if you just want to show some support for the comics and other creative work I share, please consider becoming a patron.

* For the US market, this volume has been renamed as "Rebellion". Presumably because "Civil War" has a much stronger meaning to most Americans, different to the English Civil War.

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