In the early eighteenth century before the rise of colonial coffee cultivation, Yemen sat at the center of an increasingly caffeinated world. Merchants from India, the Persian Gulf, and Europe flocked to its shores in order to procure coffee beans and many other goods, both local and imported. This paper explores the lavish ceremonial receptions that were staged yearly to welcome crews at the Red Sea port of Mocha, a key hub of the western Indian Ocean trade. While previous scholars have generally perceived these practices as inconsequential to commercial life because of their seemingly non-transactional character, I contend that they were key rites of commercial initiation and essential stages within the extended processes of trade (rather than external to them). Moreover, the goods that appeared in these ceremonial rites were not mere commodities or simple status symbols, rather they derived their significance and value from their place within a complex local system of commercial privilege.
Nancy Um is Associate Professor of Art History at Binghamton University.