William Cadbury, Chocolate, and Slavery in Portuguese West Africa

le-cacaoBy the 1870s, as demand for coffee and cocoa from West Africa was rapidly increasing, Portugal abolished slavery in its colonies.  But demand for labor continued to increase.  Plantation owners and government officials developed a state-supported system of contract labor, by which the people of West Africa would sign contracts to provide five years of labor for a set wage.  Workers were allegedly free to return to their homes at the end of their contracts if they chose, but among those who were sent to the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe (around 4,000 people per year by the turn of the century), no one ever returned.

The cocoa tree was introduced to West Africa from Central America by Europeans in the 1820s.  Because of the lack of infrastructure in São Tomé and Príncipe, cocoa bean exports did not take off until the 1880s.  With the end of slavery, contract laborers were brought to the islands from Angola in large numbers.  Humanitarian conditions for the contract laborers worsened from the 1870s onward.  By the early 1900s, between 20,000-40,000 slaves worked on about 230 plantations on São Tomé and 3,000 slaves labored on 50 plantations on Príncipe.  The death rate was estimated at 20% per year.  Children born on the estates were considered absolute property of the plantation owners.  While the workers were paid regularly, with 40% of their wages to be held back in a repatriation fund (which apparently did not actually exist for most plantations), workers were made to spend their wages at plantation stores.

Cadbury Brothers began importing cocoa beans from São Tomé in 1886.  John Cadbury had opened a tea and coffee shop in Birmingham in 1824.  In 1861, his sons Richard and George took over the business, which by that point had become a chocolate company.  Guided by Quaker principles, they created Bournville, a model village for the company’s employees to live and work.  After Richard’s death in 1899, Cadbury Brothers came under the chairmanship of George, while the next generation of sons – Barrow, William, Edward, and George Jr. – split responsibilities over various aspects of the company.

By the turn of the century, the chocolate business in Britain was dominated by three Quaker-owned companies – Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree.  São Tomé and Príncipe had become the world’s third largest exporter of cocoa beans (after Ecuador and Brazil), and Cadbury Brothers imported about 55% of its cocoa from the islands.  This made up about 20% of the total cocoa bean exports of São Tomé and Príncipe.  The British companies purchased the most significant quantities of cocoa beans from the islands, while European and American companies imported smaller amounts.

In 1901, William Cadbury came across an advertisement for the sale of a São Tomé plantation.  Included in the sale were the plantation laborers, indicating that the workers themselves were considered property. This coincided with rumors he had heard about slave labor in Angola, São Tomé, and Príncipe.  By this time, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines Protection Society (both organizations associated with Quakers) began to regularly condemn slave labor practices in Portuguese West Africa.  William Cadbury was commissioned by the board of Cadbury Brothers to investigate labor conditions on the plantations from which they purchased their cocoa beans.  He traveled to Lisbon, where most of the owners of the São Tomé and Príncipe plantations resided.  There he was assured that new labor regulations to be enacted on 29 January 1903 would ensure better conditions and repatriation for workers in the islands.

Investigative journalist Henry Nevinson traveled to Angola and São Tomé in 1905 to study labor conditions in Portuguese West Africa.  His resulting articles and photographs were published in Harper’s magazine from August 1905 to February 1906, and were compiled as a book, A Modern Slavery, which was published in 1906.  At the same time, after some delay, William Cadbury had commissioned Joseph Burtt to himself investigate the conditions on the plantations.  Burtt was a Quaker with no previous connections to the chocolate business who Cadbury hoped the Portuguese might consider unbiased.  Burtt spent a total of two years traveling, including six months in São Tomé and Príncipe.  His report was made available to the British public in October 1908.  The British Foreign Office also commissioned its own report.

Meanwhile, calls from Quaker humanitarians for their fellow Quaker business-owners to boycott Portuguese West African cocoa increased.  William Cadbury again traveled to Lisbon in late 1907 to meet with plantation owners.  With the horrifying reports of labor conditions, Cadbury asserted that for the company to continue to purchase cocoa from São Tomé and Príncipe it must be assured “that in the future it is to be produced by free labour.”

However, any potential for a boycott by British companies was deterred by political upheaval in Portugal.  On 1 February 1908, King Carlos I and his heir Luís Felipe were assassinated by revolutionaries, and Prime Minister João Franco was forced from office.

By 1908, William Cadbury had located an alternative source for cocoa supplies, so that Cadbury Brothers could maintain their chocolate production while sustaining a boycott on the Portuguese colonies.  The Gold Coast was determined to have better labor conditions and a higher quality cocoa product.  On 19 March 1909, Cadbury announced a boycott on slave-grown cocoa from São Tomé and Príncipe.  He convinced other British and American chocolate companies to join him.

At the same time, articles began to appear in various newspapers, including the Evening Standard, accusing Cadbury of exploiting slave labor for its own profit.  Cadbury Brothers managed to win a libel case against the Evening Standard, and William Cadbury wrote a book, Labour in Portuguese West Africa, outlining the main issues that emerged in the court case as he asserted that Cadbury Brothers were active in attempting to prevent forced labor rather than culpable in the practice.

Problems with labor exploitation in the cocoa industry persist to this day – particularly with child labor in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which together currently produce about 60% of the world’s cocoa.

Selected Readings:

  • Kevin Grant, A Civilized Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884-1926 (New York: Routledge, 2005)
  • Catherine Higgs, Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012)
  • Lowell J. Satre, Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005)
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