Cadbury and Slave Labor: A Different Perspective

At a time when chocolate consumption had just begin to be an activity of the masses, the morality of both labor practices and production process became to be questioned. Slavery and chocolate has long had ties since the beginning of the formal cultivation of cacao as a cash crop, however with the banning of the slave trade in 1833, these ties were meant to be formally cut.[1]  The leaders of this movement were the British, who are often touted as the empire that profited most on slave labor, particularly in the British West Indies.  In this incident, a journalist named Robert Nevinson launched his own investigation into questionable labor practices happening off the coast of Africa.  Cadbury Company in 1904 William Cadbury sent Joseph Burtt to the small coastal islands of Sao Tome and Principe, launching his own investigation into the morality of the labor practices taking placeThis investigation derived from his “Quaker beliefs” of “the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth.”[2]  While today it is easy to demonize William Cadbury as a hypocrite given the findings of the investigation, it is also important to note that while slavery was considered illegal, it was still a very real problem in certain parts of Africa.  In this post, I seek to understand more deeply where the demand for this slavery comes from while also comparing it with the sentiment from Cadbury’s accusers.  While it is easy to blame Cadbury as the sole agent of this wider issue of slave labor, I would argue that from an economic standpoint, the demand for the chocolate commodity comes from the consumer, not the producer.  Blaming Cadbury himself, as many of the newspapers did, gives an individual too much agency and undermines the true issue here; through attacks on his personal beliefs, the newspapers, Nevinson and by extension the public, overlook the true holders of this indifference toward racism, the consumers. [3]


(Knapp 102)

Cadbury often marketed itself as a British brand, with the iconic purple color of its wrapper shown below reminding the consumer of its royal and British roots.  While this was the case, it is important to note that the investigation of Cadbury by Burtt and Nevinson took place on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe, Portuguese territories.  One of the central compounds of the “plantations” on San Tome is depicted above and is eerily reminiscent of classic slave compounds in mainland Africa.  While Cadbury was receiving their cacao from San Tome, the people in charge of the cultivation of the cacao were not British in any sense of the word.[4]   While decisive information concerning the use of forced labor on these farms  emerged in 1907, up until the 1920’s there were historical arguments being made that the labor used was still considered as contract labor, wherein the laborers freely entered one to five year agreements with the plantations.[5]  That being said, with the first-hand accounts of both Nevinson and Burtt, along with death rates being around 148 per 1000, it is safe to assume that the type of work at least very closely resembled slavery.[6]

Even though what occurred in Sao Tome and Principe was considered slavery, slavery in itself was not something that William Cadbury, the Quaker, supported.  While this statement is often refuted on the basis that Cadbury knew about the use of slaves for a long time before revealing it to the public, the mistake is often made of blaming Cadbury himself for the active decision to use slaves and by extension depicting the Cadbury Corporation as fundamentally immoral.  Nevinson specifically attacks the morality of the company because it failed to boycott the Sao Tome and Principe cacao until they established sustainable cacao farms in Ghana.[7]  From an economic standpoint, however, this is the utilitarian choice from both the perspective of Cadbury Corporation and from the consumer.  Had that not happened, there would be minimal expensive chocolate for everyone.  As we can see, an economic lens tells a different story than that of Nevinson.

In the free market society that the British were such avid supporters of, if the consumers really were such ardent activists of anti-slavery, I would argue that it is their duty to boycott the use of slavery in chocolate production.  While this is not the classical interpretation of the Cadbury controversy, I think it is important to look at the counterfactual given if Cadbury himself was indifferent and the government did not have the power to sanction the company. Would the people have boycotted (willingly raised prices)?  The last sentiment I would like to voice is the implications for questionable labor practices in China today, especially US citizens being prime consumers.  Using the economic lens applied to the Cadbury example, who is truly responsible for the “modern slavery” Nevinson speaks of in his book depicted below?


(Nevinson, a Modern Slavery)

by: aaas119x636

Works Cited:

COCOA AND SLAVERY. (1907, Oct 22). The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) Retrieved from

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Knapp, Arthur William. Cocoa and Chocolate, Their History from Plantation to Consumer,. London: Chapman and Hall, 1920.

Nevinson, Henry Woodd. A Modern Slavery. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

[1] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996, 186.

[2]Knapp, Arthur William, Cocoa and Chocolate, Their History from Plantation to Consumer, London: Chapman and Hall, 1920, 101.

[3] Ibid

[4] Knapp, 102.

[5] Knapp, 100.

[6] Ibid

[7] Nevinson, Henry Woodd, A Modern Slavery, New York: Schocken Books, 1968, 209.


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