Cadbury’s Cacao on Sao Tome and Principe

When Henry Nevinson’s report of slavery on the Cadbury cacao plantations hit England in 1907, the Cadbury Company found itself entrenched in scandal (Martin). Cadbury had heard rumors of slavery, but he was hesitant to move his business without definitive proof. He sent Joseph Burtt to the Portuguese colony islands of Sao Tome and Principe, which grew 55 percent of Cadbury’s cacao, to investigate (Higgs 9). However, Burtt’s observation of a  slavery like system after an extensive visit did not prompt Cadbury to act immediately (Martin). Cadbury’s hesitation in part was due to the nature of the plantation labor system and the conflicting interpretations of slavery in England and on the islands. Cadbury and Burtt specifically wanted to know whether the plantation workers were free workers. Freedom, to Cadbury, was the important difference between a slave and a hired worker. Compensation and working conditions mattered some, but freedom was the highest priority (Higgs 9). Those on Sao Tome and Principe, however, had a different moral standard for slavery. Due to economic and political tension between Portugal and England over the colonies, Cadbury and the island plantation owners did not see eye to eye on the nature of slavery, which make Burtt’s investigation complex, and a lack of a straightforward answer from Burtt made Cadbury hesitant.


Cadbury company was known for its purity and ethical treatment of workers

The reality on Sao Tome and Province was plantations had workers in a system akin to slavery all but in name. Workers were purchased from Angola, brought to Sao Tome and Principe, legally freed but forced to sign 5 year contracts (Clarence-Smith 153 ). The contracts were automatically renewed without the consent of the worker, so they could never leave the island (Clarence-Smith 153). Plantation owners would pay a small salary, but could deduct fees for damages or underproductive days (Clarence-Smith 158). Plantation owners could also discipline workers using corporal punishment, and they would control the social atmosphere of plantation, arranging marriages and family structures (Clarence-Smith 163). Children born to workers were born into indentured servitude; they were given contracts (Clarence-Smith 156). Given the intense nature of the work and long shifts, there was a high mortality rate on the Islands, which was exacerbated by sleeping sickness on Principe (Clarence-Smith 157 , Higgs 50). Reforms were attempted in 1903, but they were not effective, and workers came from other Portuguese colonies instead of Angola (Clarence- Smith 158). Plantation owners also attempted to make up for the damage by building state of the art hospitals, but it did not do much to the mortality rate (Clarence-Smith 159). The lack of mobility, intense work, corporal punishment, and tight social control of workers all points to a system of slavery without the name. When one considers the system of slavery in the Americas, this system is synonymous. Cadbury would have most certainly considered it slavery given the workers’ lack of freedom, but Burtt was not confident in his assessment that the workers weren’t free. His uncertainty is in part due to English-Portuguese economic relations.


The Cadbury company advertised a much rosier picture of labor on plantations than the reality

The English- Portuguese relationship in the colonies was a fraught one, and Cadbury Company was caught in the middle of it. Losing several key colonies like Brazil had crippled the Portuguese economy, and they had to increasing rely on England for financial support (Higgs 8-9). Realizing this, England took advantage of the situation and increasingly demanded access to Portugal’s ports and colonies (Higgs 8-9). Portugal greatly resented England because of this, but had to grit their teeth and bear it (Higgs 8-9). The tension between these powers hurt Cadbury’s communication with plantation owners on Sao Tome and Principe, which were Portuguese islands. Because Portugal’s economy was  in worse shape than  England’s  economy, the Portuguese had a different standard of workers’ rights. Most lower class Portuguese citizens who lived in rural areas at the time were sharecroppers, and those who lived in urban areas worked 14-16 hours shifts for little wages (Higgs 17). They did not have the luxury of freedom, as few lived on lands they owned (Higgs 17). This, in part, explains why the plantation owners focused on the quality of working conditions during Burtt’s visit (Higgs 18). They must have, to some extent, felt that as long as they were treating workers well, they workers could not be considered slaves, as most of the lower class were sharecroppers of some kind. It did seem, though that the plantation owners were also aware of Cadbury’s objection to lack of freedom. Nevinson, the journalist who plunged Cadbury into scandal, noted that the plantations carefully arranged their visits around Burtt (Higgs 39). Given the economic climate, the Portuguese were eager to keep Cadbury’s business. Not only did they emphasize the quality of workers’ conditions and brush away concerns of freedom, but they attempted to make life on the plantations rosier during Burtt’s visit.


Sao Tome and Principe are still known for chocolate, and unfortunately, slavery continued on the islands even after Cadbury moved his business elsewhere following scandal.

The nature of Cadbury’s relationship the the Sao Tome and Principe plantation owners is not often considered when discussing the slavery scandal. And the economic gap between the two that transferred to a moral divide in the question of slavery is one aspect of their relationship, yet it is an important one to consider.The difficult nature of their relationship does not excuse Cadbury for refusing to act immediately, but it sheds light on why he may have justified hesitating.


Works Cited:

Clarence-Smith, William Gervaise. “The hidden costs of labour on the cocoa plantations of Sao Tomé and Principe, 1875-1914.” Portuguese Studies (1990): 152-172.

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2012.

Martin, Carla D. “Slavery, abolition, and forced labor”  African and African American Studies 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard College: Cambridge, MA. 4 March 2015. Class Lecture

Media Sources: 10185195335 14782386695 1429004814


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