The Human Touch

Child Harvesting Cacao“…Than the fact that the Baptist missionaries for years would not breathe a word of these abuses because they feared to lose their influence—nothing gave a bigger lift to the cause than when they bravely exposed the whole thing and it was made too hot for one or two of them to ever return…” (Higgs, pg. 134)


Greed and profit are powerful things. Human intervention is a necessity in the cacao industry. However, the fundamental reason for slaves and forced labor is economic—stemming from a need and desire for companies to profit off production whilimages.jpge keeping labor costs low. Focusing on a snapshot of time, a period of 1900-1910 when Cadbury Chocolates was aware of the inhumanity against the Angola labor force, they were unable to transact any real change for almost a decade. The British company did not want to meddle in the affairs of the Portuguese government—they had intellectual discussions regarding abolition, but continued to profit from the blood and sweat of slaves.

The discussion of abolition was buzzing, but so was the growing desire for chocolate. In 1900 Nevinson, a reporter for Harper’s Monthly Magazine was investigating slavery in the chocolate industry. He was witness to traders and how slaves were camouflaged, hidden and moved, as to cover up the issues of forced labor. Portuguese slaves were moved through narrow paths, littered with the remains of previous slaves that did not survive the passage. They traversed single file trails in the jungle, steep hills, shackled and whipped—okulunga was a term the natives used to signify their descent into hell or death. (Satre, pgs. 2-4) Portuguese government officials tried to state that there were contracts in place and that the natives would work for a fixed wage and then after a period of five years, be free to leave and return to their families (Satre, pg.2). This of course, was false. In analysis of why this shift took several years, even after reports elucidated the British and members of the chocolate industry, of this unacceptable form of labor is to understand that public desire for chocolate was growing and companies saw profitability potential. The British did not want to insult the hierarchy of the Portuguese. For Cadbury, complicating international trade would be like throwing the axe on their own foot, severing a critical path to profits .

The main characters of the Cadbury conundrum were Nevinson, Burtt, sent by Cadbury to investigate, and Anti-Slavery Society representative, Buxton. The dialogue amongst them sounds more like a spy novel, or some clandestine trade deal rather than an effort to seek resolution on the labor issues surrounding this high profit commodity. However, what did this awareness in this ten-year period of time, really mean?

Joseph Nevinson

One can imagine polished white men of the time representing every facet of this problem pontificating on what should be done. Discussions of morality, trade and international diplomacy all played a role. Nevinson and Burtt trolled the Angola region. Concurring that they uncovered an egregious act upon the Aborigines. Yet, Burtt created further delays by asking planters to take up the cause, suggesting that it was not the English that were responsible for “coloured labor”, and that the establishment was seeking decent working conditions (Higgs, pg.134). They were told to hold back on their findings. “Ten years of apathy over Congo affairs…to push the matter to the front before the evidence (much of which you have collected at great outlay and with such zeal) can be thrown aside as ‘ancient history’, said Bourne (Higgs pg. 134). Bourne, was the Secretary of the Aborigines Protection Society. He too patiently waited for Burtt’s report to transact change in the industry. Cadbury would take close to ten years before denying trade with the Portuguese government over this human rights issue. Yet other companies continued to do so, and as a result slave labor continued until 1962 (Martin).


Those companies that continued to trade, were eager to maintain the transactions of the growing indulgences in Europe for chocolate. We can sum it up into a three basic elements. Forced labor for production, consumption for public popularity, empathy for what was just and Cadbury’s attempt to rectify a social wrong.  These three elements collided. The historical changes in consumption of cacao, its symbolic rise from a luxury item to its present day image of a Hershey’s kiss to posh chocolate cafes like LA Burdick, still has all the aura of being a decadent commodity, not of necessity but of indulgence.  Unaware is the public of the human element involved in chocolate production.

Today we deal with the disturbing issue of child labor. The chocolate industry still relies on the low-wage labor of indigenous people and while stating that the conditions are less than favorable, they realize that they would not be sustainable in offering chocolate products at competitive prices without current labor practices (Martin). In an economic construction of employment cacao would not be a low-wage job, in fact it demands a great deal of skill. Slaves were trained to recognize and cut the ripe pods that grow directly off the trunk, which were broken open and the beans collected, fermented, dried, roasted and winnowed. These elements of cacao harvesting are no different today then they were in ancient Mesoamerica.  In a time where we are increasingly addicted to technology, to make things happen faster, to have more production, to be time effective and cost efficient—the chocolate industry still relies on the human touch.images-3.jpg







Satre, Lowell J., “Chocolate on Trial”, 2005, Athens Ohio, Ohio University Press

Higgs, Catherine, “Chocolate Islands, cocoa, slavery, and colonial Africa”, 2012, Athens Ohio, Ohio University Press

Images:from wikipedia




3 thoughts on “The Human Touch

  1. “Unaware is the public of the human element involved in chocolate production” was the most striking line from this piece. I, and likely the majority of Americans, buy and eat chocolate constantly without thinking about the human touch behind it. We assume from start to finish the product came from a factory and never consider the labor-intensive process to harvest the cacao.

  2. I had never before considered how political the chocolate industry in the 1900s. This article is a striking example of how little history changes. Struggles striking a balance between profits, human rights, and the rising chocolate market are issues we are still seeing today. Economics and company profitability still triumph over morality as the chocolate industry continues to use horrendous forced-labor practices.

  3. I knew the chocolate industry was rife with child labor, but this article made me realize how long forced labor had been used by such well know and profitable companies. It’s so disheartening that after so man decades, the world still hasn’t progressed past slaves and forced labor.

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