Cacao and Slavery: Examining Responses to Cadbury’s Involvement with Slavery on São Tomé and Príncipe to Understand the Evolution of Public and Commercial Attitudes About Labor Ethics

The long-established relationship between cacao and slavery began as soon as the Europeans and indigenous American populations first interacted around cacao (Martin). For years, slave labor was accepted as an economic necessity for the labor-intensive crop. The public reaction to the discovery of slave labor in the Cadbury Brothers company supply chain illustrates that mainstream public opinion in England had changed by the first decade of the twentieth century, as British individuals overwhelmingly rejected slavery as unjustifiable on all grounds. However, the Cadbury company’s slow response — the company’s boycott of Portuguese cacao began a whole eight years after William Cadbury first heard reports confirming slave labor —  proves that corporations continued to prioritize business efficiency over ethical practice. Without public pressures, it is, I argue, uncertain that Cadbury and other companies would have taken actions to curb exploitive labor practices.

Image shows girls on a cocoa plantation in the British West Indies in the nineteenth century. Forced labor continued even after the 1834 British Slavery Abolition Act.

While a certain amount of opposition to slavery always existed, for centuries, abolition was inconceivable to many as government officials, producers, and consumers alike viewed forced labor as a necessary, albeit morally reprehensible, practice. Indeed, enslaved labor persisted in the industry following the 1834 British Slavery Abolition Act. However, by 1901-1909, the public sentiment had changed, and English citizens revealed their strong disapproval of slavery. Investigative journalists, such as Henry Nevinson, whose articles in Harper’s Magazine first made the existence of slavery on the chocolate islands widely known, and humanitarian organizations, such as the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines’ Protection Society, led the public condemnation of the institution (Higgs 133-134).

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 10.52.41 PM
Slaves in Portuguese West Africa, as photographed for Nevinson’s report “The Slave-Trade of To-day,” published in Harper’s Magazine (1905).


The reactions of consumers and journalists to the allegations of slavery on São Tomé and Príncipe illustrates that the general public opinion strongly opposed coercive labor practices. Nevinson’s accounts roused widespread public discontent, and newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian, the Standard, and the Evening Standard published articles criticizing Cadbury for continuing to purchase Sao Toméan cocoa (Higgs 143). The outcome of the case between Cadbury and the Standard further indicates the extent to which the public, and legal system, disapproved of Cadbury’s purchase of Sao Toméan cocoa. While the jury agreed that Cadbury Brothers had been libeled, it expressed its condemnation of the firm’s practices by awarding only a single farthing (equivalent to one quarter of a penny) in reparations (Higgs 152).

Although the Cadbury company prized its Quaker values and prided itself on having concern for its workers, the company failed to take strong or timely actions in the face of slavery allegations. Satre notes the strikingly late response of the company in the face of substantiated evidence, remarking that, “Given this extensive evidence, it is surprising that the Cadburys had not recognized this slavery early on…” (Satre 21). It took William Cadbury over four years after he first heard allegations of slave labor and received reports which “graphically confirmed” those allegations to take action (Satre 16). And even then, his actions were weak. Cadbury sent a company agent, Joseph Burtt, to travel to Portuguese West Africa as a “friend” to the planters, and urged him to take his time with this “gentlemanly inquiry” (Martin). Revealing his desire to quash public interest in the situation, Cadbury did not allow Burtt’s report confirming the existence of slavery to be published until October 1908, a year after its final publication in Portuguese (Satre 93).

Given Cadbury’s deliberately slow and mild reaction to the evidence of slave labor in São Tomé and Príncipe in the face of widespread outrage, it is difficult to imagine that the company would have taken action had public outcry not demanded it. Considering the controversy in historical context demonstrates the extent to which popular attitudes had evolved by the early twentieth century to condemn slavery on all grounds, and in spite of any perceived benefits for business. Nonetheless, the Quaker company’s weak, I contend, inadequate, response to reports of slavery reveals that corporate greed and commercial interest would remain a challenge to free labor, despite the public’s overwhelmingly anti-slavery sentiments. Indeed, even today, some of the world’s largest chocolate makers are allegedly knowingly using child slaves.

Works Cited:

“British Colonial Apprenticeship: Slavery by Another Name?” Web blog post. US Slave. Blogpost, 5 Jan. 2012. Web.

Haglage, Abby. “Lawsuit: Your Candy Bar Was Made By Child Slaves.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 15 Sept. 2015. Web.

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2012. 133-65. Print.

Martin, Carla, PhD. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor:.” AFAM 119X. CGIS South, Tsai Auditorium, Cambridge. 9 Mar. 2016. Lecture.

Nevinson, Henry W. “The Slave-Trade of To-Day.” Harper’s Magazine. Google Play, n.d. Web. 1 Jan. 1905.

Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2005. 1-99. Print.


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