Cadbury: Business vs. Morality

Cadbury chocolates was founded by the grocer John Cadbury in 1824. He ran a shop that sold assorted goods, including cocoa and drinking chocolate. As a Quaker he frowned on the consumption of alcohol and sought to promote alternatives that would fit the healthy, happy society he envisioned. It’s out of this desire that the Cadbury family’s partnership with chocolate was born (“The Story”).

In 1861 John’s sons Richard and George took over the family business, which had expanded with the purchase of a large factory and now sold many types of drinking chocolate. When the rapidly growing company outsized that factory in the 1870s the Cadburys conceived of a new type of factory ground, a place that could house their growing workforce while embodying their Quaker ideals. They would build grounds for their workers outside the polluted air of the city and provide amenities that would help their workers live happy, healthy lives. They called this factory Bournville (“The Story”).lightbox_image_0016_12_gardenvilliageofbourneville_c

This peaceful village centered around the Quaker ideals of health and family was a bold reflection of the beliefs the Cadbury family held dear. But at its heart the Cadbury company is a business, and in 1901 the same brothers who had poetically professed that “No man ought to be condemned to live in a place where a rose cannot grow” (“The Story”) as they built an airy village for their European workers learned that the cacao they imported from off the western coast of Africa, from the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, was being produced by enslaved workers living in destitute conditions. And for the next 8 years they sat in silence and through their continued business were complicit in slavery.


Children playing in Bournville, 1893

The Cadburys (and many other chocolatiers) were reliant on São Tomé and Principe as a steady source of good quality cacao. Joseph Burtt reports that in the early 1900s about one-fifth of the world’s cacao supply came from São Tomé and Principe (Cadbury 106). The islands were originally seized by Portugal in the 15th century because they had favorable conditions for sugarcane farming. Portugal was at the time encouraging the spread of slave-manned plantation farming along the Atlantic islands as part of an effort to solidify their trade route around Africa to Asia (Mintz 31). This tradition of slavery was maintained after its formal abolition with the establishment of the seviçal system.

Seviçaes were workers taken from the interior countries of Africa (most often from Angola) and made to sign a contract stating they were willingly to work on a Portuguese plantation for 5 years, with the option to re-sign the contract after it expired. These workers were often abducted from their villages and, when presented with the contract, not provided with a translator to let them know what they were agreeing to. The conditions they worked under and the number of workers who attempted to flee their plantations confirms that seviçaes were really slaves (Nevinson 670).

Screenshot_2016-03-11-20-27-06-1 (2)
Photograph of a girl sold into slavery, included in one of Henry Nevinson’s reports

John Cadbury’s grandson William was helping to run the company when, according to historian Catherine Higgs, he came across a catalog for property in São Tomé that listed men for sale alongside cattle and equipment (Higgs 9). He realized Cadbury may have been buying cacao produced with slave labor. In response, William hired the researcher Joseph Burtt to investigate this instance and other rumors of slavery on the island. Burtt spent some months in Portugal learning the language then headed to Africa on June 1, 1905 (Cadbury 103). After spending five and a half months on São Tomé and Principe he came to the unequivocal conclusion that the seviçal system constituted slave labor.

In 1907 William Cadbury and Joseph Burtt compiled a report of their findings called Labour in Portuguese West Africa and sent it to their fellow British chocolatiers and England’s secretary of state. But Cadbury, despite the care that went into providing for their European workers, continued to support Portuguese plantations and did not widely release this information (Higgs 150).

In 1905 the British journalist Henry Nevinson went to São Tomé and Principe to investigate the rumors of slavery on the islands. In 1906 he published several reports that went into great detail confirming the allegations in Harper’s Magazine.

These two reports, though both confirming that the seviçal system is one of slavery, offer differing perspectives on the culture that surrounds that slavery. Nevinson’s articles use strong language to condemn the treatment of the enslaved. When he covers corporeal punishment he describes scenes of abuse without reservation, like in the following excerpt:


An Englishman coming down from the interior last African winter, was roused at night by loud cries in a Portuguese trading house at Mashiko. In the morning he found that a slave had been flogged, and tied to a tree in the cold all night. He was a man who had only lately lost his liberty, and was undergoing the process which the Portuguese call “taming,” as applied to new slaves who are sullen and show no pleasure in the advantages of their position.”

(Nevinson 675)

William Cadbury and Joseph Burtt, on the other hand, bent to pressure from the Portuguese government and were careful to word their report in an inoffensive manner. They wanted to end slavery, but apparently not at the cost of their trade relations. After attending a conference between São Tomé proprietors and British chocolatiers in which talks of emancipation were stonewalled (Cadbury 147), Burtt added an amendment to a section in the report on the use of corporal punishment against the enslaved. His take on the abuse of the slaves ends softly and apologetically as he writes:


I wish to state that the paragraph in my report headed “Punishments” is constructed in a manner that may convey an impression not entirely just to the Propreitors of S. Thomé plantations.

Will you therefore kindly make the following addition to the report as presented to you on July 14, 1907 :–

“Though convinced of the very common occurrence of corporeal punishment in spite of the restrictions of the law, I am sure that on the best estates this is against the wish of the proprietors, and is one of those abuses that repatriation will quickly check.

“I should also like to state that I have evidence of the fairness of the Government Curator, and know that from time to time he visits the estates, including those in the most distant parts of the island.”

Yours faithfully,

Joseph Burtt”

(Cadbury 113)

Cadbury withheld from boycotting cacao from São Tomé and Principe until 1909, after facing a run of bad press substantiated by Henry Nevinson’s reporting and multiple refusals from the Portuguese government to reform their practices (Martin). Their Quaker ideals led them to build a revolutionary and humane workplace in England, but their beliefs would not stretch to include the welfare of the enslaved Africans harvesting their cacao until they were prodded into action.


Works Cited


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

Martin, Carla D. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.  Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3 March 2016. Class Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

Nevinson, Henry W. “The Slave-Trade of To-Day.” Harper’s Magazine 1 Jan. 1905: 668-76. Google Books. Web. 9 Mar. 2016. <>.

“The Story.” Cadbury. Cadbury, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <>.




Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s