Cadbury Concoction

Coenraad Johannes Van Houten, a manufacturer of cocoa powder in Holland, invented his revolutionary cocoa-processing machine, called the hydraulic press, in 1828 (Martin, Lecture 5, Slide 42). In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe explain that “untreated chocolate “liquor”—the end result of the grinding process—contains about 53 percent cacao butter, but Van Houten’s machine managed to reduce this to 27-28 percent, leaving a “cake” that could be pulverized into a fine powder…”cocoa”” (234). This was a major advancement in the preparation of cocoa in about 3000 years! This initiated Holland as one of the leading cocoa powder manufacturers as cocoa powder was one of the most desired commodities. No longer was chocolate consumed just to increase energy or increase libido, as it had been touted hundreds of years ago. Now chocolate was consumed for pleasure. Holland had the same source of labor as all the other cocoa producing regions, such as in Guatemala, Brazil, and the Caribbean. An unsettling fact is that slavery was a shared feature in all of the cocoa producing regions! Slavery became a moral issue. Coincidentally, a few of the most prominent people concerned with human rights publically were also running companies and making a lot of money founded on slavery. One such family and company was the Cadbury cocoa company. If the Cadbury cocoa company touted themselves as “socially conscious,” then why was it founded on slavery? This essay will examine Cadbury as a company with a consciousness for human worth, on one hand, but a lack of consciousness for human worth involving where they sourced cocoa beans for their company.

During the middle 18th century and 19th century, cocoa was considered by European society as a guiltless treat with medicinal benefits. In mid 18th century, a Quaker doctor in Bristol, England named Joseph Fry set up his own “medicinal” chocolate making company. His grandson and great-grandson took the company even further by mass-producing cocoa powder by utilizing together Van Houten’s invention with fellow Englishman Thomas Watt’s invention of the steam engine (Coe 235 – 241).

Image 1: Van Houten’s hydraulic press and alkalizing processes

By blending melted, purified cocoa butter with cocoa solids and sugar and other flavors, the Frys produced the first molded chocolate bars. During a lecture called “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal,” Harvard Professor Carla Martin described it as different from the dry, gritty “old school” bars that French boutiques, like the ones Some Chocolatemaker, in Toronto, Canada, made (Lecture 5, Slide 38). By 1847, the Frys were mass-producing a chocolate bar that was sold right off the shelf, called Chocolat Délicieux à Manger (Coe 241). However, it wasn’t long before they had stiff competition from another Quaker family, the Cadburys.

John Cadbury sold chocolate, tea and coffee drinks in Birmingham. He soon began to manufacture his own products of imported beans. George Cadbury, John’s son, had an advantageous trip to Amsterdam where he purchased a Van Houten press (Coe 242). They were extremely savvy at marketing as they advertised their Cocoa Essence powder with the slogan   “Absolutely pure and therefore Best” (Coe 242). They also marketed the first boxes of bite size chocolates decorated with images of fluffy kittens and cute children. They even marketed chocolate as a romantic symbol of love by making it part of Valentine’s Day. Perhaps the most genius marketing idea the Cadburys had was producing the first chocolate Easter egg! Chocolate became an accepted indulgence for everyone, not just the elites. The Cadburys and other chocolate companies were producing the first affordable chocolate.

The Cadburys believed in hard work and discipline. Free enterprise and the social dislocations it caused also produced social problems. And so, the Cadburys promoted their moral beliefs at their company in order to improve the lives of their employees. They decided to build their own community by establishing an idyllic perfect town near Birmingham, which they called Bournville, but with a caveat…the Cadburys expected their employees to conduct themselves with austere morality. For example, “beer and stronger liquor were out” and “employees who were about to be married…received a Bible and a single carnation from the company” (Coe 242). Even though the Cadburys were a strong capital success and an advocate for social order in their company, there was a perturbing lack of awareness or understanding in how they saw their company and where they got their cocoa. It turns out that the “Absolutely pure and therefore Best” was contingent upon slaves! The “philosophes of the Enlightenment may have been believers in human freedom, but the frothy West Indian chocolate they drank was produced by the sweat of slaves” (Coe 196).

In theory, slavery had ended by the middle of the 19th century, but it still existed as an outlier. This came to light in the early 1900s from an English investigative reporter named Henry Nevinson. In another lecture entitled “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor,” Martin pointed out that Nevinson learned that African slaves produced cocoa, the raw material used by the Cadburys and other Quaker capitalists (Lecture 6, Slide 54)! In 1901, William Cadbury, nephew of George, visits Cadbury cocoa farms in Trinidad and hears about slave labor on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe” (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 53). Discreetly, the “Cadbury family sends Joseph Burtt, an inexperienced researcher and reporter to investigate” (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 56). “Burtt spends 2 years traveling in Africa and finds incontrovertible evidence of slavery, corroborating Henry Nevinson’s claims” (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 56).

The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe had functioned as transfer bases for earlier slave trade, according to anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz in the book, Sweetness And Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (30).

Image 2: São Tomé and Príncipe

The islands had been cultivated for sugar. As Van Houten’s machine transformed cocoa production   and the world’s demand for cocoa increased, cocoa became a new export from São Tomé and Príncipe plantations. And, Mintz emphasized that the production of cocoa, as well as the processing of cocoa and the refining of raw sugar in Europe are outstanding factors in the development of capitalism” (140-141). Slaves performed the labor-intensive work of cultivating cocoa. Native citizens of São Tomé and Príncipe were told that they were free to come and go and they were assured that they would be compensated as “indentured servants”, but that was just on paper (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 35). “In reality, they were enslaved people brought from Angola to São Tomé and Príncipe” (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 35). This comes to light through Nevinson’s investigated writings in the early 1900s. Burtt confirms Nevinson’s research and “begins slowly writing his report, under pressure from the Cadbury firm to do so without offending anyone” (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 56). However, the Cadbury’s public silence made Nevinson doubtful of their intentions. It seemed that the Cadburys did not know what to do with to do with Burtt’s research. The “British daily The Standard publishes an article calling William Cadbury a hypocrite for taking no action in the face of clear evidence” (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 57). “Cadbury sues for libel…but…the jury finds in Cadbury’s favor, but unsympathetic to the company, awards only one farthing (1/4 penny) in damages” (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 57).

Burtt’s documentation showed a worker that had arrived on São Tomé with his legs placed in a locked position until someone arrived to put him to work (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 58).

Image 3: Slave depicted by Burtt with legs locked

How could the workers be anything other than slaves? The evidence for slaves was unmistakable. Furthermore, the records showed that no one ever returned home from São Tomé and Príncipe (Martin, Lecture 6). Ultimately, William Cadbury published Burtt’s documentation in a book entitled Labour In Portuguese West Africa (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 58). One has to wonder whether this was just to save face in the public in the midst of speculation. The Cadburys were morally sincere and socially involved, however, they had a company to run and their employees were dependent on their actions.

Finally, anti-slavery protesters called for a boycott of cocoa from São Tomé and Príncipe. British companies, including Cadbury, began to investigate cocoa exports from the Gold Coast, now known as Ghana. Between 1909 and 1910, “major British companies formally boycott cocoa from São Tomé and Príncipe, moving their operations to the Gold Coast, where cacao trees have just begun to mature” (Martin, Lecture 6, Slide 59).

In closing, the only deduction one could make is that the Cadbury’s were in denial. Even though it was the Portuguese and not the English Quakers, nor the Cadburys, who were in charge of the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe and the cocoa bean trade, the companies who bought the cocoa beans profited from a system that kept their costs down. Unfortunately, this came at a higher cost through traumatic human exploitation, slavery!

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. Thames & Hudson         Ltd, London, 2013.

Images. Cited 2016.

Martin, Carla D, lecture “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal,” Harvard Extension School, Cambridge, MA., 24 February 2016.

Martin, Carla D, lecture “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor,” Harvard Extension School, Cambridge, MA., 02 March 2016.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness And Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, New York, New York, 1986.


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