Cadbury’s Ethical Challenge in Sao Tome

Cadbury, the confectionery company based in the United Kingdom, is known for its historical Quaker roots and ethical business practices. With humble beginnings in a small shop located in Birmingham, England, John Cadbury began selling cocoa and chocolate beverages in 1824. After expansion and industrialization of his chocolate enterprise, his grandson George Cadbury, built a factory and a surrounding town that provided its workers with good housing. Not only did they provide housing, but the company was known for its forward-leaning position (for the
time) on providing good working conditions as well establishing sick leave and pensions.

Cadbury Shop

The graphic depicts Cadbury‘s first shop on Bell Street, where it served tea and chocolate drinks. For more information on the Cadbury‘s history, click on the image or the embedded links.

Despite the foundation in Christian values and reputation of high morality, Cadbury found itself in controversy at the beginning of the 20th century. By 1900, Cadbury imported a majority of its chocolate from the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome and Principe. Slavery was outlawed there in 1876, so from 1875-1900, Sao Tome and Principe’s agrarian workers were foreign contracted laborers or serviçais (Portuguese for servant). While it was a legal concept, the actual application was de facto slavery. The contracts were complex documents that most laborers could not read and a thumbprint served as a signature. The contracts required the serviçais to work for 3-5 years with incredibly low salaries. During the life of their contracts, they incurred debts and were often obligated to re-contract due to the debt. Few serviçais returned to their homeland, as death and recontracting kept them bound to the plantations.

Burtt, Cadbury, and Nevinson were the three most prominent men involved in the Sao Tome slavery investigations.

During a 1901 visit to Sao Tome, William Cadbury – head of the Cadbury company – first heard rumors of the slavery in Sao Tome. After his return, he did some preliminary data collecting. In 1903, Cadbury visited Lisbon to lobby his complaints about the labor practices in Sao Tome, and the Portuguese pledged to reform the labor system. With reports of slavery continuing, he hired Joseph Burtt – a private investigator – in 1905, to gain cultural knowledge and on-the-ground reporting.

At the same time a British journalist, Henry Wood Nevinson, authored articles for Harper Magazine on the slavery, in Sao Tome and Cadbury’s dealings in the country. Nevinson and Burtt met in passing and did some traveling together and exchanged ideas and dialogue. Based on Nevinson’s reporting, the British Press continued to publish disparaging articles about Cadbury’s reluctance to boycott, and claimed ethical hypocrisy.

On Cadbury’s late 1908 visit of Sao Tome with Burt, Cadbury found the labor conditions remained the same, so upon his return, Cadbury along with other British chocolate entrepreneurs boycotted the Sao Tome plantation owners. Another factor is that he was likely politically cornered and virtually had no other option but to boycott if there was no improvement for the serviçais. Cadbury then sought plantations in the Gold Coast to continue cacao operations.

A sketching by Burtt showing soil quality on the island of Sao Tome. 

A preliminary look at the delayed boycott begs the question as to whether Cadbury was truly an ethical company. When one examines deeper whether Cadbury was serving its own interests, or attempted to find a solution for all parties, one can see indicators that Cadbury made an honest effort to resolve the situation for all parties. Some view that from 1901 until 1905, there was no movement, and Cadbury neglected to address the situation. However, in the aforementioned paragraph, the 1903 visit to Lisbon demonstrated he was concerned. Additionally, Cadbury paid with their own expenses to hire a private investigator that was referred by a trusted anti-slavery colleague of William Cadbury. Moreover, Cadbury charged Burtt with learning the language and culture. This extremely calculated move and another indicator that Cadbury was interested in helping the serviçais and making sure the plantation operations were sustainable. This type of investigative reporting has a higher degree of accuracy in reporting because the reporter can bring a humanistic approach to an interview by easily building rapport that facilitates candid conversations. By the private investigator building relationships, he gains a holistic understanding of root causes and motivations of why the plantation owners have the slaves, not just the fact that they have the slaves. The depth and granularity of the reporting would allow Cadbury to navigate through cultural and political sensitivities and influence change and still keep production flowing and a maintaining a viable business in Britain.

While the slavery at the Sao Tome cacao plantations deeply conflicted with the business ethics of Cadbury, he likely understood the implications of an immediate severing of ties with Sao Tome. Additionally, a longer-term strategy may have allowed for a permanent change for the slaves on Sao Tome. One of the key arguments that the Portuguese had was that there was not enough time to conform to a Cadbury-approved model, given their economic situation. In the visits to Sao Tome and Lisbon, Cadbury knew that several plantations were barely profiting. He also knew that should an immediate boycott occur, the America-based company Nestle would fill the void and continue purchasing from Sao Tome, which would not benefit nor change the situation for the serviçais.

The author’s belief is that the a politically-charged fight between two major newspaper companies forced the boycott prematurely. Cadbury was not afforded the opportunity to influence change over time. So while it is uncertain if he employed a delay tactic to keeping cacao production flowing while they sought other sources of cacao, the signs point to Cadbury being genuinely interested in helping all parties succeed.


Grivetti, Louis E.;Shapiro, Howard-Yana. (n.d.). Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. John Wiley & Sons.

Higgs, C. (2012). Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Martin, C.(2015). “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture 6 slides.

Satre, L. (2005). Chocolate on trial : Slavery, politics, and the ethics of business (1st ed.). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

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