Ignorantia Legis Neminem Excusat, A Discussion of the Ethics Surrounding the Cadbury Company and Slavery in Sao Tome in the Early 1900’s

The Latin phrase Ignorantia legis neminem excusat, translated in English meaning ignorance of law excuses no one https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=Uw1XAAAAcAAJ&rdid=book-Uw1XAAAAcAAJ&rdot=1, sums up the Cadbury Companies social and moral dilemma that was faced in the early 1900 in England (Satre, 2005). The dilemma stemmed from the values of the Cadbury company founder John Cadbury,

George Cadbury

 John Cadbury, Source: https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story

who was a practicing member of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=uJabWgv005sC&rdid=book-uJabWgv005sC&rdot=1. Because Mr. Cadbury was a Quaker the tea and coffee business he started in 1824

cadbury first store

Cadbury’s First Store 1824, Source: https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story

operated under the principals of the Quaker religion which taught that all people are equal in the eyes of God (Smith, 1998). These principals, which would guide the company during its early history were in place when, in 1866, the business and company gained notoriety for a cocoa essence drink that John’s son George

George Cadbury 2

George Cadbury, Source: https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story

began selling that was manufactured using a press designed by Van Houten that he acquired (Satre, 2005).


Van Houten Cocoa advertisement, Source: Public Domain

The cocoa drink made from the press, and later manufactured by George (Cadbury, 2010), would be the start of the future of the Cadbury chocolate empire that was built mindfully on the values of the Quaker religion by John Cadbury, but in reality George’s interpretation and lack of action regarding slave labor in Sao Tome.

 Sao Tome

Sao Tome, Source: http://www.operationworld.org

The island of Sao Tome is an African island where the Cadbury company would buy almost 45% of its cacao beans from, blackened the social eye of the company that espoused virtue, innocence, and fairness among all (Satre, 2005).

In the public eye the Cadbury Company portrayed a soft and welcoming public image often having children gracing the focal points of their advertisements while the company worked to highlight social and moral issues and mistreatment of workers while supporting their own virtuous moral behavior (Presilla, 2009).

Cadbury advertisement

 Cadbury Advertisement, Source, https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story

The positive moral image built by George and his family was a factor that helped the Cadbury company grow from a single small shop in Birmingham, England to the expansive Bournville facility  that housed and employed many thousands of workers at the Cadbury company https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story.

cadbury factory

Cadbury Factory and Village in Bournville, Source: https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story

The success of the chocolate goods that were manufactured by the company enabled the Cadbury family to build great wealth and allowed them to purchase and start many other businesses, most notably several newspapers including the London Daily News a liberal giant in the media at the time (Cadbury, 2010). By entering the media market the Cadbury Company was able to spread their message of service to the poor, intolerance to slavery and human rights violations, and anti-war messages (Satre, 2005). George, who oversaw the families businesses, used his media presence to criticize and raise public outcry against the conservative government who he named in many headlines as supporting “Yellow Slavery” and Chinese Slavery” because of the government’s approval of Chinese coolie labor  (Satre, 2005).

coolie slave

Coolie Slave in England, Source: Public Domain

In addition to the stories exposing slavery George used the paper to run an expose a “Sweat Shop Exhibition” highlighting deplorable low wage and conditions for workers in the “sweated trades” (Satre, 2005). Despite all of these efforts to publicly denounce slavery and highlight social justice when confronted with evidence that the Cadbury company themselves were buying cacao grown and harvested by slave labor they turned a blind eye for years (Cadbury, 2010).

In 1901 William Cadbury, nephew to George Cadbury, visited a company owned plantation in Trinidad (Satre, 2005). On this trip he was informed that slave labor was being used on Sao Tome (Higgs, 2012). The evidence, which was initially discarded, was given credence when shortly thereafter an offer to purchase a plantation on Sao Tome was presented and among the assets listed included in the purchase were 200 laborers (Satre, 2005). The Cadbury Company sent William and a hired Travers Buxton a former secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society in England to investigate the claim (Higgs, 2012).

The initial report from William was that the slaves in Sao Tome were not being treated harshly and in many respects he did not believe that they were “real” slaves at all (Satre, 2005). William, in his letter to the board explaining his initial findings, was the slaves in the mining industry were “actual” slaves having to work in the harshest of conditions suffering physical harm, the slaves on Sao Tome were not (Cadbury, 2010). This initial denial was accepted by the board and used as justification for the continual use of the slave labor in Sao Tome until 1908, when the Cadbury Company finally stopped using slave labor (Sate, 2005).

The true ethics and moral compass of the leaders in the Cadbury family came to light during this crisis. Initially, it was easy for the company to deny they purchased slave grown cacao even though sources knew that Sao Tome and other islands in the region used slave labor (Satre, 2005). The board of the Cadbury Company knew, or should have known ethically that a great chance existed that they were using slave grown cacao and their initial ignorance was no excuse for allowing the slave labor to continue. The larger ethical dilemma came after being presented with evidence that their plantation on Sao Tome was in fact employing slave labor and nothing was directly done to stop it for seven years (Satre, 2005). Even though the Cadbury owned newspapers continued to publish stories denouncing slavery they continued to use slave grown cacao (Presilla, 2009). Despite how they justified their use of slavery to themselves referring to the slaves as “workers” and saying they were not really slaves because they were treated well (Cadbury, 2010), they hid their indiscretion from the public all the while highlighting the very same ethical violations that they accused and exposed other businesses of committing in their papers until they were forced to disclose it where the true details emerged during a public trial (Cadbury, 2010). The true moral and ethical compass of George and the Cadbury family was exposed during this experience because while it is easy for them to condemn others when their own reputation and profits were at stake, the transparency they valued was difficult to inflict upon themselves.


Cadbury, D. (2010). Chocolate wars: The 150-year rivalry between the world’s greatest chocolate makers. New York: PublicAffairs.

Higgs, C. (2012). Chocolate islands: Cocoa, slavery, and colonial Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press

Presilla, M. E. (2009). The new taste of chocolate: A cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

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

Smith, R. L. (1998). A Quaker book of wisdom: Life lessons in simplicity, service, and common sense. New York: Eagle Brook.

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