The Purity of Cadbury: Morality or Marketability?

The Cadbury company began in 1824 with John Cadbury, who operated as a street vendor of hot chocolate, coffee, and tea in Birmingham, England. His service remained small for years as he mostly catered to the wealthy due to the expensive nature of his wares. His company began to grow in the 1840’s and joined in partnership with his brother Benjamin, eventually becoming the official chocolate makers to the Queen in 1854. While Cadbury began to lose profit soon after, John’s sons George and Richard took the helm in 1861, quickly improving the company’s prospects by focusing exclusively on quality chocolate. The company soon expanded in both Britain and Africa to increase the manufacture and supply of its chocolate products. Cadbury’s major factory in England, the Bourneville estate, exemplified the Cadbury’s Quaker values as a sort of utopic model village, which reflected prevalent social theories of the time developed by Bentham and Mill. Cadbury’s African branch mainly sourced cacao from plantations in Sao Tome and Principe, where the brothers both owned land and patronized local growers; this cacao, however, was cultivated by slaves. The juxtaposition of Cadbury’s British operations and its African cacao farms illustrates the placidity and hypocrisy with which most citizens of Europe and America viewed slavery. While the Cadburys may have disapproved of slavery for moral reasons, as did many people, in reality the practice was so far removed from their daily lives that the economic benefits overpowered their desire to effect change.


George Cadbury began building the 120-acre Bourneville manufactory in 1893, hoping to create a moral working environment with better living conditions and human work hours.

1: Female workers leading virtuous lives in Bourneville

The Cadburys maintained rather strict control over the lives of their workers, seeking to encourage good scruples and mindsets to lead to workplace efficiency and contentedness. Examples of such control include the ban on pubs in Bourneville, a “marriage bar” forcing female workers to leave when married, and gender segregation in the workplace. This micromanagement notwithstanding, jobs at Bourneville were much desired, with employment reaching over 3,000 people. As seen in the above depiction of Bourneville workers, working for Cadbury was viewed as a prime opportunity, and the company became known throughout England for the success of its model village.

2: Cadbury Advertisement

The company of course helped promote its status, connecting the purity and quality of its products with the moral purity of its workers in advertisements. The Cadburys prided themselves on their achievement, and engaged in good deeds and charity with proceeds from their growing business.

3: Cocoa Ad

Especially given the food contamination scares of earlier decades in England, Cadbury made sure to tout their product for its wholesomeness. In part due to decreasing prices and increasing availability, chocolate became a treat enjoyable by all. The above advertisement encapsulates this by showing both the male rower and female aristocrat enjoying Cadbury’s drinking chocolate. Cadbury’s success had a darker side, however, as the economic foundations of chocolate’s increased popularity and supply came large in part due to the expansion of cacao slave plantations in Africa.


After visiting Trinidad in 1901 and taking more interest in the affairs of his overseas territory, George Cadbury began initiating dialogue with fellow high-up Quakers and the Anti-Slavery Society, as he suspected slaves were being used in Cadbury’s farming operations. While George Cadbury outwardly appeared to make an effort to indagate his foreign holdings, in practice he made very slow progress. Many reasons contributed to this reticence. Portuguese authorities obfuscated the true nature of African workers, having nominally outlawed slavery in 1870. They claimed workers, or servicals, signed five-year contracts with plantation owners and had freedom to leave. In reality, servicals were treated exactly like slaves and were abused and overworked with impunity. Investigating holdings in Sao Tome looked to be a difficult process due to the distance and language barrier. Finally, the lucrative offerings of the African holdings disincentivized the business-oriented Cadburys from shaking things up.

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4: An Enslaved African Plantation Worker

Eventually, however, George Cadbury sent an investigator, Joseph Burtt, to look into worker treatment in the Sao Tome plantations. Burtt documented the Portuguese slaving practices, and wrote a report of the horrid working conditions of African laborers. When he returned to England, though, his revelatory work was not immediately lauded. While Cadbury shared the report with other important chocolate makers of the time, the reports were not made publicly known. Rather, they were sent to the British Foreign Office to make sure they were moderate and inoffensive (mainly to the Portuguese). This inexpediency would seem out of place with the Quaker values of the Cadburys; in fact, financial reasons underpinned the delays of Burtt’s reporting. Britain and British merchants had little desire to pressure Portugal to crack down on slavery. It would both offend the Portuguese and result in higher prices for imported goods. The quality of cocoa produced in Sao Tome would have made finding another source very difficult if British chocolate makers were to switch in protest of the working conditions. Initially, Cadbury and other British chocolate merchants “Wiped their hands of the matter,” foisting the issues off to the Foreign Office (Cadbury in Satre, 78). Only when the reports reached the public did the Cadburys make moves to protect their reputations.

Although the Cadburys sought to portray themselves and their operations as morally upstanding in Britain, both to adhere to their Quaker faith and to increase sales, their African cacao plantations directly opposed their public façade. George Cadbury appeared to have cared about the conditions of African workers, but the inexpediency with which he addressed the use of slavery in his supply chain suggests Cadbury’s pure and moral British practices were more marketing ploy than ideological model.



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

Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York, NY: Viking.

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


Media Sources

1: Cadbury, R. (2015, August 17). Cocoa: All about it [{US-PD}]. Retrieved March 11, 2016, from

2: Beeton, I. (1907). [Cadbury Cocoa Ad {US-PD}]. Retrieved March 11, 2016, from’s_Book_of_Household_Management_(28).jpg

3: “Drink Cadbury’s Cocoa” advertisement with rower and lady friend – B&W engraving – 1885 [{US-PD}]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from’s_Cocoa_advert_with_rower_1885.jpg

4:Cadbury, W. B. (1910). Labour in Portuguese West Africa. London: Routledge. Out of Copyright.


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