Turning a Blind Eye to Slavery: the Cadbury Company

In the early 20th century Cadbury Brothers, one of the largest English chocolate confectionary manufacturers, faced an ethical challenge regarding the business practices they used in sourcing cocoa beans. The Cadbury family, a Quaker family who were known for providing the upmost care and concern for their workers, ran Cadbury Brothers. Therefore it is surprising that this company that was run by, as Lowell Satre describes in Chocolate on Trial, owners who took a paternalistic interest in their workers’ entire lives and who were known for supporting the anti-slavery movement, took a passive role when faced with claims of slave labor used in their company’s supply chain (Satre). For a company that aired the illusion of conducting ethical best practices, their actions with respect to slavery on the plantations where they sourced their cocoa beans did not uphold the values that they implied they had. The Cadbury family failed to take sufficient action in response to the indirect reports of slavery on plantations where they conducted business.


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Pictured here: An image of São Tomé and Príncipe (Martin)


In 1901 the Cadbury company received an offer for a cocoa bean plantation for sale in São Tomé, a Portuguese West African country, that listed forced laborers as assets (Satre). Although Cadbury was not interested in acquiring the plantation, the offer captured their attention. It was quite troublesome for the company to hear of slave labor used in an area where they conduct business. In 1900 Cadbury purchased over 45% of its cocoa beans from the Portuguese West African Country of São Tomé and Príncipe (Satre). Pictured below is an example of a plantation that sold cocoa beans to the Cadbury company.




“The plantations “Roças” comprised the main plant “sede”, which had the cocoa, coffee, palm oil and copra processing facilities, workers housing, an administrative building and the plantation manager’s house, as well as smaller dependencies.” (“Human History of the Sao Tome and Principe.”)


The Cadbury company could not turn a blind eye to these claims and so board members of the company agreed to investigate the use of slavery in the São Tomé and Príncipe region. They assigned William Cadbury to head the investigation and verify the claims made in the plantation offer (Higgs). William Cadbury expressed he felt “that there is a vast difference between the cultivation of cocoa and gold or diamond mining, and I should be sorry needlessly to injure a cultivation that as far as I can judge provides labor of the very best kind to be found in the topics: at the same time we should all like to clear our hands of any responsibility for slave traffic in any form” (Satre). While it is nice that William Cadbury was unbiased and did not jump to conclusions based on unconfirmed reports, his laissez-faire attitude lacked urgency. If Cadbury was as concerned about the company’s ethical practices as you would expect him to be one would expect a more intense reaction in response. Therefore it is not a shock that eight years would pass before the Cadbury company took decisive action against these claims (Higgs).


By not committing to the investigation in a timely manner and with sufficient action, Cadbury allowed slavery to persist in São Tomé and Príncipe. Pictured below is an example of workers you would find on plantations in São Tomé and Príncipe. (Martin)



Here is an image of servicais, a portugese term for indentured servants (Martin).


During this time the Cadbury company was not the only one with an inkling of the slave trade São Tomé and Príncipe. Henry Nevison, a British journalist, caught wind of the West African slave trade around the same time Cadbury did and acted in a complete opposite manner. Upon hearing about the servicais in Portugese West Africa, Nevinson investigated. Traveling on behalf of Harper’s Monthly Magazine Nevinson gathered information on the slave trade in 1905 and witnessed shocking first hand accounts of how bad it really was. When he returned to England from São Tomé and Príncipe it took him less than one month to publish articles exposing the appalling slave trade he witnessed. Nevinson wrote many articles on the subject which he compiled into a book, A Modern Slavery, that was published in 1906 (Satre).


The Cadbury company handled their investigation in a much slower manner. Although they sent an agent, Joseph Burtt, to investigate the use of slaves in São Tomé and Príncipe in 1905, it was not until October 1908 that they would issue a public report of his findings (Higgs). What is most shocking is that Burtt was on the island as the same time as Nevinson. Burtt stayed on the island for six months witnessing the same atrocities but yet his report came two years subsequent to Nevinson’s articles. The actions committed by the Cadbury company in response to the slave trade occurring in São Tomé and Príncipe ultimately show that as a whole the company did not care enough to take sufficient action to put an end to the slave trade and uphold their Quaker ideals.


Works Cited

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

“Human History of the Sao Tome and Principe.” Human History of the Sao Tome and Principe. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2016. <http://www.saotomeislands.com/modern-history.html&gt;.

Martin, Carla. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” AFAM 119X. Lecture.
Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2005. 

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