“Absolutely Slave Grown Cocoa”

Just as Cadbury gained the public’s good will again after the contaminated chocolate fiasco, it had another controversy on its hands. The Quaker backbone and signature workflow of Cadbury were about to be shaken up by allegations of the use of slave labor via the company’s premier supplier in Sao Tome. It had been no secret that Cadbury prided itself on its Quaker values and placing an emphasis on these, invested money to ensure their workers had a safe, morally-upright place to live and work.  Prominently displayed in the Bournville Factory, nay community-a worker’s paradise of sorts emerged, where progressive measures in the workplace had people vying for an opportunity to become a Cadbury factory employee. However, it would seem this concern for its workers was not shared across the board. Cadbury, with the pressure of the increased demand for its chocolate bought and used cacao produced in areas where slave labor was prolific. Sharply contrasted with the Bournville utopian community, slaves from the interior of Africa were led to their demise, never to be seen or heard from again upon reaching the islands of San Tome and Principe-both under Portuguese command. Even after murmurings of the slave practice, Cadbury continued their relationship with the planters out of “fairness.” After various probes into the matter,  the question of slavery under another name was no longer undeniable.  Over the course of eight years, Cadbury came to face the reality of slavery on the island and its complicity in the practice and forced to realize that its supply chain was also part of their responsibility.

In the “official” Cadbury history timeline there is a gap between 1900 and 1905 (1). This particular hole in time will become important as this report unfolds. The timeline shows that in 1900, Cadbury had put its unique touch on advertisement and marketing with a quaint sense of humor. No doubt, Cadbury did not expect their catchy slogans to backfire.  Higgs (2012) describes the public outcry over the revelation of slave-produced cacao: “Absolutely pure, therefore the best,” was changed to “Absolutely slave grown.”

Photo Credit: https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/the-pursuit-of-pure-chocolate-cadburys-rise-to-power/ Photo altered by the author
Photo Credit: https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/the-pursuit-of-pure-chocolate-cadburys-rise-to-power/
Photo altered by the author

Photo description: Higgs recounts a PR nightmare for Cadbury as hundreds of concerned citizens wrote to the chocolate manufacturer to voice their outrage.

In the 1870’s, Portugal abolished slavery (Satre, 2005). This, however, did not end the practice of slavery. Slavery was simply dressed in “contract labor.” Slaves were rounded up from the interior of Africa and in marching procession headed toward the coast where they were traded and sold in colonial Portugal. Satre (2005) remarks that there were a lot of people involved in this profitable business, from the government, to the steamship, to the doctors who kept the slaves alive (p. 8). I would venture to add Cadbury themselves were part of this chain of responsibility having admittedly bought at least 20% of their raw cacao from the island of San Tome (Satre, 2005, p. 15). Three of the Quaker chocolate makers including Cadbury, Fry, Rowntree had affiliations with cacao planters on the island as well. ” In 1900 the firm had purchased over 45% of its cocoa beans from the island” (Satre, 2005, p13).

It was 1901,  and one of the Cadbury brothers was alerted to the use of slaves on the island of San Tome. Having quite a stake in the matter, he did not want the Cadbury brand to be affiliated with the practice. After all, George Cadbury, the owner of the Daily News made quite a commotion with the expose on “yellow slavery” in the mines of South Africa (Satre, 2005, p.12). Not one to make rash decisions, the Cadbury firm investigated the matter for the next 7 years even after the Harper’s articles written by Nevinson hit the stands.  “The New Slave Trade,” made many waves in the English conscience and established itself as a topic of worthy chatter. George Cadbury had joined the major anti-abolitionist movements of the century and yet, here was evidence of slave labor being used to further the Cadbury brand. Nevinson experienced the march of death himself as he walked along the same route to the coast as had thousands of slaves before him.

Photo credit: https://hughcrosfield.wordpress.com/2012/10/05/introducing-the-dog-that-didnt-bark-in-the-night-time-quaker-chocolate-and-the-sao-tome-cocoa-scandal-1902-9/
Photo credit: https://hughcrosfield.wordpress.com/2012/10/05/introducing-the-dog-that-didnt-bark-in-the-night-time-quaker-chocolate-and-the-sao-tome-cocoa-scandal-1902-9/

Photo description: Nevinson describes a chilling scene as he comes upon tree branches outfitted with shackles of slaves who presumably did not make it.

Through the course of countless trips to the island, one by a Cadbury himself, the financial relationship with the planters of San Tome did not end until the public pressure was too hard to ignore. A public boycott by the major British chocolate makers finally made some sort of acknowledgement that, yes, slavery was a real issue. 4,000 African slaves were shipped to the island per year and most died within 3.5 to 4 years (Satre, 2015). The notion of repatriation and severance pay and full commitment to a 5-year contract was mostly a sham. Most slaves who reached the island of San Tome and Principe never left. Upheld as one of the model working villages/factories of its time, Bournville lies in stark contrast to the working conditions of slaves on the San Tome island.

Video description: This short feature film was awarded the Gold Polyhedron at the Turin International Film Festival in 1953. The film portrays a view into the life of a Cadbury employee living in the Bournville village sponsored by the Cadbury firm.

The cacao industry in San Tome was heavily disrupted by the boycott and ultimately, by the swollen-shoot disease afflicting the cacao tree (Satre, 2015). Cadbury and other British chocolate makers resorted to the Gold Coast for their raw cacao to distance themselves from the slavery controversy. Today, Cadbury continues to buy the bulk of their cacao from Ghana (formerly known as the Gold Coast) (2).  The Quaker companies’ decision to end their relationship with planters with questionable labor practices is illustrative of a company that can be out of touch with their labor and supply chain, but who, thanks to public pressure, attempts to rectify the situation.


(1) Cadbury UK. https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story\

(2) Cadbury AU. https://www.cadbury.com.au/About-Chocolate/Cocoa-Growing-Countries.aspx

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

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


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