From Slavery to Child Labor: chocolate companies and moral ambiguity

The surface area of the earth on which cacao is planted and harvested has expanded greatly over the last few centuries. Indeed, although the cacao plant originated in Mesoamerica, Africa (as seen in the map below) has become by far the largest cacao-producing region in the world. Nevertheless, controversy has accompanied this great growth. In the early 1900s, worries about slavery on the cacao plantations of the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome (off of Africa’s central west coast) eventually led some British chocolate companies to boycott the island’s cacao; one hundred years later, allegations of child labor led to calls for boycotts of companies that bought cacao from other West African nations (Sartre, 2005; Higgs, 2012; Off, 2008). This shift in controversy surrounding the labor used to harvest cacao (from slavery to child labor) is the result of public relations considerations by chocolate companies.

World Cocoa Production – Africa has 72% of worldwide production
Map of Gulf of Guinea – Sao Tome and Ghana are seen here


In order to retain favor in the court of public opinion, companies eventually had to cease purchases from Sao Tome plantations that used slave labor. Some might argue that the Quaker religion of many of the chocolate company heads meant that their religious faith and concern for the needy had pushed them to reject making chocolate using the labor of slaves. However, before the extent of the slavery was made known to the public, many chocolate companies were keen on staying in Sao Tome. One of these most famous British companies was the Cadbury chocolate firm. William Cadbury (the head of the company at the time) had heard and read credible rumors of slavery on Sao Tome by 1901 (Higgs, 2012). Yet, he did not stop buying chocolate from the Portuguese colony until 8 years later, after multiple voyages, investigations, and meetings with other chocolate-makers confirmed these rumors (Higgs, 2012; Coe and Coe, 2013; Sartre 2015). Cadbury’s evident hesitation and reluctance to end his company’s purchase of cacao produced by slaves, shows that the business and image of the company was more important than any ethical considerations.

Photo credit:
Shackles used on slaves in Angola

Once the Cadbury Company, and other British Quaker chocolatiers, ceased purchasing cacao from Sao Tome, they looked to the British Gold Coast colony (now called Ghana) to satisfy the chocolate demand of their customers (Higgs, 2012). The Gold Coast provided a suitable alternative to Sao Tome and Principe because it had clear antislavery laws and relied on small landholders to grow cacao (Berlan, 2013). Although both Portugal and England had outlawed slavery by the early 1900s, the laws for the Gold Coast were clearer and stronger at the time (Berlan, 2013). This signaled to both the company and consumers, that Cadbury chocolates would not be made with slave labor. Another signal came from the labor practices in the Gold Coast. The reliance on small landholders meant that slavery (especially the plantation-style slavery present in Sao Tome and Principe) was very unlikely to develop (Berlan, 2013). Instead, farmers of smaller plots of land recruited family members and sharecroppers to work for them (Berlan, 2013). This resulted in controversy related to child labor.

Child labor

On one hand, child labor was seen as extremely exploitative. It is evident that many children working on the small plots of land on the Gold Coast and neighboring Côte d’Ivoire were mistreated (Berlan 2013). Most were not paid, they often missed school, and some were made to do strenuous, dangerous work (Berlan, 2013; Off, 2008; Ryan, 2011).
Child working on cacao farm

On the other hand, many reports about child labor seem to have been overblown, with great exaggerations in the numbers of children working in truly hazardous conditions (Berlan, 2013). Additionally, terms like “child slavery” and “child trafficking,” while certainly serious concepts and acts, are often misapplied to situations in which children are being trained to be the next generation of cacao farmers or undertaking a rite of passage to find work (Ryan, 2011). This broad categorization of child labor as a particular evil of the cacao industry also neglects to look at broader rates of child labor in society.

This ethical grey area of child labor differentiates it from slavery and makes it a much more manageable public relations issue. The move of the large, British chocolate corporations to Ghana, and then other West African countries, placed companies in a much more morally ambiguous position, where it was often difficult to know if child workers were truly being exploited. This allowed companies to deflect criticism – something that was not possible once evidence of the plantation slavery on Sao Tome had been revealed. By shifting away from buying cacao in an area where slavery was clearly present to an area where child labor was an issue, the chocolate corporations shifted from an illegal, negatively perceived practice to one where uncertainty abounded.


Works Cited

Berlan, Amanda. “Social sustainability in agriculture: An anthropological perspective on child labour in cocoa production in Ghana.” The Journal of Development Studies 49.8 (2013): 1088-1100.

Coe, Sophie Dobzhansky, and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Vol. 29. London: Thames and Hudson, 2007.

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2012.

Off, Carol. Bitter chocolate: Investigating the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet. Vintage Canada, 2010.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate nations: Living and dying for cocoa in West Africa. Zed books, 2011.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on trial: Slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Ohio University Press, 2005.


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