At it’s roots, slavery is the most radical form of cheap labor, and for hundreds of years Africans were forcibly taken from their land and traded as property. As abolition efforts eventually grew and made real progress in the west and in England, it became damaging to a company’s public image to maintain slave labor where the public knew about it. This perhaps inspired new methods of utilizing slavery for massive profits, as the Portuguese-rulers of São Tomé and Príncipe off the western coast of Africa discovered. These islands are where Cadbury Brothers received most of their cocoa supply from around 1900. They were producing incredible amounts of the raw material and somehow maintained affordable prices, which William Cadbury didn’t seem eager to question. This vast disconnect between the people “calling the shots” for a large company and the people affected by terrible conditions at the start of the production line has unfortunately survived into the modern corporate world. I will analyze the Cadbury Brothers’ economic drivers during the company’s slavery scandal of the early 1900’s and draw a comparison of William Cadbury’s actions to those of a modern corporate giant.
Supply and Demand
The most fundamental concept on which nearly all economic theory is built is that of supply and demand. As consumer demand for a specific product or category of products increases, the producers of it will either attempt to meet this demand by increasing their supply, or raise prices to capitalize on the increased consumption. This oversimplified understanding of supply and demand can give us a clearer understanding of what was happening with chocolate in England during the mid 1800s. Companies wanted greatly to match supply to demand and maintain affordability of chocolate for all consumers rather than make it exclusive to the wealthy elites.
Sidney Mintz tells us in his book Sweetness and Power that over a relatively short time, British “citizens became prodigious consumers of imported goods. Novelties gradually transformed from exotic treats into ordinary, everyday consumables” (Mintz, 1985 pg. 151). He explains that customs of consuming sugary products “percolated down through society” while maintaining consumption levels among elites. This was a new phenomenon, as few consumer products could establish a worthiness of royalty with an affordability for the masses. When demand for a product skyrockets like it did with fine chocolate in England during the mid to late 1800s, producers become more willing to use questionable processes to meet the increasing demand and maximize profits, even at the cost of others.
Cadbury Games: Appear Innocent, Sell Chocolate
Around the turn of the 20th century, Cadbury Brothers was one of three companies that controlled the chocolate industry in England. In 1901 William Cadbury first learned that slave labor might exist as part of his cocoa supply line, in the place that provided more than half of the company’s cocoa – São Tomé and Príncipe (Satre 2005, pg. 14). This immediately created a dilemma for Cadbury, between his business interests and his humanitarian obligations as the head of a large international rooted business. He would not effectively face this issue for over eight years. In the meantime, the company managed to side-step the issue and maintain a wholesome image in the public view. They were well known for their progressive labor policies, benevolent public service, and caring management (Satre 2005, pg. 15). They even tried to establish an urban utopian style environment for their employees to live and work in, as shown in the advertisement image below featuring the title “The Factory in a Garden” (Birmingham Mail, 2015).
George Cadbury was a devout Quaker and implemented the practice of restricting married women from employment as well as a strict segregation of sexes in the workplace (Satre 2005, pg. 15). It was through practices like this, and making them publicly known through advertisements like the one shown above, that Cadbury Brothers was able to exhibit an image of proper business ethics throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Even more pertinent was the fact that Quakers were actively involved in the antislavery movement around this time, and the Cadburys were no exception (Satre 2005, pg. 14.) However, when William Cadbury received a sales catalogue for an estate in São Tomé that included 200 African laborers – providing sufficient proof of slave labor in his supply line – he failed to engage suitably for several years. We know that substantial business opportunities can blur peoples values or blind them of certain morals, and Cadbury is not alone in this nature. The “Prisoner’s Dilemma” is an enigma sometimes used in legal practice and psychology studies. It offers the participants a reduced prison sentence for selling out their partner, but if both participants sell the other out then they both receive the maximum sentence. This teaches us that people are simply willing to hurt others in order to promote their own wellbeing. However, turning a blind eye to slavery in your business takes on a new level of immorality. I recognize that of course, information did travel much slower then than it does now, and was less reliable as well. However, we know that William Cadbury’s first real action during the development was not until the three large British chocolate companies sent a hired hand named Joseph Burtt to investigate the situation in 1905 – over 4 years after first hearing of the situation (Satre 2005, pg 32).
Upon finally returning in 1907, Burtt’s report was essentially passed back and forth between himself, Cadbury, and Britain’s Foreign Office for quite some time (Satre 2005, pg. 73). They were trying to optimize the wording of the report in a way that would upset the Portuguese government the least since they were in control of São Tomé and Principe. They were also trying to do the least harm to Cadbury’s reputation in the public view. In the meantime, another report was released blindsiding Cadbury with all of the allegations they had hoped to dampen through their own controlled report. Activist journalist Henry Nevinson had already been to São Tomé and come back to publish his findings about the present slavery through monthly reports in Harper’s Monthly magazine in 1905 and 1906. This marked the beginning of real change for the company and about a year later, Cadbury himself visited the two islands (Higgs, 2012 pg. 145). This series of events reminded me immediately of a 1997 documentary titled The Big One in which activist Michael Moore confronts co-founder and Chairman of Nike, Phil Knight, about the appalling working conditions in the company’s Indonesian factories. Moore managed to get a face to face meeting with Knight and his camera crew was able to capture the encounter. I’ve included the clip below.
The meeting seen here is preceded by some background information explaining how Nike is notorious for quickly building “popup” factories in small villages where people are so impoverished that they are willing to work for next to nothing, mere cents on the hour, with no bathroom breaks and long hours. The company proceeds to completely abandon the factories within a couple of months as soon as the local people establish any bit of sustainability and realize they deserve more pay. Moreover, Nike is working on good terms with Indonesia’s brutal military regime which has committed genocide in east Timor (Moore, 1997). When confronted, Phil Knight admits to never having been to Indonesia himself and laughs at Moore’s offer to take him there. The whole situation provides such a strong resemblance to the Cadbury scandal of the early 1900s. I can easily imagine William Cadbury having a similar response to the proposal of visiting São Tomé and Príncipe when whistles were blown on his own immoral business ethics.
William Cadbury was publicly condemned of his actions (or lack thereof) through activist journalism in the early 1900s, but managed to navigate through the allegations with his company’s profits seemingly unscathed. All the while, Cadbury Brothers maintained a wholesome public image through clever advertising and publicly announced philanthropic endeavors, not unlike the actions of many large corporations today. Only when they had established an economically reasonable alternate supplier in the Gold Coast did they publicly boycott São Toméan cocoa (Satre, 2005 pg. 148-149).
Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York, N.Y: Viking.
Higgs, C. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012. Project MUSE
SATRE, LJ., Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics and the Ethics qf Business (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2005)
The Factory in a Garden Image
The Big One – 1997, Directed by Michael Moore
Supply and Demand hyperlink: