By the late 19th century, Cadbury had become a renowned chocolate manufacturer and humanitarian enterprise with a model factory in Bournville providing accommodating working conditions (Coe and Coe 242). However, Cadbury was soon swept into a controversy surrounding claims of slavery on São Tomé and Principe, one of the firm’s major suppliers of cacao. The documentation of Joseph Burtt, who was appointed by Cadbury to visit São Tomé, was not published until almost a decade after William Cadbury first learned of slave labor in the islands. This delay as well as the firm’s deferment of boycotting São Toméan cocoa brings to question the company’s business ethics. Ethical scrutiny should extend not only to the Cadbury corporation but also to the Portuguese and British political bodies; however, a principal cause of the delayed and arduous path to reform stemmed from Cadbury’s prioritization of business incentives over moral practices.
British journalist Henry Nevinson traveled to Africa in 1904 and helped expose the unethical practices of cacao labor. The servicais, or “contracted laborers,” in São Tomé were actually slaves brought from Angola; although a Portuguese decree of 1903 required the option of repatriation after a five year labor contract, none of them actually returned to Angola (Satre 8-9). Plantation owners paid their laborers less than what was required by the decree and renewed their contracts without consulting the servicais; the Portuguese government, unconcerned by these breaches of law, were often encouraging Angolan natives to commit crimes so they could be enslaved, furthering the government’s economic self-interest through the money-making benefits of the slave trade (Satre 8, 11). Not only did the Portuguese deny slavery, British authorities also seemed to refrain from thorough investigations, perhaps because Britain depended on labor in the islands (Off 60). Both Portuguese and British authority figures were driven by the economical benefits of facilitating, rather than obstructing, slave labor practices.
In contrast to Nevinson, who published reports on slavery immediately after returning to Britain, the Cadburys took considerably more time in taking action (Satre 12). When William Cadbury visited Trinidad in early 1901, he heard claims of slave labor in São Tomé and traveled to Lisbon in 1903 to investigate. Despite hearing from some Portuguese plantation owners that the decree of 1903 would end labor abuses, missionaries to Africa and British authorities strongly doubted the new decree would mediate any genuine reform (Satre 23-24). Despite testimony confirming brutal labor, William provided an optimistic report to his firm: “I cannot but feel that things are going to mend a little … the onus of this will lie on the British” (Satre 24). When appointing an agent to investigate the situation in Portuguese West Africa, the Cadburys chose the rather incompetent Joseph Burtt over more experienced yet more outspoken researchers such as Nevinson (Satre 32). The fact that Burtt was encouraged to approach plantation owners amicably and spent almost two years traveling in Africa imply that the ordeal was not perceived as a significantly pressing issue (Satre 32).
Cadbury may have stalled for time to secure an alternative cocoa supplier through the help of their cocoa buyer Edward Thackray, who began his research shortly after William heard of the slave labor in 1901 (Higgs 135). This may explain why the Cadburys agreed to the British Foreign Office’s suggestion to delay the publication of Joseph Burtt’s documentation (Satre 92-93). During this delay, the Foreign Office tried to amicably push the Portuguese towards reform, and Thackray escalated his search (Higgs 135). This delay may have also benefited the British government, which was wary about aggravating the Portuguese, key trading partners who could provide cheap labour forces for their holdings in Africa (e.g. diamond mines in Transvaal) (Off 65-66). For Cadbury and the British Foreign Office, a cautionary approach would help preserve their standings as business or economic powerhouses.
William Cadbury persistently rejected suggestions by Nevinson and others to boycott São Toméan cocoa, placing economic reasons at the fore of his argument; boycotting would ruin Cadbury’s buying influence and the valuable cocoa would be “very readily absorbed by other nations” (Higgs 137). Newspapers criticized Cadbury, and the company chose to sue the Standard for libel. Before their trial in 1909, William traveled to São Tomé, though the primary reason for this voyage may have been to confirm cocoa export possibilities in the Gold Coast. In his 1910 diary entry, Nevinson recorded a conversation between cocoa traders implying Cadbury had to verify Gold Coast production capacities before cutting ties with São Tomé (Off 71). Only after William’s trip did Cadbury decide to stop buying São Toméan cocoa, for an alternative source had been secured (Off 69). Almost a decade had passed since William first learned about the slave labor, and the business implications of this could only be magnified during the prosecution of the Standard trial; Cadbury had imported £1.3 million ($6.3 million) worth of São Toméan cocoa between 1901 and 1908 (Higgs 151). Cadbury had partaken in the investigation of slave labor on São Tomé but profit and quality of cocoa came first and foremost.
Cadbury had also attempted to discourage Nevinson from publishing another report on slavery, and The Daily News, owned by George Cadbury, remained quite reticent on the subject of São Tomé (Satre 82). This further implies that Cadbury was concerned with the effects on chocolate sales if more explicit coverage of São Tomé was released to the public (Higgs 151). The years Cadbury spent on silence or reliance on the British government cannot excuse the abuse or death of thousands of laborers while the company continued to profit from the cocoa sourced from São Tomé. Had it not been for individuals such as Nevinson, who favored “publicity, not silence,” the public’s awareness of cacao slave labor would have been limited (Satre 85). Had Cadbury provided an example by boycotting sooner and working with British authorities to press the Portuguese in a more threatening rather than cautious manner, reforms may have come sooner. In actuality, nearly a decade passed and Cadbury’s cautionary approach did not lead to substantial reform, as slavery persisted and the Portuguese continued to abuse their power to operate unfair labor practices (Higgs 153). The slow path to reform surely stems in part from corruptive flaws within the Portuguese and British political systems; however, Cadbury also shared a significant responsibility through their inclination to place their business before all else. For Cadbury, divided between jeopardizing their economic prospects and tainting their philanthropic reputation, securing other sources of cocoa was pivotal for their business success. This case study of Cadbury offers perspective into pressing labor problems even today, such as child labor and human trafficking; when political, economic, and moral issues become intertwined, it is critical that we ethically prioritize and preserve the welfare of human beings.
An LMS Railways Advertisement – Bournville. Cadbury. Cadbury. https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story. Accessed 4 March 2017.
Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Henry Wood Nevinson. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons .wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Woodd_Nevinson_(1856-1941)_circa_1915.jpg. Accessed 5 March 2017.
Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2012.
Martin, Carla. “Lecture 6: Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 1 March 2017. Lecture.
Nevinson, Henry. Slaves on Ship, Wearing Tin Disk and Cylinder. Photograph. “The Slave-Trade of To-day: Part VI.” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Jan. 1906, pp. 237-246.
Nevinson, Henry. Slave-Quarters on a Plantation. Photograph. “The Slave-Trade of To-day: Conclusion.” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Feb. 1906, pp. 327-337.
Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: Anatomy of an Industry. The New Press, 2006.
Satre, Lowell. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio University Press, 2005.