We are often reminded that it is wise to toe a fine line and adhere to a certain code of moral conduct; but at what cost exactly? This is a question that Britain’s chocolate giant Cadbury wrestled with during the beginning of the 20th century. They flourished when it came to business ethics in their own Utopian village, Bourneville, yet struggled to maintain the same integrity when dealing with the horrific slave labor producing its most precious cacao supply.
In Lowell Satre’s article entitled Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics and the Ethics of Business, the trial of the Cadbury chocolate company begins when a young journalist by the name Henry Nevinson embarked on a field assignment for Harper’s monthly magazine of New York in 1904. The focal point of Nevinson’s field research was centered predominantly in the Portuguese controlled Angola territory in Africa.
Shortly after the United States of America had abolished slavery in 1865, Portugal had followed suit during the 1870’s by legally outlawing forced labor in all of its controlled colonies as well. However, Satre writes “plantation owners still desperately craved workers” as this sweeping outlaw of slavery threatened the convenience of free labor by tipping the economic scale slightly out of their favor. Satre continues, “To satisfy this constant demand for labor, a state-supported system of “contract labor” emerged, wherein government agents certified the natives could, or of their own free will, sign contracts committing themselves to five years of labor for a set wage” (Satre, pg. 2). These “contract jobs” also came with the so called benefits of being treated humanely and having the ability to return to their homeland after their contract expired. However, Henry Nevinson would soon discover, and corroborate an earlier tip that the Cadbury Company received in 1901, that these were empty promises and the idea of working voluntarily under humane conditions was clearly not the case.
The Cadbury Chocolate Company was located somewhere north of 4000 miles away from where Nevinson carried out his expedition. This was a Quaker owned firm, which meant that they were very serious in regards to their Christian religious beliefs; abstaining from particular vices that could be frowned upon – such as alcohol. The Cadbury Company in particular experienced a boom in business which warranted moving from the smaller shop that John Cadbury, founder and sole proprietor, operated out of in Birmingham; to a factory town that his son George Cadbury had designed himself. After John’s first son, Richard passed away suddenly in 1899, George became chairman of Cadbury’s board of directors along with he and Richard’s sons serving as board members. If you visit the Cadbury website, you can get their account of their story here:
Interestingly enough, Lowell Satre reveals what the Cadbury Company site dared not mention; the 1901 trip, when William Cadbury (George’s nephew) visited Trinidad. The company owned a small cocoa bean plantation there and he was told that slave labor was being used on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe. Shortly after, this rumor was “given credence when the Cadbury company received an offer of a plantation for sale in Sao Tome that listed as assets two hundred black laborers worth 3,555 dobra” (Satre, pg. 18). Despite the reports of slave labor and its corroboration by Henry Nevinson’s trip to Africa, the Cadbury Company began sourcing cacao from Sao Tome and Principe indicating that they needed to seek out additional confirmation that the laborers’ treatment there was indeed slavery.
William’s Cadbury’s uncle, George, had created a village called Bourneville in England with the intention for its portrayal to highlight what it meant to take care of company workers. Bourneville had no pubs – further emphasizing the Quaker lifestyle that the Cadbury family believed in – and was “built upon George Cadbury’s vision of improved dwelling, light, space and air for his employees” (YouTube: Barton’s Britain: Bourneville).
The contradiction was stark however, as the admirable gesture was tainted by the charges of knowingly benefiting from slave labor in Sao Tome and Principe. It raised the eyebrows of the media as they began to question the integrity of the company for its blatant hypocrisy. On one hand, they demanded further proof of people dying in Africa due to gruesome work conditions; while on the other hand politely fired female employees in Bourneville who announced they were pregnant so they can endure less stress and prepare for parenthood.
It is my inclination to believe that William Cadbury did not want to swiftly back out of using these cacao plantations because he did not want to affect the bottom line of his family’s business. So instead, he bided his time looking for a second voyager to travel to Africa and double down on Nevinson’s account to a) protect the company’s investment and b) not offend their Portugal partners overseeing the plantation operation. While the Cadbury Company strategically dragged their feet with these goals in mind, pressure was mounting from activist groups such as the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines’ Protection Society. Along with the press, these entities were pushing for the relationship between the Quaker company and slave labor it employed to officially be brought to light. Finally, William Cadbury elected Joseph Burtt to travel to Africa and confirm what everyone already knew.
In Catherine Higgs article entitled Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery and Colonial Africa, Higgs details how Joseph Burtt embarked on his journey to Africa and found that Henry Nevinson’s account of slavery occurring was more than accurate. It was so accurate that Joseph Burtt’s initial report, in the interest of Cadbury needed to be edited multiple times to lessen the impact of the ugly truth and not upset their cacao supplier. Higgs states that “Cadbury argued that publishing the report in the English press without first giving the Portuguese the opportunity to respond – which Burtt favored doing – would give them “every right to say, as they have done with Nevinson’s report, that they consider the whole attitude as unfriendly and unfair” (Higgs, pg. 134). William Cadbury was more concerned with protecting his brand, along with his business partners interest that he’d go as far as sugar coating (no pun intended) the truth about their operation rather than taking a stand against what was morally unacceptable.
Shortly after Burtts report had circulated within media circles in October of 1908, William Cadbury had diligently tried to walk back the implications of his company being accused of hypocrisy. In the end, the Cadbury Company backed out of Sao Tome and Principe, leaving the door wide open for the Hershey Chocolate Company of the United States to swoop in and assume the position of having no moral compass. In 1839, British colonial administrator Herman Merivale wrote, “Every trader who carries on commerce with those countries, from the great house which lends its name and funds to support the credit of the American Bank, down to the Birmingham merchant who makes a shipment of shackles to Cuba or the coast of Africa, is in his own way an upholder of slavery: and I do not see how any consumer who drinks coffee or wears cotton can escape from the same sweeping charge” (Martin, Lecture #6). While Herman’s words were about 60 years before the Cadbury controversy in Sao Tome and Principe, they eloquently capture the struggles William Cadbury and his company faced in attempting to tight rope the fine line of running a successful business while being an honorable one simultaneously.
“Barton’s Britain: Bournville.” Gaurdian.co.uk, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qz6tyxHlRlA.
“The Bournville Cadbury Site.” The Manufacturer, 16 Jan. 2015, http://www.themanufacturer.com/articles/200-workers-take-voluntary-redundancy-cadbury-plant/.
Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2013.
Katz, Frau. “A Map of Angola.” Pinterest, http://www.pinterest.com/pin/345510602641044139/?autologin=true.
Martin, Carla. “Lecture #6.”
Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ.Press, 2006.
http://www.iconinc.com.au, Icon.Inc -. “The Story of Cadbury.” Cadbury, http://www.cadbury.com.au/about-cadbury/the-story-of-cadbury.aspx.