Cadbury Bros. and the Chocolate Islands Scandal

Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (28)
Image displayed on page 28 in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton. The image shows an early Cadbury’s Cocoa advertisement. Printed in 1907 version. By Isabella Beeton. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1908, a report by Cadbury Bros. agent Joseph Burtt detailing practices of slave labor in the Portuguese-owned “chocolate islands” of Sao Tome and Principe began circulating in Britain (Satre 73); and in March of the following year, the Quaker-owned firm announced its decision to cease the purchase of cocoa from the islands (Higgs 148). These announcements were met not with acclaim but coldness (Higgs 152-153); an article in the Standard attacked Cadbury’s policies, and Cadbury’s libel suit against the paper won them only a farthing in damages (152). The problem? The firm had known about the existence of slave labor on the chocolate islands for upwards of six years before Burtt’s report was ever made available or the boycott instated (Satre 32, 98)—and thanks to already-aired evidence (Satre 20), including a series of articles by journalist Henry Nevinson, so had much of Cadbury’s political peerage (Satre 12, 82; Higgs 152; Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, 566–568.) The firm’s disregard of evidence and lengthy delays (Satre 76) led to accusations of hypocrisy (Higgs 143, 152-153; Satre 78, 82), inaction (Satre 76), and greater concern for international politics than for the plight of those who provided their livelihood (Satre 75), all of which threatened to render null Cadbury’s righteous core. The story sheds a troubling light on the conflict between good business and good ethics (Higgs 165), and leaves open dark questions about how Western culture treats its less-seen, less-valued workers.

Cadbury's Cocoa advert with rower 1885
“Drink Cadbury’s Cocoa” advertisement with rower and lady friend – B&W engraving – 1885. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cadbury became aware of slave labor in practice on the island of Sao Tome in 1901, by “an offer of a plantation for sale … that listed as assets two hundred black laborers worth £3555” (Satre 18). Lowell J. Satre marks this bill of sale as the initial point of concern for William A. Cadbury, then in charge of purchases for the company (18); but “ample” evidence was available to William through his connections with England’s Anti-Slavery Society (20)—reports describing starving workers, ships full of bought men and women, and brutal death rates of “servicaes” (Grant 1), or indentured servants, on the plantations (Satre 22-24). Cadbury Bros. was a Quaker company founded on Quaker ideals (Satre 14), with close ties to the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Societies (Satre 21) and a reputation for taking care of its workers at home (15-16), even building the Bournville Village Trust for factory employees (15-16), in addition to which the Cadbury-owned Daily News had run stories railing against slavery-like work conditions and “sweated trades” (16). Their treatment of the prospect that the plantations from which had come 45% of its beans in 1900 (Satre 19, 24) were practicing an evil they had long publicly opposed would have heavy implications for their hold on their moral high ground. Would the company apply the same stringent ethics they championed at home, and against other countries and trades, to matters that affected their own business? William Cadbury aired on the side of patient and cautious inaction; he never published the bill of sale, citing the document’s vagueness (as Satre icily puts it, his reasoning made “little sense, as the document specifically identified human beings as property”; Satre 19), and continued to dither in the face of distressing accounts. This silence would stretch until 1904 (22-24), when with new Portuguese labor legislation, and permission from the company’s board, William hired Joseph Burtt to travel to the Portuguese West African colonies (Satre 30-32) and investigate whether the whole unsavory matter had been put to rest on its own.

The beginning of Burtt’s journey to Sao Tome overlapped with the end of journalist Henry Nevinson’s (Satre 32); Burtt would return to England in 1907 (Satre 32, 73), by which time Nevinson’s articles and subsequent book (A Modern Slavery, 1906) about what he had seen in the islands were already two years published and on the market (Satre 32, 73). Burtt produced what Nevinson declared “an abstract of my book and no more” (Higgs 137), which nevertheless echoed Nevinson and the reports William Cadbury had heard: slavery, under a euphemistic title and technical obfuscations (Satre 76, Grant 1, Higgs 136-137), was producing the chocolate that Cadbury Bros. was buying (Satre 74). The onus was now on Cadbury, and its industry peers and allies, to put pressure on the Portuguese (78, 79)—but while the Aborigines’ Protection Society demanded an immediate boycott of the islands’ chocolate, international politics (one wonders if the companies’ bottom line and need for product didn’t also figure in) begged for another solution (Satre 81-82). William Cadbury’s decision to carry out the wishes of the Foreign Office (Higgs 135) by delaying Burtt’s report in lieu of a diplomatic meeting between the chocolatiers and the Portuguese planters (Higgs 134, Satre 75) nearly started a full-blown war with the outraged H.R. Fox Bourne of the APS (Higgs 134-136, Satre 78-80). The meeting with the planters took place in late 1907, with ineffective compromises, pleasantries, and technicalities exchanged (Higgs 141-142); it was followed by further negotiation the next year (143), by which William ended up taking a personal trip in October to Principe, Sao Tome (145) and the coast of Africa (146) to see if reform had been instated – and to look at the construction site of a railroad on the Gold Coast.

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Cadbury’s almanack for 2,000 years – a literary & useful curiosity
Print shows a young boy dressed as a chef carrying a tray on which are a steaming ewer and cup of “cocoa essence”; also shows various graphics around the central motif and states that it is “Registered”. Digital file from original print. No known restrictions on publication. Manchester, England: Henry Blacklock & Co., [1885?] Via Library of Congress.
After meetings with reasonably cooperative planters and recalcitrant officials (146), William finally recommended the long-in-limbo boycott in January 1909, and in March Cadbury ceased buying cocoa from the chocolate islands – but not before the firm had purchased fourteen acres of land on the Gold Coast, near the new railroad, for a factory (147). Inaction, compounded by desire to maintain positive relations with the Portuguese in spite of the colonies’ violent and oppressive practices (Satre 77, 81), had forestalled the boycott for eight years; and though the guilt of the islands was off the company’s hands, and something of a backup plan in place, more sticky consequences had been set in motion. Cadbury Bros. was fighting a veritable media circus, demanding apologies from multiple papers for articles questioning the company’s actions regarding the islands (Higgs 143). By the time William left for Africa in 1908, a libel suit against the Standard was underway for a blistering (though hardly hypocrisy-free) article wondering “why the solicitude for the ‘white hands of the Bournville chocolate makers’ seemed not to extend to ‘African hands’” (Higgs 145).  William returned home in plenty of time to testify at the trial, which ruled in favor of Cadbury—awarding them all of a quarter-penny (152). Letters from Cadbury customers delivered their version of this scathing verdict—one addressed the company as “You pious Frauds,” “You Anointed Hypocrites” (152-153).

Cadbury’s Quaker morals, so intact in their home country, were proven by the chocolate islands scandal to be shaky with regard to their business dealings and their concern for what Fox Bourne phrased as “putting an end to a monstrous evil, for the tolerance and development of which Great Britain is to a large extent responsible” (Satre 77). William Cadbury taking earlier action might have been risky, but his caution and protection of trade interests in the face of oppressive practices led him to conflict and embarrassment. A review of Nevinson’s A Modern Slavery published in 1908 reads: “After reading Nevinson’s most interesting book one cannot doubt that slavery is still a tremendous problem, and that its origin and continuance are due to the fact that, for the present, peculiar … conditions have appealed to the selfishness of the Portuguese so strongly as to overcome all scruples” (Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, vol. 40, no. 9, 567-568). In light of the long years it took to acknowledge and boycott the slavery that gave them their cocoa, such a statement could well be applied to Cadbury Bros.

Grant, Kevin. A civilised savagery: Britain and the new slaveries in Africa, 1884-1926. Routledge, 2005.

E.H. “Bulletin of the American Geographical Society.” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, vol. 40, no. 9, 1908, pp. 566–568. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/198362.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on trial slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Ohio University Press, 2006.

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate islands: cocoa, slavery, and colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2013.

“Cadbury’s almanack for 2,000 years – a literary & useful curiosity.” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2015651603/. Image. Accessed March 11, 2018.

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