Cadbury Chocolate Debate: Resolving Moral and Economic Contradictions

In 1901, the Cadbury company, which employed workers in Britain to make chocolate, started becoming aware of a brewing ethical crisis. Though the company prided itself on caring for its employees with Quaker hospitality, they now learned that São Tomé and Príncipé, African islands in the Portuguese Empire, were potentially using a form of labor that was effectively slavery on the cocoa farms. The drama primarily unfolded amidst the clash between the harsh reality of economic self-interest and a universal liberal moral consensus of antislavery. Ultimately, the work of investigative journalists made it untenable for Cadbury and other stakeholders to continue to triangulate between the two contradictory forces, and the forces of liberal consensus proved to be more powerful for Cadbury.

To understand how Cadbury ended up in this quagmire, it is helpful to understand that the company’s identity held contradictory elements from its beginning. The company insisted that its mission was not solely to make money, but to also model a morally superior Quaker society. Religious discrimination prevented Quakers from many areas of social and political power, but the Quakers provided support for each other, and many were able to succeed in business (Satre 14). The Cadbury family was highly involved in charity work, and aimed to build the rural village of Bournville (also the name of the factory) into a model city as part of the “Garden City movement, designed to improve the living conditions of its people” (Satre 16).

Still, even before the Cadbury debate, there were hints that this best of both worlds narrative, which portrayed the company as both morally and economically superior, was covering over disheartening contradictions. Specifically, the company often would choose money over morals. The company operated under a “marriage bar,” which forced female employees to leave upon becoming married. Cadbury justified it by explaining that “Cadbury did not want to take mothers away from their homes and children” (Newkey-Burden). Yet Cadbury employed large numbers of single women to keep expenses down, and had to separate the sexes in the factory to protect the single women. Further, many Cadbury workers could not afford the rents in Cadbury’s model village (Satre 16). These factors raise fair suspicious that Cadbury’s actions were sometimes motivated more by economic factors (i.e. young, single women could be paid less) rather than by their proclaimed moral intentions (i.e. promoting motherhood).

As the scandal burst onto the public awareness after journalist Henry Nevinson’s articles (Satre 82), Cadbury’s reputation was in a particularly vulnerable position. Its predicament was summed up well by a journal’s wry observation that “the cocao and chocolate which are turned out in this country by philanthropic manufacturers with the most scrupulous of care for the welfare of their employees, should have been grown under the most infamous and revolting conditions of murderous slavery” (Satre 83). This contrast can be displayed through a 1960 BBC video clip of Bessbrook model village (link, BBC) with images from slave condition. Bessbrook served as inspiration for Bournville, and the BBC reporter notes its “quiet dignity,” and remarks that the park and childrens playgrounds are “well-kept and free from litter”. As a goose gracefully swims in lake, the reporter nostalgically describes the bygone era in which the Quaker companies “were concerned with the social welfare of their workers.” Even after scandals of São Tomé and Príncipé, the benevolent image continued to hold its place in the public’s mind, as evidenced by the wistful mood of the video.

In contrast, Nevinson’s image (link, Nevinson) of the slaves being transported by ship encapsulates the complete disempowerment of the slaves. While the BBC video extols the parks and playgrounds, the mass of woman and their children are crowded lifelessly on the deck, with no space to leisurely roam about even if they wanted to. Only a few of the women in the picture have the energy to sit up, and of those, many appear to avert the gaze of the camera, perhaps in shame. The two women who do make eye contact appear mournfully resigned to their predicament.

The advertisement for Cadbury provides another contrasting example. Two woman happily look down at the expansive, well-manicured soccer field that the children are playing on (link, Wilson). The field is surrounded by impressive architecture of Cadbury, perhaps signifying the benevolently paternalistic ethos of Cadbury. The women appear pleased to be contributing members of the model society, and their lively children on the soccer field contrast sharply with the hapless children resting in the laps of the women slaves.

Not only was slavery against the proclaimed morals of the Quaker’s, but the major players in the debate were united, at least ostensibly, in a liberal moral consensus of antislavery. Slavery had already been officially banned in both the British and Portuguese empires, so the debate was not over a moral dispute about slavery, but over a dispute of fact (Satre 2). Portugal claimed that the native laborers were voluntarily entering five year labor contracts, but Nevinson brought forth evidence the Portuguese system of “contract labor” was effectively the same as slavery (Satre 7).

Portugal’s insistence on its own propriety had a practical effect of constraining its ability to reign in threats such as Nevinson. Even though the “slave traders were aware of Nevinson’s presence and purpose” (Satre 5), he was allowed to proceed in peace (except for a poisoning incident which was possibly intentional). Instead of actively confronting Nevinson, slave traders avoided Nevinson by taking alternative paths, camouflaging the slaves as carriers, and taking other steps to disguise their practices (Satre 5). Since the Portuguese insisted they had nothing to hide, they even promoted visits to a “‘model’ plantation in São Tomé, ‘a show-place for the intelligent foreigner or for the Portuguese shareholder who feels qualms as he banks his dividends” (Satre 10). Nevinson was not impressed with the “model” plantation, especially when the doctor admitted a twelve to fourteen percent annual death rate, with the chief cause being “‘anaemia’ brought on by ‘unhappiness’” (Satre 10).

When Cadbury company decided to send William Burtt as a representative to investigate the allegations of slavery, the Portuguese not only tolerated Burtt, but actually consistently displayed hospitality to him (Higgs 141). As Cadbury negotiated with the Portuguese over reforms to the labor system, the Portuguese emphasized that they shared the company’s “‘liberal and humane sentiment’”(Higgs 141). While the Portuguese might have secretly wished to forcefully end the investigations from Nevinson and Burtt, their options were limited by their official stance of antislavery.

Cadbury was rightfully fearful of the consequences of the public outrage generated by journalists such as Nevinson. It was a “public relations nightmare” for the firm, with consumers mailing Cadbury with comments such as “You pious Frauds” (Higgs 153). The public image fallout even impacted the members of a jury, in which they ruled in favor of Cadbury’s libel lawsuit against a critical article, but only rewarded one farthing (one quarter of a penny) in damages, strongly implying their lack of sympathy for the company (Higgs 152). While a cynical interpretation is that companies and countries only act in their own self-interest, journalists such as Nevinson demonstrate that when journalists are allowed to do their jobs, the public has a chance to demand changes to the status quo.

Works Cited

Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business.

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

Wilson, An. 2010. How the Cadbury family of the Victorian age would put today’s fat cats to shame

Nevinson, Henry. 1906. A Modern Slavery

Newkey-Burden, Chas . 2018.Who were the Cadbury Angels?

BBC Roving Reporter, 1960. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOCne_jgJlA

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