Sugar, Cocoa, and Slavery in Portuguese Colonial Africa

Slave labor fueled the sugar industry ‒ and, later, the cocoa industry ‒ in Portugal’s island colonies in the Atlantic for centuries. Though slavery was officially abolished in Portugal’s colonies in the 1870s, it was quickly replaced with forced labor that left indentured São Toméans toiling on sugar plantations for little or no pay up until the early twentieth century. Slavery and forced labor played huge roles in the history of the chocolate industry, and their historical ties to Portuguese sugar cane and cocoa exports cannot be ignored.

Early Sugar Production in the Atlantic Colonies

A map of Portugal and its colonies, in red, alongside principal Portuguese trade routes, in green, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.1

Sugar consumption in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was starkly different than it is today. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, sugar was still largely only accessible to the wealthy, and was most commonly used as a spice or medicine.2

While sugar was still nowhere near being the commodity it is today, its production proved to be strategic for other reasons. The Portuguese realized that securing colonial territories in the Atlantic could be useful to the end of monopolizing essential trade routes, and so soon began establishing sugar cane plantations along their Atlantic island territories in order to safeguard these trade routes.3 Sugar plantations, or roças, were established on the islands of the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe, and later in the continental African colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

[Portugal’s island colonies in the Atlantic] were situated in strategic locations with respect to wind systems and ocean currents. Portugal’s control of the sea lanes in the Atlantic ‒ and later to Asia ‒ were to depend on her ability to secure the islands as bases.

Sidney M. Greenfield4

In Angola and Mozambique, these sugar cane plantations were powered by the unpaid labor of enslaved natives. Portugal’s  island colonies in the Atlantic had no native populations, however, and so the Portuguese imported enslaved people from its colonies on the African continent to toil on the island plantations in place of Portuguese settlers.5

The value of sugar skyrocketed over the next several hundred years, surpassing that of even tobacco.6 By 1900, sugar represented approximately “one-sixth of per-capita caloric intake” among Europeans.7 Sugar plantations became a vital part of the world economy as the global demand for sugar increased, and the Portuguese were willing to go to great lengths to protect the incredible wealth they had created in the Atlantic on the backs of slaves.

Cocoa Plantations and Forced Labor in São Tomé and Príncipe

Portugal abolished slavery in 1761, but ruled that this abolition should not be extended to its colonies abroad. The decision to end slavery in the colonies did not come until 1869, and was not actually implemented until the mid-1870s.9 The economies of the Portuguese colonies had been built entirely upon the unpaid labor of abducted African people; as such, the Portuguese government soon began looking for ways to lessen the economic blow that abolishing slavery in its colonies would undoubtedly cause. Eventually a new labor system was implemented in the colonies wherein former slaves could “sign contracts committing themselves to five years of labor at a set wage.”10

In reality, these so-called contracts were either coerced, forged, or simply never existed in the first place. These serviçais, as they were called ‒ the Portuguese word for servants ‒ were slaves whose lives, labor, and freedom were being stolen for the profit of the Portuguese empire.

An undated São Toméan postcard featuring a photograph of serviçais working at Roça Boa Entrada, one of the largest cocoa plantations in São Tomé and Príncipe.8

As the global demand for chocolate began to increase around the mid-1800s alongside the global demand for sugar, some of Portugal’s Atlantic colonies began producing cocoa on plantations nearly identical to the sugar cane roças. The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe soon became hubs of cheap, large-scale cocoa production powered by the new serviçal labor system.

The Cadbury and Fry chocolate companies, both located in England, were two of several buyers of cocoa from the roças of São Tomé and Príncipe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. English journalist Henry Nevinson published an exposé of the abhorrent labor conditions of serviçais in Portuguese colonial Africa in his 1906 novel A Modern Slavery, but neither Cadbury nor Fry made an effort to source their cocoa elsewhere once these revelations came to light. Instead, unconvinced ‒ or perhaps willfully ignorant ‒ William Cadbury sent Joseph Burtt to investigate labor conditions in São Tomé and Príncipe for himself in 1907.11

When Burtt’s report confirmed Nevinson’s findings, it was not well received. The British secretary of state urged Burtt to edit his report to be less damning of the Portuguese government, essentially watering down the atrocity of what was actually happening overseas in the name of diplomacy while simultaneously delaying the publication of the report.12 Nevinson saw Burtt’s report as a weak summary of his own work, and published articles in several newspapers advocating for the boycott of Cadbury and Fry chocolate companies until their cocoa was no longer associated with São Toméan slave labor.13 While said boycott never actually took place, the scandal was enough to push Cadbury and Fry to officially stop buying São Toméan cocoa in March of 1909.14

Modern Cocoa Production in Post-Colonial Africa

Following the Cadbury slave labor scandal, cocoa production in São Tomé and Príncipe began to dwindle. The chocolate companies that had once been loyal customers of São Toméan cocoa began sourcing their cocoa from countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire instead. By the time São Tomé became independent in 1975, the cocoa industry there had fallen “into neglect,”15 and nearly one-quarter of all cocoa farmers in São Tomé were living below the poverty line.16

It wasn’t until 2009, when the United Nations’ International Fund for Agriculture began “working with farmers on the island to produce Fair Trade cocoa beans using a co-operative model,”17 that prospects for the cocoa industry in São Tomé and Príncipe slowly began to improve. Fair trade farmer’s co-operatives ensure that São Toméan cocoa farmers are finally appropriately compensated for their labor after centuries of being forced to provide this labor for free.

Fair trade chocolate practices ensure that African cocoa farmers are appropriately compensated for their labor.18

Works Cited

  1. Image from Biblioteca Escolar, https://docplayer.com.br/74086840-Portugal-sec-xv-e-xvi.html.
  2. Mintz, Sidney W.  Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1985, p. 30.
  3. Ibid, p. 30.
  4. Greenfield, Sidney M. “Plantations, Sugar Cane, and Slavery.” Historical Reflections,  vol. 6, no. 1 (1979), pp. 85119. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41330419, p. 87.
  5. Ibid, p. 103.
  6. Mintz, p. 36. [n 1]
  7. Ibid, p. 149.
  8. Image from Ansichtskartenpool historical postcards, https://www.akpool.co.uk/postcards/28291659-postcard-so-tom-und-prncipe-roca-boa-entrada-chegada-do-cacao.
  9. Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005, p. 3.
  10. Ibid, p. 3.
  11. Ibid, p. 13.
  12. Higgs, Catherine. “Cadbury, Burtt, and Portuguese Africa.” Chapter in Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012, pp. 133154, p. 133.
  13. Ibid, p. 137.
  14. Ibid, p. 148.
  15. Constable, Harriet. “Cocoa industry returns to São Tomé.” Geographical. 30 August 2018, https://geographical.co.uk/people/development/item/2889-sao-tome, p. 5.
  16. Plaut, Martin. “Chocolate boost for São Tomé farmers.” BCC News. 7 March 2011, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-12261276, p. 11.
  17. Constable, p. 5. [n 15]
  18. Video from Equal Exchange, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnpsFRcsnE0.

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