Charity Begins at Home, Not Abroad: The Cadbury Chronicles

The Cadbury name has been synonymous in the global marketplace with quality chocolate. It’s often smuggled back to the States by well intentioned travelers and sold at international grocers in order to give immigrants a taste of home and Americans a taste of “real chocolate”, in addition to now entering the American marketplace. However, it’s sweet beginnings are not as pure or idyllic as its advertisements, or popular history, would like to make it seem.

The Cadburys’ focus on the ethical treatment of their factory workers, support for the free press, and general support for progressive values are a prime example of the moral righteousness that allow people to begin, and end, charity at home. Although George Cadbury eventually enabled the end to the exploitative servicai system in Sao Tome and Principe, he significantly delayed the process out of fear of hurting the company’s business interests, thus exposing the true nature of the Cadburys’ progressive facade.

The Golden Boys

When John Cadbury first began his chocolatiering business in the 1830s, he had already established himself as a fierce advocate for bettering society, fighting against child labor, animal cruelty, and other social ills (Carniege Medal of Philanthropy). He even advertised chocolate as a substitute for alcohol, as a strong proponent of the temperance movement. His sons, Richard and George, did not stray from their father’s progressive path, as they were all strong Quakers (Satre, 14). The Cadbury brothers, Richard and George, prided themselves on running an efficient and morally upstanding workplace. This meant that the workweek was strictly regulated to forty hours, married women were barred from working in the factory, and there was a strict separation of the sexes at work.

An image of the Cadbury’s idyllic Bournville, which was advertised in a Guardian newspaper clipping from September 23rd 1901, headlined as “The Cadbury brothers not only built a new factory but they tried to improve the lives of their workers by providing decent housing” (Image Sourced from the Guardian Archives)

Moreover, they strictly adhered to the Quaker principle of “providing aid to the less fortunate” (Satre, 15). George Cadbury financed low-cost and low-interest housing for his employees and made significant donations to religious education for adults. They worked to establish the model village of Bourneville, a village in which workers could both live and thrive, where they would have access to kitchens, dressing rooms, athletic fields, and gardens. Outside of his chocolatiering, George Cadbury was also a newspaper proprietor that championed the Liberal Party and progressive values, like the anti-war effort, pensions for the elderly, fair labor standards (Satre, 16). In short, the Cadbury brothers prided themselves as champions of the people and fierce anti-slavery advocates, in order to remain true to their Quaker ideals. Even today, the Cadbury name remains as synonymous to philanthropy as it does to chocolate.

A plaque engraved on a British Historic site, showcasing how publicly venerated the Cadburys were for their philanthropy. (image sourced from Wikipedia)

A Slow Reckoning

Seemingly unbeknownst to the Cadburys and the international world, the areas from which they were sourcing their cocoa were utilizing a Portuguese system of labor called servicai, in which workers entered labor contracts that bound them to their employers for five years at a time. This contractural labor system was essentially debt slavery, where employees were never paid their repatriation wages, never allowed to return back to their homes, and were forced to work under heinous and oppressive conditions.

An image depicting the plantations where servicai were forced to process cocoa in Sao Tome. (Source: Sao Tome and Principe Travel and Tourism Information, 2012)

The Cadbury Company officially recorded in its records that some form of slavery, either total or partial, exsisted in its cocoa estates in Sao Tome in April 1901 (Satre, 18). However, Satre appropriately questions the delay of such record, considering the widespread evidence of the servicai system’s use in Sao Tome and Principe in Protestant circles by the late 19th century.

  In A Civilized Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, Kevin Grant highlights that one can say “with actual certainty that in the 1890s the Foreign Office, the Anti-Slavery Society”, of which the Cadbury brothers were strong supporters, “the Friends’ Anti-Slavery Committee, the BMS, and the Plymouth Brethern” all believed that slavery was utilized at the cocoa plantations in Sao Tome and Principe. Yet, the Cadburys, who began to purchase cocoa from the island in 1886 , claimed they had “no definite knowledge” of slavery until 1901 (Grant, 120). 

Moreover, William Cadbury gave “inconsistent accounts” of how he and the company become aware of the slavery situation. In one instance, he explains that the issue was brought to his attention in 1902, when a missionary from Angola visited Bournville to discuss the issue. In another account, he claimed that he learned of the “unsatisfactory labor conditions” from a 1901 report from the Foreign Office (Grant, 122). Some would could ask–why the inconsistencies? Why didn’t the Cadbury’s pull out of Sao Tome as soon as they learned what was happening, especially considering their Quaker roots?

The Inconvenient Truths

Despite officially learning about the situation in Sao Tome in 1901, and more realistically, even earlier, the Cadburys were extremely slow to act. William Cadbury grappled with the issue, debating whether or not the servicai system was truly akin to slavery–despite the fact that the bill of sale of one of the properties on the island specifically identified its human employees as property (Satre, 19). Moreover, he claimed he wasn’t sure how similar the servicai system was to “gold or diamond mining”, which was more ostensibly gruesome and more popularly linked to slavery, and thus, did not want to act brashly and injure a system with “one of the very best kinds of labor” the Cadburys had seen (Satre, 19).

In order to further investigate the situation, William Cadbury embarked on his own expedition to analyze the nature of labor on the Island. Despite hearing numerous testimonials of the brutality of the system, he remained optimistic that the Portuguese government would simply instate new labor regulations and all would be well. The Cadbury company later financed Joseph Burtt’s expedition and report of the reality of labor conditions in Sao Tome, but allowed for the report to be put on bureaucratic back-hold for eight years. The question arises–why do all this? Why go on an expedition, only to then ask for a change in labor conditions? Why finance the creation of a report, but allow for it to go unseen for years? The answer is simple: a maintenance of power.

As of the early 20th century, Cadbury was sourcing 45% of its cocoa from the island of Sao Tome. They didn’t want to pull out of Sao Tome, despite knowing about the labor conditions, because their supply chain relied on it. Initially, they hoped people wouldn’t recognize their involvement or hoped that the international world would turn a blind eye. But, as more and more people caught wind of what was happening in Sao Tome, they knew they couldn’t continue to feign ignorance, so they bought themselves time. They involved themselves in lengthy interviews and personnel finding expeditions in order to act as if they were addressing the problem, all while they continued to export thousands of pounds of cocoa from the island. When it came down to making the noble choice and making the financially smart choice–they chose the smart choice. The charity they practiced at home was not the same charity they practiced abroad, because they didn’t need it to be. They cared far less about the working conditions of foreign Africans than they did of their native English folk, and it wasn’t even an issue of proximity, considering the trips they took to the islands, it was an issue of humanity. Contractural laborers weren’t as deserving of their Quaker charity, it seems.

Academic Sources

Coe, Sophie and Michael Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson. London, UK.

Grant, Kevin. A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884-1926. Routledge, 2004. 

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2013.

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