Monthly Archives: April 2020

A Moral Contradiction

The history of chocolate spans centuries; yet while many people enjoy the sweet treat, far fewer understand just how deeply chocolate’s history is embroiled in traditions of controversy, violence, and racialized prejudice. This blog post will narrate one small yet impactful period in chocolate’s history, concerning one of the biggest players in chocolate’s history and present: Cadbury. At the turn of the 20th century, the then-called Cadbury Bros. company found itself wrapped up in an international scandal over its business ethics, and more specifically their labor practices. This controversy did not only concern economic practices, but also political affairs of Britain, Portugal, and their condoning of colonial extralegal slavery (not in name, but in practice) in the Carribean. From 1905 to 1914, journalist Henry Nevinson sought to hold Cadbury accountable — in court — for their purchase of cocoa beans from the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe (Satre 12), , despite the fact that the beans were the product of illegal, brutal enslavement and forced labor of native and African people. Though Cadbury condemned slavery in name, the company imported tens of millions of pounds of cocoa beans from São Tomé and Príncipe between 1900 and 1910 — nearly a century after slavery had been legally abolished in Britain (though certainly not practically or economically). Over the course of this period, challenges to Cadbury’s company business ethics in Sao Tome versus in Britain reveal an apparent disregard for the violence against thousands of enslaved laborers, despite their proclaimed intentions to enact fair labor practices within their company.

Workers at the Cadbury chocolate factory in Bournville, England (NPR 2010

John Cadbury first opened his tea and coffee shop in Birmingham, England in 1824. After incorporating use of the newly invented hydraulic press, the company finally gained success in the 1860s. Cadbury grew into a factory business, employing 3,310 workers by 1900–in whom the owners “took a paternalistic interest” (Satre 15). This was because the Cadbury brothers were proud pillars of Britain’s Quaker community, and aimed to run their company “in accordance with Quaker tenet in providing aid to those less fortunate” (Satre 15). Despite long hours and close control over the employees, Cadbury factory jobs were highly sought after. According to a 2010 interview with descendant Deborah Cadbury:“”As soon as they were able,” Cadbury says, “they were doing things like raising the wages of their workforce, introducing Saturdays off, introducing pensions, introducing unemployment benefits and sickness benefits, and even free doctors, free dentists and vitamin pills for staff” (NPR 2010). However, despite an emphasis on fair conditions at home, Cadbury’s actions abroad painted a very different picture of their labor ethics.

After visiting Trinidad in 1901, William Adlington Cadbury (1867-1957) was tasked to investigate reports that slave labour was producing Cadbury’s cacao beans on São Tomé (Satre 18). Though W. Cadbury claimed overall ignorance about conditions on São Tomé and Príncipe at this time, the chocolate firm had purchased over 45% of its cocoa beans from the island by 1900 (Satre). Moreover, nearly eight years passed before decisive action was taken about Cadbury’s influence on the slave contract labor being used on the islands. Curiously, this period of lack of action coincides with a series of donations made to the Anti-Slvery Society in Britain by William’s brother George, a member, totaling to 510 pounds between 1900 and 1908 (Satre 21). Throughout this time, extended investigations, written and rewritten reports, suppressed publication of the controversy in British news (on the part of Cadbury), and diplomatic meetings between governments and chocolate companies resulted in no action until 1908 at the latest. Moreover, Henry Nevinson’s report, a project begun in 1905, was not available to the British public until 1908 (Satre). Meanwhile, William Cadbury spoke many times on record about opposing slavery yet vehemently opposed a boycott of purchasing the islands’ cocoa amongst the coalition of chocolate makers in Britain. In fact, he explictly went on record saying that his firm would like to continue purchasing cocoa from the islands (Higgs).

Though his Quaker anti-slavery humantarianism was expressed publicly, it seemed not to extend to the laborers in Sao Tome, based on the company’s extensive purchases of Sao Tome’s cocoa throughout this period: in 1902 Cadbury Bros. alone purchased 20% of São Tomé and Príncipe’s cocoa. This number decreased by 1907 (likely due to the pressure applied by journalists like Henry Nevinson)–to around 13% of Sao Tome’s total cocoa export, around 7.4 million pounds. This amount is still significant despite the change over time, especially when considering the violence experienced by thousands of enslaved laborers all for the sake of this export. According to Satre, Sao Tome held a total of around 40,000 slave laborers and Principe held around 3000 laborers at this time. He goes on to explain that 14% of laborers died in São Tomé died every year, and 20% of laborers died in Príncipe every year. This means that during this 8-year period of reluctant inaction on the part of Cadbury to address their investment in slave labor as a means to fund their business growth, a total of 43,200 enslaved peoples died. With regards to the company’s business ethics, this tends to reveal an interesting practice: that is, to keep a clean home but leave muddy shoes outside the door, so to speak.

These challenges to Cadbury’s business ethics remind me of a quote from artist Felix von der Weppen on his series “Chocolate Slavery” (above): “I wanted to create images that lead the viewer into a moral contradiction between desire and rejection. Hands stand for the power of action of individuals. By losing the power to act, we lose liberty, equality and are most likely controlled or enslaved by others” (Cargo Collective). Within the context of Cadbury’s inaction — not to mention today’s chocolate makers continued investment in forced labor — the violent impact of business practices like Cadbury’s during this period on human lives becomes even more salient.


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

NPR, 2010. “The Sweet, Social Legacy of Cadbury Chocolate.”

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

Cargo Collective, “Stop Chocolate Slavery.”


NPR, 2010. “The Sweet, Social Legacy of Cadbury Chocolate.”.


Felix von der Weppen’s “Chocolate Slavery.”

A Spoonful of Sugar: Chocolate Marketing and the Reproduction of Labor

Kit Kat Poster 1957-58
From Nestlé (link)

The above image, originally uploaded by Nestlé, is a 1950s print advertisement for Kit Kat chocolate bars. The advertisement features a marketing slogan used by Kit Kat to this day: “Have a break… have a Kit Kat!” The “break” refers to the signature snap of the Kit Kat bar’s internal wafer as well as the worker’s much-coveted reprieve from labor. The implication of this play on words is that the small indulgence of consuming Kit Kat bars can serve as a (minimally disruptive) break from work; eating a Kit Kat bar on the clock feels like an almost rebellious act of self-care but in fact, as this blog post will show, merely maintains the existing (exploitative) system of labor and consumption.

This blog post will describe the history of chocolate advertisements’ insidious appeals to alienated workers. While chocolate has been advertised as a reprieve from the dehumanizing and alienating nature of wage work, this blog post will demonstrate that these advertisements encourage workers to consume chocolate merely so they can continue working. These advertisements redirect the worker’s feeling of alienation, exhaustion, and exploitation toward resignation and complacency rather than the capacity for rebellion. This advertising practice can be seen as a recuperation (by capital) of the seeds of discontent that could otherwise flourish into anticapitalist revolution. [By “recuperation,” I refer to the practice of normalizing radical ideas in order to render them impotent—in other words, recuperation is when “the ruling class… twist[s] every form of protest around to salvage its own ends” (Downing 59).]

Marx writes in Kapital of alienation as the dehumanizing phenomenon in which workers are reduced, essentially, to machines that produce value for capitalists. The worker is treated as nothing more than an “instrument of labor” (qtd in Hochschild 3). A very disturbing 2010 Kit Kat commercial depicts a scenario that seems to literalize the Marxist comparison of alienated workers to machines:

In this commercial, a man working at a supermarket checkout counter acts as though his body is literally a checkout scanner—literally a machine. Having recognized the dehumanizing nature of wage work, however, the commercial promises that the purchase and consumption of a Kit Kat bar will allow the man to “have a break.” There is no need for him to organize for better working conditions, the commercial implies, no need even to question the system that so dehumanizes him; being a consumer is all he needs.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the above Instagram post, published on the official Kit Kat page in 2019. The Kit Kat bar is made to resemble a watch, again invoking and recreating the association between chocolate and a reprieve from labor. But the Kit Kat’s visual resemblance to a watch also betrays a bleaker reality: that the cycle of consumption itself is a constituent part of the system of capitalist exploitation that has transformed the human experience of time into labor-time.

Kit Kat’s slogan “Have a break; have a Kit Kat” and its associated advertisements very obviously reflect the chocolate industry’s positioning of chocolate as a reprieve from work that in fact merely reproduces labor (by making the worker able to work again) and reinforces the existing economic system (by making the worker double as a consumer). But other chocolate companies use similar messaging in their advertisements. Take, for instance, the following Snickers commercial:

This commercial depicts a crew of workers performing the very physically demanding and dangerous labor of handling timber. One worker expresses a reluctance to continue and questions the purpose of this work. He is then handed a Snickers bar and transforms back into the diligent and docile worker he is expected to be. “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” the voiceover intones. Questioning the reasons for one’s hunger, one’s underpayment, one’s exploitation is depicted as the irrational whining of someone who needs more sugar. Snickers are depicted as a balm for one’s immediate discontentment—a balm that can take the place, it seems, of actual systemic change.

Chocolate companies have been insidiously recuperating anticapitalist discontent (or progressive ideals) for as long as they have existed, often depending on the comforting and indulgent associations of chocolate itself to maintain positive brand images. During the Progressive Era, “the greater American public… embraced [Milton S. Hershey] as a kindly type of industrialist and an oddly selfless capitalist,” a reputation that “dependent, in part, on the playful sweetness of the product he made” (D’Antonio 114). How could a man who “distribut[ed] happiness in a wrapper” (114), who sold what had once been a luxury product to the sugar-hungry masses, be anything like the greedy and heartless robber barons denounced by the socialist organizers of the time (113)? Cheap and sweet, mass-produced milk chocolate seems like a populist treat, and this association allows chocolate companies to continue making money off the blood and backs of workers (both producers and consumers) while appearing sympathetic to their plight.

Works Cited

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Downing, John. Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements. Sage Publications, 2001.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell 1940-. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. University of California Press, 2012.