In the early twentieth century, the Cadbury Brothers Limited was a prominent chocolate producer in Britain. In 1901, a member of the Cadbury company, William Cadbury, was exposed to the accusation of slavery in his company’s cocoa farms. The situation was such that “he was told that slave labor was used on the island of São Tomé. Shortly thereafter this unsubstantiated comment was given credence when the Cadbury company received an offer of a plantation for sale in São Tomé that listed as assets two hundred black laborers” (Satre 18). With the rumor of slavery existing and having a direct tie to the Cadbury company, William did not immediately conclude that slavery was going on because “he did not equate the labor of São Tomé to that of other forms of slavery reported in Africa” (Satre 19). Cadbury was not incorrect in observing that the labor conditions were different than the historical slavery in Africa, but it was still slavery and leads to the questioning of his ethics.
The slavery in São Tomé was different from other historical forms of slavery in Africa. “Portugal had abolished slavery in all of its colonies, including Angola, in the 1870s, but plantation owners and others still desperately craved workers” (Satre 2). “To satisfy this constant demand for labor, a state-supported system of ‘contract labor’ emerged. Wherein government agents certified that natives could, of their own free will, sign contracts committing themselves to five years of labor at a set wage.” The plantation owners abused these contracts, which lead to slavery. Nevinson, who was researching slavery in West Africa, described several reasons why people might become slaves, including the following:
“[s]ome had broken native customs or Portuguese laws, some had been charged with witchcraft by the medicine man because of a relative died, some sould not pay a fine, some were wiping out an ancestral debt, some had been sold by uncles in poverty, some were indemnity for village wars, some had been raided on the frontier, others had been exchanged for a gun; some had been trapped by Portuguese, others by Bibéan thieves; some were but changing masters” (Satre 7).
The exploitation of labor was in fact slavery, but William Cadbury wanted to be thorough in his obtainment of information because “he wanted to be absolutely fair to the responsible parties on the cocoa plantations and in Portugal” (Satre 19).
In order to come to a definitive conclusion regarding the possibility of slavery in the Cadbury cocoa farms, William Cadbury enlisted the services of Joseph Burtt, who would travel to São Tomé in order to uncover whether the rumors of slavery were true. Before Burtt could begin investigating, he had to first learn Portuguese. Cadbury might of had an expedited report if he had chosen someone who already knew Portuguese, but Burtt eventually found explicit evidence of slavery. When the time came for Burtt to publish his findings, he “added to the delays by pushing, in addition, for a ‘personal and private appeal to the planters’ to ensure they understood’ that the whole question has been taken up from a desire for decent conditions of coloured labour and not from English’ self-righteousness and hypocrisy” (Higgs 135). The delays in the report mounted to the extent that even though Burtt had been commissioned by the Cadbury family in 1905, he did not return to England till 1907. After William Cadbury read Burtt’s report and visted Africa, “he found a system he called ‘slavery in disguise’” (Vertongen).
Meanwhile, another party was uncovering the truth behind the working conditions. Henry Nevison was on an assignment to investigate the working conditions in West Africa. Nevison worked for Harper’s Monthly Magazine and would end up writing “a series of articles and a subsequent book describing slavery in Portuguese West Africa” (Satre 2). He witnessed explicit slavery and periodically published his findings in Britain. Nevison publically called for a boycott of the slave plantations.
With the information from Burtt’s report and the public scrutiny caused by Nevison’s exposure of the slavery conditions and pressure for change, William Cadbury came to the conclusion that a boycott was necessary. “1909, Cadbury Brothers wrote to Fry and Rowntree to recommend that all three firms ‘cease buying S. Thome cocoa’” (Higgs 147). All three firms began the boycott and were particularly effective in Britain because “[a]t the turn of the twentieth century, the British cocoa and chocolate business was dominated by three Quaker-owned firms-Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree-although European companies continued to claim a large part of the British market” (Satre 14). The companies moved their cocoa farms to the Gold Coast in West Africa, where they knew slavery was not employed.
The ethics pertaining to William Cadbury’s actions in combating slavery need to be further examined. A substantial amount of time passed from when he first learned about the labor conditions in the cocoa farms and the action of the Cadbury company to boycott the slave labor being used. William is partly at fault for this delay. Although being prudent and securing a definitive report of the possibility of slavery may be wise, his choosing Burtt was problematic, since the latter had to learn Portuguese before beginning his research. The delays in the publishing of Burtt’s report were the result of Cadbury’s desire to not offend. Ultimately, William Cadbury can be criticized that the developments to end the slavery could have been conducted on an expedited time frame. Another reason for the delay was his not being convinced that the rumored conditions were in fact slavery, due to the differences between it and prior forms in Africa. He wanted more evidence of the exploitation as the Portuguese government even pledged to create better working conditions for the labors. Since “he obviously wanted to believe that the Portuguese government officials were sincere in their promise to enforce the new rules” (Satre 15), Cadbury’s delay in boycotting might be somewhat justified. In conclusion, enlisting Burtt to provide more evidence of slavery and allowing the Portuguese government time to correct the slavery problem are valid reasons for some of the delay in action, and given that the boycott of the slavery did ultimately occur, William Cadbury should not be regarded as unethical.
Satre, L. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business
Higgs, C. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa
Vertongen, D. (Director), & Hargrave, G. (Producer). (2000). Extra Bitter: The Legacy of the Chocolate Islands [Video file]. Filmakers Library. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from Alexander Street.