The Cadbury chocolate company is one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world today. Kraft/Cadbury and Mars each comprised 15% of the chocolate market in 2011, (approximately) tying for having the greatest share of the market (Statista Research Department). From its inception to now, Cadbury has presented itself as adherent to strong ethical values, having been founded as a Quaker-owned firm (Satre 14).
But it would be gullible to believe that Cadbury has always been a perfect pillar of morality. Beneath Cadbury’s highly curated public image is a complex history of involvement in African slave labor. Although the blame for the perpetuation of this slave labor can be attributed in part to Cadbury’s business decisions, Cadbury is not alone in accountability, nor are the other chocolate companies of the era; a complex system of international relations and the situational consequences of renouncing slave labor place fault on the British and Portuguese governments and the underlying market dynamics of the time as well.
Slave labor was commonplace in early 20th century Africa under the guise of servicais, “contract labor.” The English journalist Henry Nevinson was sent by a magazine company to investigate slavery in Portuguese West Africa in 1904, and in Angola he found child slaves and slave caravans, deceptively relabeled as “contract laborers” (Satre 2).
But even before this, William Cadbury of the Cadbury company was told in Trinidad in 1901 that slave labor was used in São Tomé (from which Cadbury had purchased over 45% of their cocoa beans in 1900), prompting the company to direct William to investigate further (Satre 18). However, William chose not to publish a bill of sale that “specifically identified human beings as property,” because he deemed its wording “not sufficiently clear to be taken as a statement of fact,” (Satre 19). Indeed, William saw much clear evidence of slave labor in the São Tomé plantations throughout his visit, yet chose to obscure the details, as he did not equate this slave labor to other forms of slavery in Africa, minimizing the nature of the labor abuse. Despite clear knowledge of the labor abuse, the Cadbury company ended up delaying seven years until 1908 to publish a report to the British public, having to hire another agent (Joseph Burtt) to investigate first (Satre 32). Only in 1909 did Cadbury formally stop buying cocoa from São Tomé’s slave plantations (Higgs 148).
A statement by William Cadbury sums up the company’s two-faced stance on slavery: “I should be sorry needlessly to injure a cultivation that as far as I can judge provides labour of the very best kind to be found in the topics: at the same time we should all like to clear our hands of any responsibility for slave traffic in any form,” (Satre 13).
Role of the British and Portuguese Governments
Cadbury is not alone in blame, however. Nevinson had written that the Portuguese government purposefully used the legal excuse of “contract labor” to smooth over the injustice so that they may profit economically, charging various duties for each slave, delivery, shipment, and so on (Satre 8). And the British were no better: Britain’s own government was just as complicit as the Portuguese in supporting African slave labor. While William Cadbury investigated the disguised slave labor in Africa, the British government was attempting to recruit the very same Portuguese-African slave labor to work in their South African mines. With these incentives, Britain was inclined to avoid antagonizing the Portuguese. This would lead Gosselin, the British minister to Lisbon, to recommend William to give the Portuguese a year before taking any action (Satre 24). Later, in 1907, when Burtt returned to Britain with a report detailing the slave labor in Africa, the British Foreign Office sought to minimize the report by not only attempting to negotiate a deal for suppressing the publication of the report, but also suggesting the publication of a modified version (Satre 74).
The inaction of the Cadbury firm doesn’t fall entirely on their own shoulders; the British government, acting on their motives to appease the Portuguese and mutually benefit from slave labor, became a voice that served to muddy the waters.
Game-Theoretic Complications in the Market Dynamics
Boycotting the cocoa produced through slave labor seemed a natural solution, but initiating the boycott proved a difficult choice for any chocolate firm of the time. But why, if all companies boycotting could lead to everyone benefiting from establishing a stronger moral ground?
We can see why by examining what the decision may have looked like to Cadbury and other chocolate firms. From the perspective of a chocolate firm: if some other firms chose to boycott, one firm stood to gain huge profits by continuing to buy slave cocoa, as they could undercut prices and gain a greater share of the market (granted, they would lose moral standing, but this would only occur if a large enough proportion of other firms boycotted). This financially benefit would be greater than the small benefit of being morally in the right if all firms boycotted together. If no firms boycotted, likely nothing would change. But if a firm boycotted while any other firms did not, then that firm would lose sales to the firms that continued to buy slave cocoa, endangering the firm’s survivability and potentially rendering its own employees jobless.
These conditions fit the criteria of a Prisoner’s Dilemma (though to be precise, since there are multiple players, this is an NPD, n-person prisoner’s dilemma), for which the optimal strategy (in a single game) is to defect (D), as regardless of what the other player does, the better choice is to defect.
To the credit of cooperation (C), it is true that in repeated games of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, strategies that employ cooperation can begin to outperform always defecting (Nowak 91). However, the situation at hand isn’t exactly a repeated game. For context, Britain at the time was a big proponent of free trade capitalism, having one of the most permissive commercial laws in Europe (Booth 590). So there would certainly be no help from the government in bailing out a chocolate company if it opted for the boycott and consequently went out of business (and why would they? We just saw the British government’s own role in supporting slave labor). Going out of business certainly puts an end to the game for that company.
In this frame, Cadbury’s period of inaction can be seen as somewhat defensible. In fact, even after Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree jointly agreed to boycott in 1909, American chocolate manufacturers began to purchase the Portuguese slave-labor cocoa (Higgs 150). The market conditions of the time simply conflated doing moral good with shooting oneself in the foot.
In summary, Cadbury’s moral facade belies a history of entanglement in early 20th century slave labor, though the blame lies not only on Cadbury and the other chocolate firms of the time alone, but also on the British and Portuguese governments and the market consequences of taking action at the time.
Author of this blog post. “A Payoff Matrix for Cadbury’s Decision to Boycott Slave Cocoa in early 1900s”. 24 Mar 2020.
Booth, A. (2012). Personal Capitalism and Corporate Governance: British Manufacturing in the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Twentieth Century British History, 23(4), 590-592.
Bosspostcard. “São Tomé e Princípe – Serviçais Caboverdianos Carregando Cacau Na Roça Nova Cuba – Ethnique – Ethnic – Costumes – Mœurs “: For Sale on Delcampe.’” Delcampe, 17 Mar. 2015, 11:40, http://www.delcampe.net/en_GB/collectables/postcards/sao-tome-and-principe/sao-tome-e-principe-servicais-caboverdianos-carregando-cacau-na-roca-nova-cuba-ethnique-ethnic-costumes-moeurs-305514274.html.
Cadbury. “Cadbury – Mum’s Birthday TV Advert – 2018 (60 secs).” YouTube, 12 Jan 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0eEqeizNCA.
Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2013.
Nowak, M. A. Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.
Statista Research Department. “Global Market Share of the Leading 5 Chocolate Producers in 2011.” Statista, Statista Research Department, 15 May 2012, http://www.statista.com/statistics/238294/market-share-of-the-leading-5-chocolate-producers-worldwide/.