Tag Archives: sao tome

“Contract Labor” or Slavery Remade: The Never-Ending Exploitation of African Workers

The Atlantic Slave Trade, which ended in the 19th century, set the precedent for “contract labor” in several west African countries. Unfortunately, this “contract labor” was certainly just another form of the slavery that existed before it. In the book Chocolate on Trial, by Lowell Satre, a journalist that ventures to Portuguese colonies in West Africa documented alarming stories that lend to the idea of the persistence of slavery in another form. The introduction of cacao into these west African colonies called for immense amounts of labor and although slavery in Portuguese was abolished in the 1870s, labor contracts served as an alternative method for the exploitation of African workers (Satre, 2006). 

This image is the King of Kongo receiving the Portuguese slave traders while offering captives to serve as slaves in return for goods

São Tomé, an island off the coast of West Africa and one of the Portuguese colonies, thrived off of the production of cacao beans. Consequently, it was also the hub of between twenty thousand and forty thousand contract laborers (Satre, 2006). With the potential of substantial economic gain and the abolishment of slavery in the colonies, the Portuguese quickly found a way to use labor contracts to profit off of the work of individuals who were in some ways still enslaved. In the midst of the conflict between African tribes and debts owed to the colonizers, there was not much difficulty finding the laborers to put to work. Between Africans selling their own family members to pay off debts, individuals in fear of forced labor rather than underpaid labor, and the exploitation of captives from civil war, the concerns of a shortage of workers was very minimal. 

This image depicts the poor conditions of African slaves, or “contract laborers” on a boat set to land in São Tomé

The colonizers did everything possible to make the labor seem voluntary. From the journalist Henry Nevinson it was very clear that slavery persisted. In Chocolate on Trial, he mentions witnessing a young mother sold to “a white man for twenty cartridges” (Satre, 2006). The sale of this mother wasn’t from a white man to another white man, rather she was taken captive by another African tribe who desperately sold other captives and people fit for contract labor. Furthermore, she was later spotted in a group of West Africans that were labeled as “voluntary workers” by the soldiers when in truth she was just another captive sold into extremely underpaid labor with awful working conditions. Another father that the journalist just missed committed suicide because he had sold all his children in hopes of paying his debts to the colonizers. Although these stories are just of two individuals it goes to show the extent that the Portuguese colonizers were willing to go to ramp up cacao production for their own economic gain. 

The book Chocolate Islands: Cacao, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, provides further insight into this new form of slavery as a William Cadbury, a member of the family-owned Cadbury Bros., decided to boycott this source of cacao after his visits to the colonies (Higgs, 2012). Witnessing this new form of slavery was clearly nothing to deny or be taken lightly. Captives were taken and shipped to São Tomé, often having no chance to return until the end of their contracts. The living conditions in São Tomé were beyond subpar (Weinberg, 2013). Furthermore, the already low wages the workers received were often paid back to the plantation owners through stores they owned. The boycotting of this source of cacao was a major political play for the British and the Cadbury Bros. as it highlighted ethics as primary concern that should be taken into consideration. Unfortunately, the Portuguese consistently denied the claims of extensive exploitation of their works by claiming that their workers were getting fair wages and had decent living environments (Higgs, 2012). 

An image highlighting the purity of Cadbury’s cacao once they stoped buying cacao produced from Portuguese labor contracts, likely signifying the importance of ethical cacao production.

Another interesting matter discussed by Nevinson throughout his time in the colonies was the seemingly forced conversion of children to Catholicism. According to Nevinson, it seemed like joining the missionaries and their practices of Catholicism was a way out of contract labor. This provides support to the idea that the so-called “voluntary labor” was indeed forced because large numbers of children did indeed join these missionaries and likely as a way to escape the labor (Satre, 2006).

The abolition of slavery in Portuguese colonies very clearly was not an abolition. Rather, they simply changed the form in which slavery exists to fit a more “ethical” time period where concerns were raised about slavery. With the British and companies like the Cadbury Bros. making points about ethical concerns, the Portuguese attempted to justify their contract labor by mentioning that it must be signed by both contractor and worker and that there were clear guidelines for the conditions in which the labor would be done. However, through anecdotal stories and investigations done by journalists such as Nevinson, it is clear that these standards of labor were almost always ignored for the sole purpose of economic gain through cacao production. By abusing power and existing conflict within these colonies, the Portuguese successfully enslaved, not paid, thousands of West Africans for the purpose of cacao production.

Works Cited:

Higgs, C. (2013). Chocolate islands: cocoa, slavery, and colonial Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Satre, L. J. (2006). Chocolate on trial: slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Athens, OH: Ohio Univ. Press.

Weinberg, S. (2015, October 22). Chocolate and slavery. Retrieved from https://www.1843magazine.com/places/chocolate-and-slavery

Cadbury and Slavery in Sao Tome

In the 1870s, the Portuguese government abolished slavery in all of its colonies. Although slavery was abolished, there still was a very high demand for labor from plantation owners. To solve this problem, Portugal elected to introduce the concept of “contract labor” where “natives, of their own free will, could sign contracts committing themselves to five years of labor at a set wage.” (Satre, 2). It was established that the government would be responsible for protecting workers and labor conditions.

In the early 1900s, about 30 years after Portugal had formally abolished slavery, British journalist Henry Nevinson went to Portuguese colonies in West Africa, where he couldn’t help but notice the obvious signs that indicated slavery was still prevalent. Nevinson described what he found, such as “human bones littering the sides of the trails,” and shackles used to restrain slaves hanging from trees so “they could be recovered by later trading parties.” (Satre, 1). Despite what the Portuguese government stated, Nevinson concluded that contract labor was no different than slavery.

Portait of Henry Nevinson

The discovery of the use of slavery had large implications for the chocolate industry due to the reliance on the production of cocoa in this region. William Cadbury, who was an owner of Cadbury, one of the largest chocolate companies in England, responded to Nevinson’s reports by sending an investigator, Joseph Burtt, to Sao Tome, one of the chocolate islands, to further look into the allegations of the use of slavery in chocolate production (Satre, 13). During this trip, Burtt concluded that slavery was still very much alive in the production of chocolate.

As shown above, Sao Tome is a small island of the western coast of Africa

Upon returning back to England confirming Nevinson’s findings, Burtt sent a report of his investigation results to Cadbury. These reports experienced a significant delay before being released to the public for multiple reasons. The release of the report had many implications. Not only would the report impact the chocolate industry, but it had potential diplomatic implications between the British and Portuguese governments. The findings in the report directly accused Portugal of failing to uphold their declaration of abolition. Knowing this, the England Foreign Office requested to Cadbury that parts of the report be edited to become more sensitive towards Portugal as not to upset them and create conflict (Higgs, 133). In addition to foreign policy concerns from the government, Cadbury had to delay the publication of the report in order to have the report accepted by other chocolate makers, such as Fry, Rowntree, and Cologne. The companies all had to negotiate the report, which proved to be very challenging and time consuming. The original report was written in December 1906, but the report did not become public until July 1907, and was much shorter as many descriptive passages were removed (Higgs, 136).

Cover of the report released displaying Burtt’s investigation findings

Despite the publication of the report, Cadbury still failed to stop its reliance on the production of cocoa in Sao Tome and other chocolate islands. There are multiple potential reasons for this lack of action. First of all, from a strictly business standpoint, production in Sao Tome was very good for Cadbury. The product was very high quality and was cheap, so it was very attractive. The concerns for Cadbury were ethical. Secondly, from Cadbury’s viewpoint, it did not make sense to simply leave these islands. By just leaving, Cadbury would not be doing anything to stop the slavery, as new competition would take advantage of the products. Not only would Cadbury be doing nothing to stop the slavery, but they also would be allowing competitors to take advantage and make them worse off as a company. By stopping utilizing Sao Tome, no one would be better off, and Cadbury would be worse off.

Upon lack of action by Cadbury, a British newspaper, The Standard, published an article heavily criticizing Cadbury for failing to act despite clear evidence. This upset William Cadbury, who in response successfully sued for libel (Martin, 65). In an effort to save face in the public eye, William Cadbury personally took a trip to the islands to investigate. Upon seeing for himself, Cadbury finally admitted the presence of slavery and the failure of Portugal to enforce abolition (Higgs, 148). Cadbury no longer purchased cocoa from Sao Tome or other chocolate islands using slavery.

While they did finally respond to everything that had happened, one might wonder why it ultimately took Cadbury four years to stop buying cocoa after the initial report came out from Nevinson. There are some explanations for this significant amount of time. In preparation to publicizing the report of Burtt’s investigation, there were many moving parts between Cadbury, the Foreign Office, and other chocolate makers. It was necessary to be careful in wording in order to not upset the Portuguese. Additionally, the distance between England and Sao Tome forced communication and investigating to be very lengthy, as it is not easy to travel between the two places. Ultimately, while it may have taken longer than necessary, Cadbury did eventually make the appropriate ethical decision regarding the role of slavery in their chocolate production in Sao Tome.

Works Cited:

Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 1-32, 73-99

Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. pp. 133-165

Martin, Carla D. 2019. Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.

Multimedia Sources Cited:

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Nevinson)

OnTheWorldMap (http://ontheworldmap.com/sao-tome-and-principe/sao-tome-and-principe-location-on-the-africa-map.html)

Archive (https://archive.org/details/labourinportugue00cadb)

Cocoa and Corruption: The Darker Side of Cadbury’s Business Practices

By the late 19th century, Cadbury had become a renowned chocolate manufacturer and humanitarian enterprise with a model factory in Bournville providing accommodating working conditions (Coe and Coe 242). However, Cadbury was soon swept into a controversy surrounding claims of slavery on São Tomé and Principe, one of the firm’s major suppliers of cacao. The documentation of Joseph Burtt, who was appointed by Cadbury to visit São Tomé, was not published until almost a decade after William Cadbury first learned of slave labor in the islands. This delay as well as the firm’s deferment of boycotting São Toméan cocoa brings to question the company’s business ethics. Ethical scrutiny should extend not only to the Cadbury corporation but also to the Portuguese and British political bodies; however, a principal cause of the delayed and arduous path to reform stemmed from Cadbury’s prioritization of business incentives over moral practices.

Cadbury’s model factory in Bournville provided adequate housing and hospitable facilities (Cadbury). The idealistic working conditions of Cadbury workers in Britain were a stark contrast to the brutal labor practices on cacao plantations in São Tomé, where enslaved people provided cacao for major British chocolate firms.

British journalist Henry Nevinson traveled to Africa in 1904 and helped expose the unethical practices of cacao labor. The servicais, or “contracted laborers,” in São Tomé were actually slaves brought from Angola; although a Portuguese decree of 1903 required the option of repatriation after a five year labor contract, none of them actually returned to Angola (Satre 8-9). Plantation owners paid their laborers less than what was required by the decree and renewed their contracts without consulting the servicais; the Portuguese government, unconcerned by these breaches of law, were often encouraging Angolan natives to commit crimes so they could be enslaved, furthering the government’s economic self-interest through the money-making benefits of the slave trade (Satre 8, 11). Not only did the Portuguese deny slavery, British authorities also seemed to refrain from thorough investigations, perhaps because Britain depended on labor in the islands (Off 60). Both Portuguese and British authority figures were driven by the economical benefits of facilitating, rather than obstructing, slave labor practices.

Henry Nevinson actively reported on the slave labor he had witnessed in Portuguese West Africa (Wikimedia Commons). His outspokenness was often unfavored by the Cadburys, who believed explicit coverage of slavery would complicate the chocolate company’s business incentives or the Foreign Office’s diplomatic approaches to Portugal.


slaves to sao tome
Though called “indentured servants,” enslaved Angolans were forcibly brought to São Tomé to work on cacao plantations under dire conditions, for the benefit of companies like Cadbury (Nevinson).

In contrast to Nevinson, who published reports on slavery immediately after returning to Britain, the Cadburys took considerably more time in taking action (Satre 12). When William Cadbury visited Trinidad in early 1901, he heard claims of slave labor in São Tomé and traveled to Lisbon in 1903 to investigate. Despite hearing from some Portuguese plantation owners that the decree of 1903 would end labor abuses, missionaries to Africa and British authorities strongly doubted the new decree would mediate any genuine reform (Satre 23-24). Despite testimony confirming brutal labor, William provided an optimistic report to his firm: “I cannot but feel that things are going to mend a little … the onus of this will lie on the British” (Satre 24). When appointing an agent to investigate the situation in Portuguese West Africa, the Cadburys chose the rather incompetent Joseph Burtt over more experienced yet more outspoken researchers such as Nevinson (Satre 32). The fact that Burtt was encouraged to approach plantation owners amicably and spent almost two years traveling in Africa imply that the ordeal was not perceived as a significantly pressing issue (Satre 32).

slave quarters
Slave Quarters in São Tomé – English chocolate manufacturers like Cadbury were indirectly employing one-third of the slaves on São Tomé (Nevinson, Satre 82).


Cadbury may have stalled for time to secure an alternative cocoa supplier through the help of their cocoa buyer Edward Thackray, who began his research shortly after William heard of the slave labor in 1901 (Higgs 135). This may explain why the Cadburys agreed to the British Foreign Office’s suggestion to delay the publication of Joseph Burtt’s documentation (Satre 92-93). During this delay, the Foreign Office tried to amicably push the Portuguese towards reform, and Thackray escalated his search (Higgs 135). This delay may have also benefited the British government, which was wary about aggravating the Portuguese, key trading partners who could provide cheap labour forces for their holdings in Africa (e.g. diamond mines in Transvaal) (Off 65-66). For Cadbury and the British Foreign Office, a cautionary approach would help preserve their standings as business or economic powerhouses.

William Cadbury persistently rejected suggestions by Nevinson and others to boycott São Toméan cocoa, placing economic reasons at the fore of his argument; boycotting would ruin Cadbury’s buying influence and the valuable cocoa would be “very readily absorbed by other nations” (Higgs 137). Newspapers criticized Cadbury, and the company chose to sue the Standard for libel. Before their trial in 1909, William traveled to São Tomé, though the primary reason for this voyage may have been to confirm cocoa export possibilities in the Gold Coast. In his 1910 diary entry, Nevinson recorded a conversation between cocoa traders implying Cadbury had to verify Gold Coast production capacities before cutting ties with São Tomé (Off 71). Only after William’s trip did Cadbury decide to stop buying São Toméan cocoa, for an alternative source had been secured (Off 69). Almost a decade had passed since William first learned about the slave labor, and the business implications of this could only be magnified during the prosecution of the Standard trial; Cadbury had imported £1.3 million ($6.3 million) worth of São Toméan cocoa between 1901 and 1908 (Higgs 151). Cadbury had partaken in the investigation of slave labor on São Tomé but profit and quality of cocoa came first and foremost.

burtt documentation
Burtt’s documentation was not published for the British public until 1910, almost a decade after William Cadbury first learned of São Toméan slavery (Internet Archive). This adds to the controversy of whether Cadbury was truly proactive in mediating reform in cacao labor practices.


Cadbury had also attempted to discourage Nevinson from publishing another report on slavery, and The Daily News, owned by George Cadbury, remained quite reticent on the subject of São Tomé (Satre 82). This further implies that Cadbury was concerned with the effects on chocolate sales if more explicit coverage of São Tomé was released to the public (Higgs 151). The years Cadbury spent on silence or reliance on the British government cannot excuse the abuse or death of thousands of laborers while the company continued to profit from the cocoa sourced from São Tomé. Had it not been for individuals such as Nevinson, who favored “publicity, not silence,” the public’s awareness of cacao slave labor would have been limited (Satre 85). Had Cadbury provided an example by boycotting sooner and working with British authorities to press the Portuguese in a more threatening rather than cautious manner, reforms may have come sooner. In actuality, nearly a decade passed and Cadbury’s cautionary approach did not lead to substantial reform, as slavery persisted and the Portuguese continued to abuse their power to operate unfair labor practices (Higgs 153). The slow path to reform surely stems in part from corruptive flaws within the Portuguese and British political systems; however, Cadbury also shared a significant responsibility through their inclination to place their business before all else. For Cadbury, divided between jeopardizing their economic prospects and tainting their philanthropic reputation, securing other sources of cocoa was pivotal for their business success. This case study of Cadbury offers perspective into pressing labor problems even today, such as child labor and human trafficking; when political, economic, and moral issues become intertwined, it is critical that we ethically prioritize and preserve the welfare of human beings.

Works Cited

An LMS Railways Advertisement – Bournville. Cadbury. Cadbury. https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-storyAccessed 4 March 2017.

Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Henry Wood Nevinson. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons .wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Woodd_Nevinson_(1856-1941)_circa_1915.jpg. Accessed 5 March 2017.

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

Labour in Portuguese West Africa. Claire T. Carney Library. Internet Archive. https://archive.org /details/labourinportugue00cadbAccessed 5 March 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Lecture 6: Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 1 March 2017. Lecture.

Nevinson, Henry. Slaves on Ship, Wearing Tin Disk and Cylinder. Photograph. “The Slave-Trade of To-day: Part VI.” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Jan. 1906, pp. 237-246.

Nevinson, Henry. Slave-Quarters on a Plantation. Photograph. “The Slave-Trade of To-day: Conclusion.” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Feb. 1906, pp. 327-337.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: Anatomy of an Industry. The New Press, 2006.

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

From Slavery to Child Labor: chocolate companies and moral ambiguity

The surface area of the earth on which cacao is planted and harvested has expanded greatly over the last few centuries. Indeed, although the cacao plant originated in Mesoamerica, Africa (as seen in the map below) has become by far the largest cacao-producing region in the world. Nevertheless, controversy has accompanied this great growth. In the early 1900s, worries about slavery on the cacao plantations of the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome (off of Africa’s central west coast) eventually led some British chocolate companies to boycott the island’s cacao; one hundred years later, allegations of child labor led to calls for boycotts of companies that bought cacao from other West African nations (Sartre, 2005; Higgs, 2012; Off, 2008). This shift in controversy surrounding the labor used to harvest cacao (from slavery to child labor) is the result of public relations considerations by chocolate companies.

World Cocoa Production – Africa has 72% of worldwide production

Map of Gulf of Guinea – Sao Tome and Ghana are seen here


In order to retain favor in the court of public opinion, companies eventually had to cease purchases from Sao Tome plantations that used slave labor. Some might argue that the Quaker religion of many of the chocolate company heads meant that their religious faith and concern for the needy had pushed them to reject making chocolate using the labor of slaves. However, before the extent of the slavery was made known to the public, many chocolate companies were keen on staying in Sao Tome. One of these most famous British companies was the Cadbury chocolate firm. William Cadbury (the head of the company at the time) had heard and read credible rumors of slavery on Sao Tome by 1901 (Higgs, 2012). Yet, he did not stop buying chocolate from the Portuguese colony until 8 years later, after multiple voyages, investigations, and meetings with other chocolate-makers confirmed these rumors (Higgs, 2012; Coe and Coe, 2013; Sartre 2015). Cadbury’s evident hesitation and reluctance to end his company’s purchase of cacao produced by slaves, shows that the business and image of the company was more important than any ethical considerations.

Photo credit: https://hughcrosfield.wordpress.com/2012/10/05/introducing-the-dog-that-didnt-bark-in-the-night-time-quaker-chocolate-and-the-sao-tome-cocoa-scandal-1902-9/
Shackles used on slaves in Angola

Once the Cadbury Company, and other British Quaker chocolatiers, ceased purchasing cacao from Sao Tome, they looked to the British Gold Coast colony (now called Ghana) to satisfy the chocolate demand of their customers (Higgs, 2012). The Gold Coast provided a suitable alternative to Sao Tome and Principe because it had clear antislavery laws and relied on small landholders to grow cacao (Berlan, 2013). Although both Portugal and England had outlawed slavery by the early 1900s, the laws for the Gold Coast were clearer and stronger at the time (Berlan, 2013). This signaled to both the company and consumers, that Cadbury chocolates would not be made with slave labor. Another signal came from the labor practices in the Gold Coast. The reliance on small landholders meant that slavery (especially the plantation-style slavery present in Sao Tome and Principe) was very unlikely to develop (Berlan, 2013). Instead, farmers of smaller plots of land recruited family members and sharecroppers to work for them (Berlan, 2013). This resulted in controversy related to child labor.

Child labor

On one hand, child labor was seen as extremely exploitative. It is evident that many children working on the small plots of land on the Gold Coast and neighboring Côte d’Ivoire were mistreated (Berlan 2013). Most were not paid, they often missed school, and some were made to do strenuous, dangerous work (Berlan, 2013; Off, 2008; Ryan, 2011).

Child working on cacao farm

On the other hand, many reports about child labor seem to have been overblown, with great exaggerations in the numbers of children working in truly hazardous conditions (Berlan, 2013). Additionally, terms like “child slavery” and “child trafficking,” while certainly serious concepts and acts, are often misapplied to situations in which children are being trained to be the next generation of cacao farmers or undertaking a rite of passage to find work (Ryan, 2011). This broad categorization of child labor as a particular evil of the cacao industry also neglects to look at broader rates of child labor in society.

This ethical grey area of child labor differentiates it from slavery and makes it a much more manageable public relations issue. The move of the large, British chocolate corporations to Ghana, and then other West African countries, placed companies in a much more morally ambiguous position, where it was often difficult to know if child workers were truly being exploited. This allowed companies to deflect criticism – something that was not possible once evidence of the plantation slavery on Sao Tome had been revealed. By shifting away from buying cacao in an area where slavery was clearly present to an area where child labor was an issue, the chocolate corporations shifted from an illegal, negatively perceived practice to one where uncertainty abounded.


Works Cited

Berlan, Amanda. “Social sustainability in agriculture: An anthropological perspective on child labour in cocoa production in Ghana.” The Journal of Development Studies 49.8 (2013): 1088-1100.

Coe, Sophie Dobzhansky, and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Vol. 29. London: Thames and Hudson, 2007.

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

Off, Carol. Bitter chocolate: Investigating the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet. Vintage Canada, 2010.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate nations: Living and dying for cocoa in West Africa. Zed books, 2011.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on trial: Slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Ohio University Press, 2005.

Cadbury: Business vs. Morality

Cadbury chocolates was founded by the grocer John Cadbury in 1824. He ran a shop that sold assorted goods, including cocoa and drinking chocolate. As a Quaker he frowned on the consumption of alcohol and sought to promote alternatives that would fit the healthy, happy society he envisioned. It’s out of this desire that the Cadbury family’s partnership with chocolate was born (“The Story”).

In 1861 John’s sons Richard and George took over the family business, which had expanded with the purchase of a large factory and now sold many types of drinking chocolate. When the rapidly growing company outsized that factory in the 1870s the Cadburys conceived of a new type of factory ground, a place that could house their growing workforce while embodying their Quaker ideals. They would build grounds for their workers outside the polluted air of the city and provide amenities that would help their workers live happy, healthy lives. They called this factory Bournville (“The Story”).lightbox_image_0016_12_gardenvilliageofbourneville_c

This peaceful village centered around the Quaker ideals of health and family was a bold reflection of the beliefs the Cadbury family held dear. But at its heart the Cadbury company is a business, and in 1901 the same brothers who had poetically professed that “No man ought to be condemned to live in a place where a rose cannot grow” (“The Story”) as they built an airy village for their European workers learned that the cacao they imported from off the western coast of Africa, from the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, was being produced by enslaved workers living in destitute conditions. And for the next 8 years they sat in silence and through their continued business were complicit in slavery.


Children playing in Bournville, 1893

The Cadburys (and many other chocolatiers) were reliant on São Tomé and Principe as a steady source of good quality cacao. Joseph Burtt reports that in the early 1900s about one-fifth of the world’s cacao supply came from São Tomé and Principe (Cadbury 106). The islands were originally seized by Portugal in the 15th century because they had favorable conditions for sugarcane farming. Portugal was at the time encouraging the spread of slave-manned plantation farming along the Atlantic islands as part of an effort to solidify their trade route around Africa to Asia (Mintz 31). This tradition of slavery was maintained after its formal abolition with the establishment of the seviçal system.

Seviçaes were workers taken from the interior countries of Africa (most often from Angola) and made to sign a contract stating they were willingly to work on a Portuguese plantation for 5 years, with the option to re-sign the contract after it expired. These workers were often abducted from their villages and, when presented with the contract, not provided with a translator to let them know what they were agreeing to. The conditions they worked under and the number of workers who attempted to flee their plantations confirms that seviçaes were really slaves (Nevinson 670).

Screenshot_2016-03-11-20-27-06-1 (2)
Photograph of a girl sold into slavery, included in one of Henry Nevinson’s reports

John Cadbury’s grandson William was helping to run the company when, according to historian Catherine Higgs, he came across a catalog for property in São Tomé that listed men for sale alongside cattle and equipment (Higgs 9). He realized Cadbury may have been buying cacao produced with slave labor. In response, William hired the researcher Joseph Burtt to investigate this instance and other rumors of slavery on the island. Burtt spent some months in Portugal learning the language then headed to Africa on June 1, 1905 (Cadbury 103). After spending five and a half months on São Tomé and Principe he came to the unequivocal conclusion that the seviçal system constituted slave labor.

In 1907 William Cadbury and Joseph Burtt compiled a report of their findings called Labour in Portuguese West Africa and sent it to their fellow British chocolatiers and England’s secretary of state. But Cadbury, despite the care that went into providing for their European workers, continued to support Portuguese plantations and did not widely release this information (Higgs 150).

In 1905 the British journalist Henry Nevinson went to São Tomé and Principe to investigate the rumors of slavery on the islands. In 1906 he published several reports that went into great detail confirming the allegations in Harper’s Magazine.

These two reports, though both confirming that the seviçal system is one of slavery, offer differing perspectives on the culture that surrounds that slavery. Nevinson’s articles use strong language to condemn the treatment of the enslaved. When he covers corporeal punishment he describes scenes of abuse without reservation, like in the following excerpt:


An Englishman coming down from the interior last African winter, was roused at night by loud cries in a Portuguese trading house at Mashiko. In the morning he found that a slave had been flogged, and tied to a tree in the cold all night. He was a man who had only lately lost his liberty, and was undergoing the process which the Portuguese call “taming,” as applied to new slaves who are sullen and show no pleasure in the advantages of their position.”

(Nevinson 675)

William Cadbury and Joseph Burtt, on the other hand, bent to pressure from the Portuguese government and were careful to word their report in an inoffensive manner. They wanted to end slavery, but apparently not at the cost of their trade relations. After attending a conference between São Tomé proprietors and British chocolatiers in which talks of emancipation were stonewalled (Cadbury 147), Burtt added an amendment to a section in the report on the use of corporal punishment against the enslaved. His take on the abuse of the slaves ends softly and apologetically as he writes:


I wish to state that the paragraph in my report headed “Punishments” is constructed in a manner that may convey an impression not entirely just to the Propreitors of S. Thomé plantations.

Will you therefore kindly make the following addition to the report as presented to you on July 14, 1907 :–

“Though convinced of the very common occurrence of corporeal punishment in spite of the restrictions of the law, I am sure that on the best estates this is against the wish of the proprietors, and is one of those abuses that repatriation will quickly check.

“I should also like to state that I have evidence of the fairness of the Government Curator, and know that from time to time he visits the estates, including those in the most distant parts of the island.”

Yours faithfully,

Joseph Burtt”

(Cadbury 113)

Cadbury withheld from boycotting cacao from São Tomé and Principe until 1909, after facing a run of bad press substantiated by Henry Nevinson’s reporting and multiple refusals from the Portuguese government to reform their practices (Martin). Their Quaker ideals led them to build a revolutionary and humane workplace in England, but their beliefs would not stretch to include the welfare of the enslaved Africans harvesting their cacao until they were prodded into action.


Works Cited


Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2012. Print.

Martin, Carla D. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.  Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3 March 2016. Class Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

Nevinson, Henry W. “The Slave-Trade of To-Day.” Harper’s Magazine 1 Jan. 1905: 668-76. Google Books. Web. 9 Mar. 2016. <https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=flowAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA668>.

“The Story.” Cadbury. Cadbury, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story>.



Full Circle? The Absence of a Flourishing Cacao Industry in Meso and South America

Theobroma Cacao, the scientific terminology for the cacao tree, has it origins in  Meso and South America. The climate and topography of the region are ideal for the plant to flourish. Yet today cacao is mainly grown outside of Meso and South America. The product ancient Mayans and Aztecs held sacred fuels a multi-billion dollar industry, yet their ancestors see little to none of this profit. This post will look at why cacao growth has nearly disappeared in Meso and South America and where it stands agriculturally today. We will find that European technological advancement combined with the geographical proximity of Africa to Europe decimated the potential of vibrant cacao industry in Meso and South America. Today, cacao production in the region is mostly sustained on the recent demand for ‘ethnic’ chocolate.

CACAO graph

The chart above shows the breakdown of cacao production in the world as of 2009. As you can see, of the leading producers of cacao, South American countries occupy 7% of the chart together, while Africa produces over 60%. To examine how the distribution resulted in what we see here, lets go to the first outside contact with cacao. Europe’s first encounter with began with Spain in the 1500s. By the 1700s taste for cacao spread across Western Europe and chocolate became a luxury product. Shipping beans from South America wasn’t particularly cheap, so the ‘food of the gods’ was restricted to those who had expendable income. Each Western European nation managed to transplant the cacao tree in their respective colonies to serve the demand, fueled by slave labor from Africa. In the mid-1800s, technologies began to develop that allowed for increased access to chocolate. It began with Van Houten’s “invention of the defatting and alkalizing processes [which] made possible the manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses, in both powdered and solid form” (Coe, 253). This was followed by Fry’s invention of the chocolate bar and Cadbury’s perfection of it, allowing chocolate to keep for an extended period of time.

sao tome

The photo above shows men forced to work harvesting cacao in Sao Tome. It is representative of the fact that as cocoa became more accessible it needed to be produced in larger quantities, and the old system of importing beans from Meso and South America just wasn’t economically feasible with the demand. Being that Europe had already been in the business of exploiting the peoples of Africa, the need for cheaper, more abundant cacao naturally lead to the exploitation of Africa’s land as well since it was closer than South America. Sao Tome is particularly representative because Cadbury, a supposed ethical company at the time, was found to be receiving their cacao shipments from Sao Tome. While the company eventually backed out of the country after 6 years of knowing of the slavery practices, it didn’t end the forced labor. The Hershey company then stepped in and began receiving shipments from Sao Tome. The video below is a trailer for the documentary “Contract”, which shows the effects of slavery in Sao Tome today.


                       An important theme to point out is that all of the major advancements in chocolate technology, from alkalizing to conching, were invented in Europe. During this chocolate revolution, cacao was still being consumed as a beverage in Meso and South America. Europe made no concerted effort to introduce these advancements to the region. This combined with the introduction of cacao to Africa essentially left Meso and South America behind during the rise of chocolate’s popularity. One of the first South American chocolate companies, El Ray, wasn’t established until 1929, about 100 years after Cadbury was founded in England.  In Dauril Alden’s examination of the decline in cacao production in the Amazon, he writes, “ unprosperous plantations whose owners were handicapped by persisting shortages of labor, lack of sufficient capital, burdensome creditor-debtor ties and backward technology” (Alden, 131).

What does the current state of cacao look like in Meso and South America look like and is its future bright? While some production has returned to the area, it comes from the recent trend that calls for ‘food from the source’. Most chocolate coming from the reason is marketed as “ethnic” or “Mayan”. Coe writes about a company started by American Josh Sermos, Rain Republic, that has brought cacao production back to Guatemala. Its best selling product is “Mayan Fire dark chocolate, blended with smoky chili – a testimony to the contemporary American taste for highly spicy food, and reviving an ancient Mesoamerican tradition of adding chili to chocolate” (Coe, 266). Despite Coe saying this examples how chocolate has come “full circle”, there is a problem with the fact that the story of Rain Republic is a typical ‘white savor’ situation and the chocolate being produced is fetishizing the ‘ethic’ qualities of cacao produced in Meso and South America. This post ends with a powerful clip called “An Act of Resistance” which documents how little cacao is left in Mexico and one women’s work to preserve it. Chocolate definitely has not come full circle.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/85727477″>An Act of Resistance</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/theperennialplate”>The Perennial Plate</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Works Cited

Alden, D., The Significance of Cacao Production in the Amazon Region during the Late

Colonial Period: An Essay in Comparative Economic History
Proceedings of

the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 120, No. 2, pp. 103-135

Coe, Sophie D. The true history of chocolate. (2007)

Graph: http://www.kyxar.fr/~jalac/ANG/CACAO09.html

Image: http://superstock.com/