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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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