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).
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.
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).
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.
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