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Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business

Author(s):Satre, Lowell J.
Reviewer(s):Southall, Roger

Published by EH.NET (June 2005)

Lowell J. Satre, Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. 2005. ix + 298 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8214-1589-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Roger Southall, Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria, South Africa.

The Bitter Sweetness of Chocolate

Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics and the Ethics of Business centers on the controversy surrounding the use by Cadbury Bros., the British Quaker chocolate company, of cocoa produced by slave labor on the island of S?o Tom?, a Portuguese colony, in the early years of the twentieth century. Unknowing until around 1904 when they was alerted by the vigorous campaigning of anti-slavery campaigners, notably Henry W. Nevinson, Cadbury subsequently made their own investigations into labor conditions on S?o Tom?. However, when these confirmed that these were indeed unfree, they continued to use the cocoa beans produced on the islands while they lobbied Portuguese colonial authorities and planters to make improvements, and simultaneously urging successive British Conservative and Liberal governments to push them into doing so. In so doing, they repudiated the pressures of the more radical humanitarian campaigners that they boycott S?o Tom? cocoa in favor of supplies from elsewhere right up until 1909. In contrast, they argued the correctness of their own course in working for improvements and the implementation of Portuguese labor codes that, in theory, should have provided for the freedom of labor, and most importantly, for the paid repatriation of laborers to their country of origin at the end of their contracts. Yet in temporizing, even if from motives which they themselves deemed to be well-intentioned, Cadbury Bros were to run into a storm which had as much to do with contemporary political controversies in Britain as it had to do with what was or was not happening in S?o Tom?.

George Cadbury, paterfamilias of the family firm, was not only a staunch Liberal but owner of the Daily News, an influential Liberal paper which had strongly criticized the then Conservative government for allowing the import of Chinese ‘coolies’ to alleviate labor shortages in South Africa after the Boer War. What a delight it was, therefore, for a Tory newspaper, the Standard, to level the charge of rank hypocrisy against Cadbury for using cocoa produced by slave labor in an editorial of 1908 (reproduced in full the Satre’s appendix), which contrasted the company’s devotion to philanthropy and the welfare of its workforce at home to the miseries of the ‘contract laborers’ employed on S?o Tom?: “It is not called slavery; ‘contract labour’ they name it now; but in most of its essentials it is that monstrous trade in human flesh and blood against which the Quaker and Radical ancestors of Mr. Cadbury thundered in the better days of England” (p.228). Cadbury sued, and a high profile trial followed whose own drama melded with that of the simultaneous titanic struggle going on in parliament, where the Tory Lords were choosing to defeat a reforming Liberal budget (thereby setting the scene for the two elections of 1910, and the eventual capping of the right of the peers to overturn legislation from the Commons). Cadbury was to emerge formally triumphant, but a jury, which they believed was Tory-inclined, had the last laugh by awarding them insulting damages of just one-farthing. Thereafter, to be fair, Cadbury — which was by now drawing the major portion of their cocoa supplies from the Gold Coast — continued pushing the British government to push the Portuguese, but it was not until the 1920s that slavery in S?o Tom? wound down, as much because of the new availability of cocoa supplies from elsewhere as from political pressures from abroad.

I was presumably tracked down to write this review because, more years ago than I care to recall, I wrote my doctoral thesis on Cadbury on the Gold Coast: The Dilemma of the ‘Model Firm’ in a Colonial Economy (University of Birmingham, 1975). This had its own dramas: I started off as a candidate in Politics, but was eventually abandoned by my supervisor in horror, and ended up with a doctorate in Social and Economic History! The major source material for this was the same set of company records used by Satre, which had been deposited by Cadbury in the Birmingham University library in 1971, and I must say that in reading the present book, memories of leafing through that mound of (as yet uncatologued!) dusty correspondence, minutes and ledgers came flooding back! As did many of the questions which I had to pose about Cadbury’s motivations in going to the Gold Coast to establish cocoa-producing and cocoa-buying operations in 1907, answers to which were in part provided by a very brief review of the S?o Tom? affair which prefaced my examination of their record in colonial Ghana.

Of course, one key issue was precisely that which was posed by the Standard case: Were Cadbury’s commercial actions guided and constrained by the Cadbury family’s Quaker morality? Yet my own view was that for my particular story, this was a bit of a red herring. Yes, Cadbury did make some considerable effort to pursue practices of ‘fair trading’ with peasant producers. Nonetheless, it was all too easy to prove that Cadbury the family, and Cadbury the firm, fell short of the human perfection which both their political critics, and indeed subsequent historians, have chosen to demand of them. Hence my focus was, I am afraid, the much more amoral one of what impact Cadbury had on cocoa production and buying in the Gold Coast. In the end my overall conclusion was that cocoa farmers played a much greater role in shaping the industry and the politics of the colony than the firm had ever envisaged! Yet the question of Quaker morality is necessarily much more central for Satre.

Satre’s book is manifestly a product of years of careful and dedicated scholarship. Paradoxically, too, while maintaining the relativism and reserve of the historian (and hence avoiding trite judgment of the social and political attitudes which prevailed in Britain a century ago), it is also commendably passionate. Passionate about detailing the realities of slavery under the Portuguese; and passionate about recording the dedication of those liberal humanitarians, individuals like E.D. Morel and Henry Nevinson, who campaigned against it. Meticulous dissection of contemporary records, pamphlets, newspapers and so on provides us with chapter and verse of the whole saga surrounding Cadbury in careful detail which I am not going to attempt to summarize. I can but point readers to the book as, apart from anything else, a well-constructed tale which will also serve as a major source-book for later considerations of the morality and motivations of early colonialism. Nonetheless, there are four issues which the book brings out for me, all of which have a very contemporary relevance.

The first is, yes, that of the moral responsibility of Cadbury, and by implication, other capitalists. The fascination of Cadbury is precisely because, whether we think that they lived up to their principles or not, those principles were influential in guiding and shaping their business practices. Satre details at length how Cadbury were taken aback by the crusading zeal and ‘radicalism’ of Henry Nevinson, whose book, A Modern Slavery, largely a compilation of articles he had written for Harper’s Monthly Magazine, following his investigative trip to Angola and S?o Tom? (December 1904 until July 1905), was published in 1906.

The implications of Nevinson’s evidence and of his subsequent campaigning both pointed in the direction of Cadbury boycotting S?o Tom? cocoa, yet this was a conclusion that the firm was uncomfortable to draw. They said, because they wanted more time to establish the facts (which they had sought to do by dispatching their own man, Joseph Burtt, and later, a couple of times, William Cadbury, to Africa), and more time to see if by their commercial weight as significant buyers they could bring pressure to bear upon the British and Portuguese governments and the planters themselves to bring about an improvement of conditions. Was this, as the Standard was to allege, merely mealy-mouthed hypocrisy, a strategy to protect their immediate interests while searching elsewhere for more legitimate supplies of cocoa? A strategy for buying time? Or was it not only a moral but a realistic argument, which recognized that an awful situation was unlikely to be changed overnight, and that concerted pressure could lead to immediate amelioration of the condition of the cocoa laborers and their freedom in the longer term? Satre, I think, does enough to indicate that Cadbury were far from being hypocrites, and that they did make real efforts on the laborers’ behalf, and that Quaker-like, they wanted to believe in the humanity of the planters as much as that of the slaves: yet simultaneously they ducked difficult decisions for a few critical years which undid much of their good work.

I think it follows from this, and from the subsequent behavior of Cadbury on the Gold Coast, that they were indeed morally better — far better — than most capitalists. The Cadbury family, as witness their bountiful good works and their well-intentioned construction of Bournville, a model suburb for their workers in Birmingham, were solid, good and worthy citizens and employers. Yet it was their location as capitalists engaging with empire that forced them into an almost impossible situation of seeking to reconcile their commercial objectives with their ethical concerns. Ultimately, they chose to follow the right path by boycotting S?o Tom? cocoa in 1909, yet it was only after much tergiversation and anguish.

The dilemma they faced then was to be even more forcefully posed some several decades later, when the anti-apartheid movement was to demand of Western capital that it withdraw from South Africa. But compare Cadbury’s significant moral anguish in the early 1900s with the crafty and often deliberately misleading moral wrigglings of firms with investments in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. There were, indeed, one or two which chose to withdraw on moral grounds, but they were the exception. In contrast, the Barclays Banks of this world only pulled out when political campaigning began to prove too much for them, and began to damage their interests elsewhere.

Consider, again, the extremely dubious corporate morality of those companies of various nationalities which are rushing to invest in oil in yes, today’s S?o Tom?, and other countries of western and central Africa! If only, we might say, they were run by George and William Cadbury rather than the material greed of anonymous corporate moguls! Perhaps I am being too harsh, but it is a pity that, notwithstanding his title, Satre does not provide us with any discussion of politics and the ethics of business that goes much beyond his immediate case.

The second issue which the book highlights is the indisputably important, in many ways heroic, role played by the anti-slavery campaigners, and by implication, today’s activists on behalf of a just cause. Satre’s hero is William Nevinson, and it is good to see him get the retrospective praise that he deserves (and indeed, the author has effectively done for him what Adam Hochschild did for E.D. Morel in King Leopold’s Ghost). Nevinson, in brief, was a politically committed journalist – committed, that is, to exposing the brutalities of slavery and replacing it with a more just system. Critical, too, one feels, was his belief in human equality. Unusually for his time, ‘he regarded the natives as hardworking and intelligent people who cared greatly for their families. He never referred to them as being inferior to Europeans. He did not wish to ‘civilise’ the natives but to free them to practice their own unique and important way of life’ (p.12). In contrast, however well intended, the Cadbury family was paternalist, and steeped in a tradition of Quaker middle class benevolence which had strayed considerably from the radical egalitarianism of their moral ancestors, the seventeenth-century Levellers.

Apparently from a lower middle class background, and born of evangelical parents, Nevinson himself eschewed religious belief and opted rather for the social gospel, serving first at Toynbee Hall (the settlement for the working class in East London) and belonging to the H.M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation (one of the major predecessors of the Labour Party) in the 1880s and 1890s. Teaching history and literature at a succession of schools, he wrote a number of books about the English working class before accepting invitations from the Daily Chronicle, a liberal newspaper, to cover the Greek revolution on the island of Crete, and subsequently the Spanish-American War, and in 1899 and 1900, the South African War. Thereafter, after leaving the Chronicle and joining a group examining conditions in Macedonia, Nevinson — by now a ‘recognised journalist and writer who respected the working poor and identified with the oppressed in their struggles against tyrants’ (p.29) — was asked by Harper’s to report upon conditions in Portuguese West Africa. He approached William Cadbury to see if he could be of any assistance to him in his own enquiries, but the latter felt that any enquiries Nevinson made would be hampered by his lack of Portuguese, and opted rather to employ Joseph Burtt, a fellow Quaker, as his commissioner.

Cadbury insisted that a representative sent to S?o Tom? by his company, rather than by the humanitarian societies (the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines’ Protection Society), would be more acceptable to the planters. Burtt himself was a decent enough man, yet clearly did not have the strength of character of Nevinson, and was to find himself too easily charmed by the planters, too easily committed to presenting a ‘balanced’ case. It was the passion for justice of Nevinson, combined with the concerted activism of the likes of Thomas Fowell Buxton and Henry Richard Fox Bourne (‘a stubborn, pugnacious and single-minded man who devoted himself to helping the oppressed’) of the APS, who in the end provided the wealth of information which forced Cadbury to defend themselves in a court of law, and who ‘confounded the British government’ (p.12). These are names which are as deserving of mention in Africa’s roll call of honor as any of the later activists for the struggle for freedom of Africa with which we are more familiar today.

The third point which Satre (almost brutally) drives home is the pusillanimity of governments when moral imperatives impinge upon their political and material interests. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all European powers were seeking regular and inexpensive labor for their colonies. The formal ending of slavery and the slave trade (in part the triumph of yet earlier humanitarians) meant that they had to look to other schemes, notably indentured labor and the employment of appropriate tax regimes, to force Africans into colonial employment. The difference between such schemes and slavery may not have been wholly evident to the laborers so employed, for the majority of whom the increments in freedom which were registered by various international conventions and different labor codes were often effectively irrelevant. Yet the differences were, in fact, fundamental in the sense that they drew a principled distinction between ‘slave labor’ (which had no rights or privileges at all) and supposedly ‘free labor,’ which (in legal terms) did (such as that of repatriation to their home country at the end of contracts). Naturally, this fundamental difference in the legal status of labor was trumpeted by colonial governments and their apologists and allies, even as they used it as a fig leaf to cover the continuing abuse and brutal oppression of labor. Yet simultaneously it provided an opening for humanitarian campaigners, who were not shy of pointing out not only the limited empirical differences between, say, indentured labor and slavery, but the miserable failure of governments to compel the implementation of the most limited labor rights.

And so it was with the situation in S?o Tom?. The Portuguese proclaimed free labor but kept Africans in shackles. Humanitarians exposed abuses and called for action, but successive British governments, although fully cognizant of the reality of the situation, were never prepared to call a spade a spade lest it disrupt their alliance with Lisbon (even while they schemed with Germany to divide the Portuguese colonies between themselves). The tragedy, perhaps, is that the most culpable of British governments were the Liberal governments from 1906 onward. Domestically, these were some of the most radical that Britain had ever seen, laying the foundations of the welfare state and asserting the supremacy of the Commons over the Lords. Yet in the scheme of things, the continuation of slavery in Portuguese African mattered little — certainly to the long-term Liberal Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, who cared far more about maintaining the balance of power in Europe (although, as Satre notes, he has been strongly criticized by historians for failing to spell out to other powers, particularly Germany, how Britain would respond in the event of a conflict). While his role in the conflagration of Europe that followed in 1914 will continue, inevitably, to be the major focus of scholars’ interest in his years of office, this book will further batter his reputation. Even if Grey was merely the instrument of greater forces (and Hobsbawm (1987), for instance, argues that by the early 1900s war was in effect unstoppable), his role in the S?o Tom? affair reminds us to take what governments say with a very a large dose of salt.

The final marker laid down by Satre concerns the continuation of slavery. To be sure, Satre gives the book an appropriate conclusion in which he narrates how in 2000 he abandoned the archives for a first trip to S?o Tom?, where he explored the harbors, railways, buildings and plantations he had been writing about. Most, he says, are still in existence, and some are even still functioning. But slavery has long been abolished, and for this we must may due homage to the efforts of the humanitarians. Nonetheless, for all that, freedom has brought little but a poverty which is unrelieved by the idyllic beaches for tourists which are as yet largely ‘undeveloped.’ In short, the cocoa industry, for all the pain that it has inflicted on S?o Tom?, has left little that is worthwhile behind it, and hopes for the development of the islands now rest fairly and squarely (and probably misguidedly, given experiences elsewhere) on a potential oil bonanza.

Sadly, it is necessary for the work of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Societies to live on in the continued commitments of Anti-Slavery International, which still fights against slavery just as its forerunners did in the early twentieth century. This body reported in 2002 that an estimated 284,000 children work in West Africa’s cocoa industry, with between 2500 and 15,000 of them working in conditions of slavery (p. 222). Elsewhere, of course, in a continent which is now ironically desperately short of employment, reports emanate continuously of children being recruited as child soldiers or sold into bondage as sex slaves. Nevinson, notes Satre, would expect organizations like the United Nation’s Children’s Fund and Anti-Slavery too keep this issue before the public, lest interest dissipate in an (even more) ‘modern slavery.’

Satre’s book is concerned with too particular a matter to attract a wide readership. Nonetheless, this text is a major contribution to the study of slavery, while also serving to remind us of the bitter roots of chocolate in sin.


Eric Hobsbawm, 1987. The Age of Empire, 1875-1914, London: Phoenix Press.

Roger Southall is Distinguished Research Fellow with the Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria, South Africa.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII