Cadbury Brothers and contract labour

Cadbury Brothers and contract labour

Selly Manor Museum has a close connection with the Cadbury family and the history of Bournville; George Cadbury bought and moved Selly Manor and Minworth Greaves to Bournville in the early 20th century, and his son Laurence helped furnish these buildings with a historic collection. We believe it is important to share lesser known stories and open discussion on history. This blog marks the end of Black History Month and our photography exhibition ‘African visitors to Bournville’.


Although there were attempts at introducing cocoa into Africa much earlier, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that production began on any substantial scale. The first large-scale production was in the 1880s from Portuguese plantations on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, off the coast of modern day Republic of Congo. Cadbury Brothers began importing cocoa beans from São Tomé in 1886.   São Tomé and Príncipe had become the world’s third largest exporter of cocoa beans at this time and Cadbury Brothers imported roughly 55% of its cocoa from the islands.

In 1901, William Cadbury came across an advertisement for the sale of a São Tomé plantation.  Included in the sale were the plantation labourers, indicating that the workers were considered property. This coincided with rumours he had heard about slave labour in Angola, São Tomé and Príncipe, despite slavery being abolished in Portugal in 1761 and in its colonies in 1869.  The Cadbury Brothers recorded in its board minutes on 30th April 1901: ‘This seems to confirm other indirect reports that slavery, either total or partial, exists on these Cocoa estates. We agree to assist in the investigation, and if need be the publication of the facts of the case through the Anti-Slavery Society or otherwise, and W.A.C. [William Adlington Cadbury] is directed in the first place to see Joseph Sturge or William Albright and seek advice in the matter.’ The company did not want to publish the bill of sale without proper evidence of labour abuses. Nevertheless, Edward Thackray, one of the firm’s cocoa buyers, began looking for other potential suppliers as early as 1901, shortly after William Cadbury first heard the rumours of slave labour on São Tomé. William Cadbury,  who was in charge of buying materials for the company, was commissioned by the board of Cadbury Brothers to investigate labour conditions on the plantations from which they purchased their cocoa beans, as they were concerned about their ignorance on the matter. He went on to spend over six years and thousands of pounds to get to the bottom of the issue and to improve labour conditions on the islands.

Throughout 1901 and 1902 William Cadbury concentrated on gathering information, but in 1903 he decided to travel to Lisbon, where most of the owners of the São Tomé and Príncipe plantations resided.  He interviewed some São Tomé plantation owners and the Minister of Marine and Colonies and was reassured that a new labour decree issued at beginning of 1903 would secure the end of labour abuses in São Tomé and allow repatriation for workers. It introduced a minimum wage, with 40% of that being placed in a repatriation fund, as well as protection against illegal labour recruitment. Cadbury Brothers wanted someone to travel to West Africa to see if the new regulations were being abided by, but the English government asked them to give the Portuguese government a year to sort out the new regulations as they were worried about angering the Portuguese.  This concern with upsetting international relationships meant that the investigation into labour conditions would take years.  

William Cadbury grew restless over the lack of action in the Portuguese colonies. In March 1904 he wrote, ‘this we have done, and there is no apparent result’, referring to allowing Portugal time to implement new laws. William told Gosselin (the Head of the African department at the Foreign Office) that Cadbury and Fry would look elsewhere for their cocoa beans if labour conditions did not improve. In Gosselin’s words, William said ‘this might mean paying a somewhat higher price at first; but they were ready to make this sacrifice, if by so doing they could put a stop to a disguised slave Trade.’ On 22nd October 1904, Cadbury Brothers sent a letter to several prominent chocolate firms (Fry, Rowntree & Stollwerck), explaining the alleged problems of labour on the cocoa plantations and reviewing the firm’s actions on the issue over the previous two years. William requested support for sending a private investigator to the islands and asked for recommendations.

While the chocolate firms were looking for a suitable candidate to send to the cocoa plantations, investigative journalist Henry Nevinson travelled to Angola and São Tomé in 1905 to study the labour conditions.  His resulting articles and photographs were published in Harper’s magazine and were compiled as a book, A Modern Slavery, which was published in 1906.  He went as far as to call the Portuguese contract labour just another form of slavery. His discoveries backed up rumours that William Cadbury had heard years earlier. Nevinson confirmed that West Africans would sign contracts to provide five years of labour for a set wage. Workers were allegedly free to return home at the end of their contracts but no-one had ever returned, and children who were born on the plantations were also not free to leave.

Joseph Burtt was commissioned and paid by Cadbury Brothers and the other chocolate firms to independently investigate conditions on the cocoa plantations. Burtt was a Quaker but had no previous connections to the chocolate business so they hoped the Portuguese might consider him unbiased.  Burtt spent a total of two years travelling, including six months in São Tomé and Príncipe. His findings confirmed what Nevinson had found. Burtt also sent his report to the British Foreign Office, however there were delays in it becoming public. The Foreign Office asked Cadbury Brothers to edit sections that might offend the Portuguese government and requested that publication of the report was postponed until Portugal had the opportunity to address the issues reported. As other chocolate firms were also involved in the report, the negotiations for what it would contain led to more delays in it being released to the public. Burtt’s report was finally released to Portuguese planters in 1907 and made available to the British public in October 1908. As the report was being finalised, Edward Thackray intensified his search for new plantations for Cadbury Brothers.

William Cadbury again travelled to Lisbon in late 1907 to meet with plantation owners on behalf of English cocoa makers.  Cadbury relayed that they wanted to keep buying cocoa from São Tomé but ‘their death rates were too high, that the recruiting methods in Angola bordered on slave tradition and that no contract labourers had ever been repatriated. If Cadbury Brothers Limited was to continue buying cocoa from the islands, the firm had to be certain “that in the future it is to be produced by free labour”’. He made a journey to São Tomé and Príncipe in 1908 to see if any reforms had been instated. After meeting with officials and planters, William Cadbury came to the conclusion that the Portuguese government did not have the ability to enforce good labour conditions on these islands.

On 19th March 1909, Cadbury announced a boycott on cocoa from São Tomé and Príncipe.  He convinced other British and American chocolate companies to join him. Cadbury Brothers and many other chocolate firms moved cocoa supply to the Gold Coast (Ghana) which had better labour conditions and even a higher quality cocoa product.

Before the decision to boycott was officially announced, Cadbury Brothers suffered negative press over the affair. Cadbury Brothers secured apologies for articles in the Manchester Guardian, the Standard and the Evening Standard that had questioned why the firm was still buying São Toméan cocoa and reported that they didn’t care about African workers. They sued for libel and won. In 1910, William Cadbury published Labour in Portuguese West Africa, a revision of the report he had submitted to the Foreign Office in 1909. It also outlined the main issues that emerged in the court case where he asserted that Cadbury Brothers were active in attempting to prevent forced labour rather than responsible for enabling it.

Cadbury’s still buy their cocoa beans from Ghana.

There are still questions that exist surrounding these events. The complex intersections of politics, morals and business in this area warrant further research.

To research for this blog the main resources were:

Satre, L. J, Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business (Ohio University Press, 2005)

Higgs, C., Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa (Ohio University Press, 2012)

Bournville Works Magazines (numerous issues)