Chocolate in Africa: From Cadbury to Child Slavery

In South America, respected priest Bartolomé de las Casas, spoke out against slavery and feudalism. The closest equivalent in Africa was the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers. Quakers had been historically persecuted for their egalitarian religious beliefs and were barred from many professions, but they were often successful in business, and well respected for honest practices and quality goods.

Quakers brought their concern for fairness and welfare to the chocolate industry with four major English brands: Fry, Cadbury, Rowntree, and Terry. They shared with the Aztecs a dislike of drunkenness, and thought that chocolate beverages could be a good replacement for alcohol. They also established the predecessor to today’s fair trade movement by buying only beans that had been grown without slave labor. Cadbury’s radical ideas about labor extended to their workers at home in England as well. They even constructed a utopian factory town in the countryside to get their employees out of urban slums.

Cadbury’s original ideals didn’t always prevail, though. In the early 1900s they were purchasing nearly half their beans from São Tomé, where slavery was commonplace on plantations. Even after the violation was brought to light, Cadbury argued that they could do more for slaves by working with slave-holding Portuguese planters than by finding a different source. But with up to six thousand slaves dying on São Tomé each year, the public outcry continued and Quaker chocolatiers returned—at least for a while—to their boycott of slave-grown cacao.

With much of the industry boycotting São Tomé, the island’s growers shifted away from cacao production. Smaller farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, owned and operated by West African families, stepped in to take up the slack. For several decades, they made good money, first under colonial governments and then, for a time, under their own rule. It didn’t last.

In the 1950s, farmers in West Africa found cacao a valuable cash crop, but as France and England let go of these former colonies and withdrew financial investment, Ghana and the Ivory Coast started to rely on the chocolate industry for most of their revenue. Today, farmers are heavily taxed and must operate through resellers—sometimes several layers of them—to bring their crops to market. Each intermediary takes their cut, as does the government, and industrial chocolate companies in Europe and America are always happy to drive down costs and increase their profit margin.

Between post-colonial disinvestment, class tension, and religious disputes, the economic and political climate in West Africa hasn’t been good for cacao growers. Many of them now live in poverty or have turned to other professions. Others make up the gap in a different way: with unpaid child labor. An oft-quoted U.S. State Department report describes conditions on some farms as “the worst forms of child labor.” Reporters interviewing plantation workers find a range of stories—from those who were paid and treated well to those who were abducted, purchased from their families, or promised pay and then enslaved. These children endure labor that is almost literally back-breaking, carrying heavy loads, and are unlikely to receive any education.

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