Introducing the big consumer boycott that didn’t happen: Quaker chocolate and the São Tomé cocoa scandal 1902-9

5 Oct


Key activist contact points: Birmingham, London

Keywords:  Quakerism ,  paternalism, sobriety, humanitarianism, antislavery

Topoi relationship: consumer boycott avoidance demanded anti-visceral filters implemented to prevent the widespread mobilization of cocoa abjection


“It was a long line of men and women, extended at intervals of about a yard, like a company of infantry going into action. They were clearing a coffee plantation. ..To the back of nearly every woman clung an infant. Its head lay between her shoulders, and bumped helplessly against her back as she struck the hoe in the ground…Five or six yards behind the slowly advancing line, like the officers of a company under fire, stood the drivers of the party. They were white men, or three parts white, and dressed in the traditional planter style of big hat, white shirt, and loose trousers. Each carried an eight foot stick of hard wood, whitewood, pointed at the ends”


(Henry Nevinson, 1906: 33-34).

The description of plantation slavery above is taken from the British journalist, Henry Nevinson’s book on Portuguese São Tomé entitled A Modern Slavery. On assignment for Harpers Monthly Magazine, Nevinson spent several months witnessing, photographing and documenting the conditions of plantation and domestic slavery on the island. He also recorded information and accounts of the slave passage from the interior of Angola.

Henry Nevinson was a political radical and journalist. Please click on his images to access a free online copy of his book, A Modern Slavery, a witness account of slavery in Sao Tome.

Nevinson’s lucid account of the plantation colony and its surrounding provinces also contains a solid rebuke of the Portuguese legitimization of its system of contract labour:

“In this account I only meant to show that the difference between the “contract labour” of Angola, and the old fashioned slavery of our grandfathers’ time is only a difference of legal terms. In life there is no difference at all. The men and women whom I have described as I saw them have all been bought from their enemies, their chiefs, or their parents; they have either been bought themselves or were the children of people who had been bought” (1906: 30-31).

Discarded slave shackles left to hang on a tree, Angola 1908. Attached to the neck, these shackles would stop slaves from fleeing during the march from the interior of Angola towards the port for São Tomé. Reproduced from Charles Swan, The Slavery of To-day, Glasgow: Pickering & Inglis (1909).

Most witness accounts of slavery in Portuguese West Africa at the end of the nineteenth century were compiled by missionaries from the Plymouth Brethren in private letters and correspondence (Grant, 2005). Originally published in the August 1905 edition of Harpers, Nevinson’s description of labour conditions in Sao Tome was available to a wide readership and spurred the Daily Mail into accusing the Cadbury firm of hypocrisy. Over the previous thirty years Cadbury had successfully constructed an image of paternalistic benevolence towards their employees, and a reputation for openly criticizing slavery, poor work conditions, and (to the Evening Standard’s chagrin), Balfour’s imperial policies. At the time of publication the Quaker chocolate entrepreneurs Cadbury, Fox and Rowntree imported most of their raw cocoa from the Portuguese colony (Satre, 2006).

Eventually initiated in 1909, the Cadbury, Fox, and Rowntree boycott of Sao Tome cocoa contributed to the geographies of a ‘new’ British humanitarian imperialism set against the perceived barbarism of other European imperialisms. As Suzanne Miers (2003) demonstrates the moral high ground was rocky from the start, and concealed geopolitical intentions – the British had been recruiting labourers in Mozambique under dubious conditions and methods whilst criticizing the Portuguese. But, for me, two key questions stand out. How was the corporate boycott of Sao Tome cocoa delayed so successfully? And, given the widespread knowledge of Cadbury complicity in slavery, why wasn’t a boycott activated against the chocolate companies themselves? The existing scholarship doesn’t address these questions fully.

In contrast to the sugar abstention campaigns, the scandal engaged a politics of discontinuity, disassociation and unaccountability between the consumer and the cocoa commodity.   A series of barriers or filters working against viscerality operated between the consumer, the cocoa, the chocolate firms and the enslaved producers. The filters worked to subdue embodied abjection of slave produced cocoa. They were multiple, partly nurtured consciously by the Quaker firms, partly complicit with the changing mechanisms and infrastructure of capitalist relations and imperial discourse, and partly relational to a completely different set of consumer practices, symbols and etiquette’s to those associated with sugar consumption and the anti-saccharites. In the next few posts I will introduce these filters to you in more detail, and I make the argument that the Sao Tome scandal was the big consumer boycott that didn’t happen.

Recommended reading

Grant, K (2005) A Civilised Savagery. Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa 1884-1926. London: Routledge

Nevinson (1906) A Modern Slavery. London, New York: Harper.

Miers, S (2003) Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Pattern. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press

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

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