The Great Boycott that Didn’t Happen: Drinking Cocoa and the Absence of a São Tomé Blood-Cocoa Topos

12 Oct


Schivelbusch’s hot chocolate slumber: “drinking chocolate was meant to create an intermediate state between lying down and sitting up” (1993: 91)

This post suggests how a widepread public consumer boycott was avoided by the British chocolate firms, Cadbury, Rowntree and Fox in the wake of the publication of Nevinson’s A Modern Slavery.  I point to the ways in which the São Tomé cocoa scandal was contained, and how a visceral and implicating consumer-producer topos was avoided.

Without the antislavery suggestion of white on black anthropophagia that characterized the sugar abstention campaigns, a blood-cocoa topos was inconceivable. I believe that the absence of a topos to fictionalise and disgust, to romanticize and make poetic, drew the sting out of moralizing arguments, and disabled a widespread politics of pity for the São Tomé cocoa producer.


So, why didn’t an anthropophagic consumer led politics materialize? One answer could rest with the comparative materialism of sugar and cocoa. Refined sugar can be stained red or black, essential for metaphors of sullied purity, and cocoa is already stained, already dark, impossible to make red, and metaphorically can only be purified. A second approach is to question the social practices associated with the drinking of hot chocolate. Drinking cocoa engaged the consumer in less social ways than the anti-saccharite tea or coffee parties held in drawing rooms or cafes – although coffee houses sold chocolate drinks (considered the ‘Catholic’ drink having derived from Mexico under the Spanish) from the early eighteenth century (Braudel, 1979a; Abbott, 2009), chocolate consumption neither had the trappings nor the rituals of tea drinking. On both the material and social differences between coffee and chocolate drinking Wolfgang Schivelbusch writes:

“Breakfast chocolate had little in common with the bourgeoisie’s breakfast coffee. It was quite the opposite, not only because the drinks were intrinsically different. Whereas the middle class family sat erect at the breakfast table, with a sense of disciplined propriety, the essence of chocolate ritual was fluid, lazy, languid motion…If coffee virtually shook drinkers awake for the workday that lay ahead, chocolate was meant to create an intermediate state between lying down and sitting up” (1993: 91)

For Shivelbusch drinking cocoa lacks the pharmacological panache and get-up-and-go social impetus of coffee or tea. The lethargic and fluid rituals of chocolate drinking make it an unlikely candidate as a revolutionary brew.

However, today much of this has changed. Chocolate based anti-slavery activism is often based around solid chocolate and is often anthropophagic in content and suggestion. But in 1903-09 the visceral deployment of a cocoa- blood topos simply didn’t occur. Why?

Territorialization of activist networks

Territoriality, Robert Sack writes, is “the attempt by an individual or group to affect, influence, or control people, phenomena and relationships, by delimiting and asserting control over a geographical area” (1986: 19).

The extensive Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry families commonly intermarried between themselves and other prominent Quaker families, and were nearly all members of The Society of Friends (the Cadbury family regularly attended meeting for worship and gave many generous donations to meeting houses whilst actively constructing Quaker infrastructure through publications like the Daily News, and the building of meeting houses). This meant that Quaker anti-slavery networks of dissent were contained territorially by strong kinship ties, and by a significant tradition of internal discretion. Strong kinship ties, which became such an asset to the anti-saccharite boycott once the Quaker movement resolved to be outwardly active in antislavery, hindered any dissentious voices over the São Tomé slavery. Additionally, the monthly and annual General Meetings where Quaker business and actions were agreed, relied on a system of consensus rather than democratic voting to move forward motions. Therefore the presence of just a few Cadbury sympathizers at meetings could halt even a majority desire for consumer activism. British Quaker identity and selfhood was so closely aligned to the chocolate firms that a widespread Quaker boycott of cocoa would be unthinkable.  The impossibility of significant Quaker boycott action meant that the networks of anti-slavery activism (some of which had been in place since the early eighteenth century) were seriously impaired and re-territorialized around family and kinship alliances.

So, in short activist networks were disabled through territorial control over different scales and boundaries(at the workplace, Friends Meeting Houses, domestic places and employee community projects).

Changing conditions of slavery    

The imperial labour systems of the early twentieth century were perceived more benevolently by the British public than the slave plantations of the eighteenth. Outrage over imperial contractual labour (regardless of its comparative similarity to Caribbean chattel slavery) never had the same impact for chocolate consumers as eighteenth century colonial slavery did on sugar consumers. The quasi legal status of contractual labour meant it was a challenge for antislavery activists to summon the absolute – absolute enslavement, absolute suffering, absolutely needing of redemption. Slavery had become a protean condition (Grant, 2005).

The Cadbury family realized that the Portuguese government, rather than firm itself, would be held accountable by the British public for slavery; George Cadbury made public his frequent visits to Lisbon and his demands for reassurance from Portuguese officials in meetings in Lisbon (Satre, 2005).  The actions taken by the British chocolate manufacturers could provide an blueprint for corporate boycott avoidance today.

Internal not public investigation

When the scandal of slave labour became public knowledge Cadbury agreed with the antislavery societies to carry out an internal investigation of the conditions of labour at Sao Tome; in effect he positioned the company as moral arbiter for the scandal. He recruited another Quaker, Joseph Burtt, as the company’s agent in the colonies; Burtt arrived at Sao Tome as Henry Nevinson was leaving. Of Burtt, Nevinson wrote:

“About the youngest man of 43 that could live…Supports the slave system as good for Africans and thinks Portugal is doing good work here. Thinks the plantations greatly increase human happiness and so on. All very crude and youthful stuff, full of contradictions and very astonishing”

(Nevinson 1905, in Satre 2005: 32).

If Nevinson’s account is accurate, the Cadbury sponsored investigator of Sao Tome labour conditions was pliable, open to suggestion and pro-slavery from the outset. But by the time Burtt produced his report in 1906, his views appeared to have changed dramatically. The report went through several revisions to tone down his condemnations of the Portuguese labour contracts as a ‘farce’ and ‘all but slavery in name’ (Satre, 2005). Even after Burtt produced the report, the Cadbury, Fox and Rowntree continued to purchase Sao Tome sugar for another three years.

Creating moral capital through association with antislavery societies

George and William Cadbury were staunch supporters of the humanitarian campaigns against the Congo Free State and Chinese slavery in South Africa. When the Congo Reform Association went close to bankruptcy, William donated £1000 to Edmund Morel, its leader, and over several years Morel became the Cadbury’s political advisor (Grant, 2005).  Ironically, many of the slaves producing cocoa for Cadbury’s in the São Tomé plantations were either captured or purchased from traders in the Congo Free State (ibid, 2005). The key point here is that the prominent position of Cadbury as a philanthropist and humanitarian worked to present a conflict of interests within anti-slavery organizations and disarm critique.

Bourneville and the paternalistic firm

By the start of the twentieth century, the Cadbury worker’s estate, Bournville, had become lauded as the model of paternalistic capitalism and was a prototype for Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement. The firm’s nationalist, benevolent and sober image acted as a type of psychological filter against bodily abjection of slave produced cocoa. The public could consume cocoa without the guilt of association with a corrupt Empire.

Further reading

Cherry, G (1979) The Town Planning Movement and the Late Victorian City. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 4, 2, 306- 319

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

Sack, R (1986) Human Territoriality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Schivelbusch, W (1993) Tastes of Paradise – A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxications. New York: Vintage

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