Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa by Catherine Higgs (review)
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Reviewed by
Catherine Higgs. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Columbus, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012. 236 pp. ISBN 9780821420065, $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 9780821420744, $22.95 (paper).

Catherine Higgs has written a compelling book that is at the crossroads of three traditions of historiography, namely, the abolition of the African slave trade and slavery, the labor-recruitment policies of the colonial powers, and the rise of “legitimate’ commerce. It is also, tangentially, a history of the rise of the great chocolate [End Page 197] manufacturers—Cadbury, Rowntree, Fry, and a host of others, who would play a pivotal role in the expansion of cocoa production in West Africa in the early colonial period—a period that heralded a momentous shift from the age of the expansive cocoa estates to the ascendancy of the West African smallholder. Indeed, by the 1950s, the epicenter of the world’s cocoa production had moved inexorably to West Africa.

Chocolate Islands is based on a series of letters written by Joseph Burtt about labor practices in Portuguese Africa to his employer, William Cadbury, over a period of about twenty-two months. The book opens with a report that the labor that produced the raw cocoa beans that were being processed by Cadbury Brothers Limited and other manufacturers of the nascent chocolate industry was not free; the report suggests that the conditions on the cocoa estates of São Tomé and Príncipe were analogous to slavery. William Cadbury, scion of the Cadbury family—a family of Quakers—and the newly appointed director of the burgeoning Cadbury Brothers Limited had to take this report with all of the seriousness it deserved. If in fact it was proven that slave labor produced the cocoa beans used by Cadbury, the company had to take appropriate action to stop it. To be sure, the Cadburys were staunch Quakers, and the Quakers’ unwavering advocacy of antislavery had been instrumental in dismantling the British Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery in the British colonies in the early nineteenth century. But this was a new age—the age of the Industrial Revolution, of British imperial expansion, and a new demand for tropical raw materials. Yet, could it be true that the “twin evils” of the slave trade and slavery persisted in this new era?

Higgs’ narrative unfolds in several discernible stages. The first order of business was to ascertain the veracity of the report about the status of laborers in São Tomé and Príncipe. To achieve this, William Cadbury went on a fact-finding mission to Lisbon, Portugal. In Lisbon, William Cadbury met with some of the most influential cocoa planters in São Tomé and Príncipe. They rejected the report that the laborers (serviçais) on their estates were slaves. The planters posited that the laborers apart from being well fed and well cared for, continued working on the plantations after the expiration of their contracts voluntarily. They asked William Cadbury to visit the islands to undertake his own independent evaluation. William Cadbury, not willing to accept the statements of the cocoa planters at face value, decided to look for someone to go to the “chocolate islands” to investigate the conditions there.

William Cadbury’s hire, Joseph Burtt, visited a majority of the cocoa estates (roças) on the islands. From the Ảgua Izé estate to the “model plantations” of the Boa Endrada, to the tsetse fly-ravaged island of Principe, and the fazendas in Angola, Burtt was impressed [End Page 198] by the fact that in spite of the high mortality rates on the estates, the laborers appeared well fed and properly taken care of—a viewpoint Portuguese colonial officials eagerly touted. Higgs, however, contends that this was not the bone of contention. The central question was this: were the laborers free? Could they leave the services of their employer once their contract had expired? At the end of his stay on the islands, Burtt came to the conclusion that the serviçais were in fact not free. He opines that “the prospect before the children born on the estate, although one of security as regards food and shelter is at best but...