- Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History
It’s a curious phenomenon that chocolate manufacture in nineteenth-century Britain was often a Quaker business. Four of the major chocolate firms—Cadbury, Fry, Rowntree, and Terry’s—were founded by Quakers and were regarded as model employers, respectful of their workers. In her study of the Rowntree business, founded in 1862 and headquartered in York in the north of England, Emma Robertson seeks to destabilize the carefully honed image of a Christian-infused paternalism to reveal a profitable business model founded on the inequities built into colonialism and into gender difference. It is Robertson’s contention that neither the farming of cocoa beans in Nigeria (her African research site) nor the production of chocolates in York (her British research site) were male-dominated enterprises but relied heavily, if not always visibly, on the labor of women. Much of her argument rests on some thirty interviews with women workers she conducted in York and in Nigeria, the latter using a translator. While Robertson’s story is, therefore, largely of the twentieth century, its roots run so deeply in the nineteenth century that it will be of interest to Victorianists.
These interviews as we are given them in the text, like her analysis overall, offer few surprises, and indeed one of the hallmarks of this study is its predictability. Her findings—that women were active workers and that people of color involved in chocolate processing were frequently rendered invisible in marketing aimed at British consumers—will not surprise many readers, and she will find broad agreement for these observations, certainly among historians of empire and of women. This is a thorough accounting, but an occasional glimpse of the bigger issues at stake here would have moved the work from a highly localized study to one with a more ambitious analysis. [End Page 123]
Chocolate, after all, is clearly a hot historical issue right now. In the same year as Women, Chocolate and Empire appeared, Sara Moss published her Chocolate: A Global History. The year before Marcy Norton’s Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures (2008) explored the Atlantic histories of chocolate and tobacco, and Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate (2010) revealed what the book’s subtitle identified as the “dark side” of this popular commodity. Studies of foodstuffs and other key commodities have, as this spate of chocolate books suggests, grown in recent years; as is the case in Robertson’s work, interest has often been spurred by the colonial origins of foodstuffs and goods intended principally for sale at the imperial center. In her essay “Tasting Empire,” published in the American Historical Review, Norton pointed to the “primacy of chocolate in the pantheon of tropical imports” (111.3 , 666). Robertson clearly shares that view—and rightly—but seems unaware of Norton’s essay, which is not included in her bibliography. Still, her work proceeds from the idea that empire provided goods (and the bodies to produce and process those goods) for the metropolitan marketplace.
Where she departs from Norton is in her deeply empirical approach. The strength that methodological choice brings to the work is that it helps her stack up a fine body of evidence gleaned largely from marketing and advertising sources and from the opinions of the women workers she interviewed. That same intense focus, however, is in some measure a burden, for it seems to have constrained Robertson from connecting her particular history to broader trends and moments. She briefly discusses, for example, an intriguing early-twentieth-century scandal in which another of the Quaker chocolate firms, Cadbury, was accused by a British newspaper of knowingly buying slave-grown cocoa beans. The scandal hit shortly after the controversies over both Chinese indentured labor in South Africa and King Leopold’s actions in his privately owned and acutely misnamed Congo Free State. Indeed in 1908, when this so-called cocoa scandal hit, Belgium was involved in annexing the Congo in an attempt to stifle the swarm of...