A New Slavery?
Angela V. John looks at the uncomfortably long and close links between slavery and the cocoa trade.
Off the West African coast is a slave ship laden with human cargo. Its occupants are bound for cocoa plantations far away where they will spend the rest of their lives toiling to supply the world’s demand for cocoa beans. Meanwhile in Britain, a centre of chocolate manufacturing and consumption, many are shocked to hear that slavery, supposedly illegal and consigned to history, persists. Anti-Slavery campaigners urge boycotts. Cadburys and other chocolate firms seek to reconcile their humanitarian reputation with their business interests and pressure is put on the government to intervene. There are investigations, deputations, reports and a court case. The press plays a key role in publicising the situation, revealing European connections and a complicated network of traffickers seeking to exculpate themselves from blame. It is 1906.
In April 2001, as British shops sells Easter eggs, a shocking story of child slavery hits the media. A purported slave ship, owned by a Nigerian footballer living in Germany and carrying several hundred children from Benin, is reported missing after being refused entry to Gabon and Cameroon. When the MV Etireno returns to Benin, forty-three children are found. UNICEF becomes involved and warrants are issued for the arrest of the captain, crew and implicated businessmen. A widespread and thriving slave-trafficking business is revealed. Desperately poor parents sell young children in the hope that they will have better opportunities in neighbouring richer countries. In fact, they disappear into prostitution, street markets or domestic service. Wages also vanish, into the pockets of those organising the trade.
The publicity surrounding this recent case focused on West Africa’s links with the chocolate trade. Claims had already been made that as many as ninety per cent of cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast – now accounting for almost half the world’s supply – used some form of slave labour. The two issues of the shipment of child slaves and cocoa plantation slavery became elided in the media. Amidst a flurry of concern Anti-Slavery International urged the consumption of ethically produced chocolate. The British trade held a ‘slavery summit’ to discuss forced labour on African cocoa plantations. The United Nations is now conducting a major survey of labour practices on Ivory Coast plantations, and chocolate manufacturers world-wide have signed up to a protocol on child labour on cocoa farms. Suppliers are to be monitored to ensure ethical products. Publicity may have deflected attention from some of the horrors of village children smuggled into urban slavery far from home but it has certainly helped highlight the need to regulate the cocoa trade.
There are important differences between the situations in 1906 and today. The earlier exposure of West African slavery concentrated on natives being taken north by sea from Angola to cocoa plantations on Sâo Tomé and Principe, two tiny equatorial islands in the Gulf of Guinea. Angola and these islands were part of the Portuguese Empire. Clearly different places and players are involved today in a modern global economy. So too are there greater opportunities now for multi-media exposure. Yet there remain striking similarities with 1906, not least with enforced labour on the African coast and its links to chocolate consumption, vested interests, humanitarian concern and the role of the press in Britain.
Much of the Edwardian publicity about the horrors of the west African slave trade can be traced back to one man: Henry W. Nevinson. A literary editor and author as well as one of the finest war correspondents of his time, Nevinson had the journalist’s knack of being in the right place at the right time. He had been in Ladysmith when the siege began, in Russia during ‘The Days of Liberty’ in 1905, he attended the opening of the First Duma and was present at the historic Indian National Congress meeting at Surat which dissolved into chaos in 1907.
A tireless campaigner into his eighties, Nevinson was dubbed the doughty champion of lost causes. Yet he stressed that the causes he espoused, such as women’s suffrage, were not lost but eventually won. Exposing African slavery he believed to be his most important work. He was not the first Englishman of his generation to visit and write about Angola’s problems but, unlike earlier humanitarians, he was able to publicise effectively what he found. He wrote vividly but with a passion that stopped short of sensationalism.
Commissioned by an American journal, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Nevinson spent over seven months on the trail of the slave trade in 1904-05. The following summer the first of seven instalments of ‘The New Slave-Trade’ appeared. Here, and in his book A Modern Slavery (1906), compelling prose and photographs told of journeys which vied with the boys’ adventure stories currently enjoying such popularity.
Nevinson had gone deep into the interior of Angola, a country four times the size of Britain but with a small population and inhospitable terrain and climate. He travelled through a barren mountainous region by oxen wagon, not seeing water for six days, then trekked across the high forest plateau. Next he faced swamps and pestilential insects which made him feverish. But the greatest challenge came walking through what was known as the Hungry Country. He was now following the 250-mile slave route down to the coast along a narrow track of uninhabited land littered with wooden shackles and the decomposed remains of men and women. The clefts of axes were still visible in some skulls. He encountered traders and agents as well as men and women being marched by armed escorts. With his carrier’s help, he talked to a young woman who had been sold for twenty cartridges, concluding: ‘Thus it is that England and America can get their chocolate and cocoa cheap’. Nevinson provided chilling evidence that although slavery had been formally abolished in Portuguese territories in the mid-1870s, it was, in practice if not in name, flourishing.
He was delayed on reaching the coast because, according to his diary, there was an attempt to poison him. Then he boarded one of the fortnightly steamers whose passengers included over 270 slaves bound for ‘The islands of doom’.
Nevinson’s timing was propitious. World cocoa consumption was rocketing, stimulated by the Swiss invention of ‘melting chocolate’. Moreover, he investigated the trade at the very moment when Sao Tome and Principe had become the world’s largest cocoa producers, supplying one-fifth of the world’s trade, thanks to the annual importation of roughly 4,000 slaves.
Once home, Nevinson began publicising the horrors of the slave trade, writing numerous articles and speaking all over Britain. His colleague H.N. Brailsford explained that he ‘made us understand at what price we drank cocoa in England’. Yet if Angola had been a revelation, so too was the evidence of vested interests in Britain, where a rather different and protracted drama unfolded. Some support was forthcoming from societies and individuals, but on the whole the appeal to boycott the purchase of cocoa and chocolate went unheeded. Nevinson found prevarication and much passing of the proverbial buck. Disappointed with the dilatory tactics of the cocoa firms, he even suggested sending a man-of-war to arrest a slave ship. The Liberal government, concerned about injuring diplomatic relations with Portugal, was loath to intervene. Nevinson made enemies at home, in Portugal and her colonies and chocolate-producing Switzerland. He was especially unpopular with plantation owners and those who despised his ‘zeal for the cause of the black man’.
Almost a third of the islands’ produce was imported into England. Keen to have their own report, Cadburys and other major chocolate firms had despatched the Quaker Joseph Burtt to investigate, followed by William Cadbury himself. The firms tended to concentrate on conditions rather than the loss of liberty emphasised by Nevinson. They argued that boycotting the cocoa from the islands was not the solution to ending trafficking.
Nevinson implied that the firms were not advocating reform because they did not want their profits threatened. He had, however, to watch his words since the chief proprietor of his newspaper, the Daily News, was none other than George Cadbury.
One fellow journalist went too far. A leading article in the Standard contrasted the lot of the model factory workers of Bourneville with the fate of the Africans who supplied them with work. Cadburys took the paper to court. The verdict went in favour of the companies, though with derisory damages of one farthing.
In this same year of 1909, Cadburys, Fry and Rowntree finally announced a boycott. Several months later a Portuguese Royal Decree began the suspension of recruitment from Angola and a new republican government attempted to impose repatriation. Yet it could exercise little real control with so many vested interests at stake. During Portugal’s right-wing dictatorship from 1926 to 1974 forced colonial labour was especially evident.
When the Etireno docked in Benin in April 2001, its captain denied that he had been carrying slave children. One wonders what Nevinson would have made of his comment that ‘It is one thing to say and one thing to prove’. Back in 1906 Nevinson had observed that:
The whole problem is still before us, as urgent and as uncertain as it has ever been ... Laws and regulations have been altered. New and respectable names have been invented. But the real issue has hardly changed at all. It has become part of the world-wide issue of capital, but the question of African slavery still abides.
Almost a hundred years later it seems that one of Henry Nevinson’s causes, albeit in a different guise, has still to be won.
Angela V. John is Professor of History at the University of Greenwich
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