Cocoa is blood and they are eating my flesh

Toby Green

  • Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery and Colonial Africa by Catherine Higgs
    Ohio, 230 pp, £24.95, June 2012, ISBN 978 0 8214 2006 5

For centuries, the region that now straddles northern Angola and the western part of the Democratic Republic of Congo formed a political and cultural whole. South of what the BaKongo knew as the Zaire river lay the heartland of the Kingdom of Kongo, one of the most powerful states of West-Central Africa. Kongo sat at the crossroads of trade routes linking the forests of the interior with the arid coastal areas near Luanda, in Angola, and the savannahs of the plateau further north. These deep-rooted connections meant that slaving wars in one area influenced the political stability of the rest of the region. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, Kongo and Ndongo – the kingdom at the heart of what is now Angola – fractured into warring statelets whose main business was to bring slaves to the coast, thus helping Atlantic slavery to reach ever further into Central Africa. These countries remain interlocked, involved in geopolitical struggles for coltan, diamonds, oil and timber.

When Roger Casement visited a coffee plantation in northern Angola in 1902, he described the situation there in a report to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He found that contract workers known in Portuguese Angola as serviçais were being brought in from the Congo Free State, sold to plantations, and then forbidden to leave the estates that had ‘bought’ them. The serviçais were paid not in cash but vouchers, which they could only use at the estate store to buy poor quality goods and rum. This ‘voucher-wage labour’ was also common in the British-run nitrate mines of northern Chile. Casement reported that the Angolan serviçais were being treated as slaves, with high death rates resulting from a shocking diet. Picked up by H.R. Fox Bourne, the secretary of the Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS), Casement’s Angola report was used to add weight to protests led by the activist-journalist E.D. Morel against conditions in the Congo Free State, run as a personal fiefdom by King Leopold II of Belgium. Casement was soon sent to investigate the situation in Congo itself, leading him to produce the report that would make him famous (before his championing of the cause of Irish independence led to his execution for treason). The abuses in Congo alarmed humanitarian groups such as the APS and the Anti-Slavery Society: William Cadbury, a director of Cadbury’s in Birmingham and a Quaker, like the rest of his family, was deeply involved in these movements and could not countenance that his company’s profits were supported by slavery: and yet supported by slavery they were, as Catherine Higgs shows.

The paradox for European imperialisms in Africa was that while the nature of imperialism is to exploit the labour of the colonised, the ideological foundation of empire was that only imperial rule could end the evils of slavery and slave labour. The empire promised its subjects a fair – or at least a fairer – system of labour. Free wage labour would, it was thought, give the workers dignity and result in the progress of the African continent. The wish for Africans to understand the ‘dignity of labour’ may look ironic, but it meant that British industrialists were keen to take action to end their dependence on slavery, a dependence which by that time had lasted nearly two centuries.

Higgs’s Chocolate Islands relates William Cadbury’s efforts to find out whether the cocoa his company bought from Portuguese Africa was still produced by slaves. Higgs tells us that Cadbury’s conscience had first been troubled when, in 1901, he read a catalogue from a cocoa estate on the small Portuguese island of São Tomé, in the Gulf of Guinea. Among the items listed for sale were cattle valued at £420 and ‘200 black labourers’. He found this alarming because Cadbury’s imported more than half its cocoa from São Tomé and its tiny neighbour Príncipe, so he decided to set about investigating labour conditions on the islands. Being, as he said, too busy to look into the matter himself, he commissioned Joseph Burtt, a middle-aged utopian who had abandoned banking to live in a commune in Gloucestershire, to go on his behalf. The commune had begun to falter, and Burtt was casting around for a purpose in life to match his idealism. The anti-slavery movement fitted the bill, and he set sail for São Tomé in May 1905.

As Burtt was to discover, slavery in Africa was impossible to disentangle from the imperial system. The Kikongo, Kimbundu and Ovimbundu-speaking regions of Angola and Congo had long been the major zones from which enslaved Africans departed on the Middle Passage: according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, from the 16th century onwards almost half of the Africans shipped across the Atlantic came from there. The high incidence of slave trafficking in Angola and Kongo was a consequence of colonial wars waged by the Portuguese, with the help of Brazilian troops and African allies, much as the Spanish used Native Americans to fight in Mexico. These wars depopulated much of Angola and Kongo, and led to the collapse of the Kingdom of Kongo after the Portuguese victory at the Battle of Mbwila in 1665. Kongo’s political system disintegrated and a series of civil wars followed in which the capture of potential slaves was a priority. Angola and Kongo remained major suppliers of slaves throughout the 18th century and after.

The Abolition Act of 1807 ended the British slave trade, but the trade from Angola to Brazil carried on until the 1850s, and slavery wasn’t abolished in Brazil itself until 1888. When Burtt crossed the Ovimbundu highlands from Benguela in southern Angola, following a long-standing slave route that stretched east towards what had been the Lunda empire, he discovered skeletons, decomposing corpses and abandoned ankle-shackles. A century after Abolit-ion, slavery in Angola was still widespread even if colonists – both Portuguese officials and British investors – turned a blind eye to it.

Burtt’s experiences demonstrate the informal spread of British imperial power in 20th-century Africa. Angola was a Portuguese colony, but British capital and missionaries were major presences there. Burtt frequently stayed with missionaries and men such as John Norton-Griffiths, the contractor of the Benguela railway, who beat his African workers so readily that Burtt claimed he was ‘cordially hated by nearly all his men’, all 1700 of them. Another well-known Englishman in Benguela was famed for having floored an African drunk and then kicked him in the face and stomach. In spite of all the high-flown rhetoric about the dignity of labour, arbitrary violence was used to enforce colonial labour norms: it was used to build railways and ports that would bring progress to Africa, and expedite the transport of raw materials to European factories.

After Casement’s 1902 report on the serviçais in his plantations, the Portuguese, as a gesture towards meeting British concerns, passed a labour law stipulating that serviçais on São Tomé and Principe should have five-year contracts, and that half of their salaries should be held over to pay for their repatriation to Angola when their contract expired. But when Burtt visited in 1905 he found no evidence that any serviçais had ever left the islands. Higgs draws on Burtt’s letters for her evocative narrative of his visits to different plantations: though impressed by the living conditions on some of them, Burtt found that the serviçais were not free to hire out their own labour. The 1903 law was a classic example of a law só para o Inglês ver – just for the English to see – as the Portuguese had called their 1836 law ‘abolishing’ the slave trade.

During the two years he was away from Britain, Burtt wrote regularly to William Cadbury. His letters show him gradually realising that British capital was propping up the continuation of the slave trade. The booming cocoa market and the profits made by Cadbury’s itself were keeping the prices of serviçais sold to São Tomé high. But the imperial British economy was also underpinned by the gold rush in Johannesburg: many of the miners came from Portuguese Mozambique and, as Burtt noted, forcing the Portuguese to end the slave trade from Angola might lead them to close the border between Mozambique and South Africa, with unwelcome consequences for British finances. Those same migrations continue today, and Higgs makes clear how stubbornly enduring the relationship between labour, migration and capital in South-Eastern Africa has been.

Burtt’s unequivocal findings about the continuing use of slave labour on São Tomé led Cadbury to make his own shorter journey of inquiry soon afterwards, and the firm stopped buying cocoa from the islands in 1910. The anti-slavery campaign petered out during the First World War and forced labour continued to be used in colonial Africa well into the 20th century: as Basil Davidson discovered, it continued in Angola in the 1950s, and recent research shows that it may have been widespread as late as the independence wars of the 1960s.[*] The Angolan colony was key to propping up the struggling economy of the Salazar regime and after the coup in Lisbon in 1974 large numbers of Portuguese migrants hastily departed, their flight memorably described by Ryszard Kapuściński in Another Day of Life. The migrants, and the whole infrastructure of Portuguese Africa, were dependent on forced labour in parts of Angola that most colonists never saw.

As for Cadbury’s, they started to buy their cocoa from the British colony of the Gold Coast (which became Ghana in 1957), and still buy most of their cocoa beans there. Labour practices were, and remain, far from ideal. As Higgs notes, TV documentaries in the early 2000s revealed that there was still widespread use of child labour in Ghana, with slaves trafficked south from Mali and Burkina Faso. When one worker was asked what he would say to consumers of this mythical product, chocolate, which he had never seen, he replied: ‘They are eating my flesh.’ Almost a century earlier, when Burtt asked an American missionary about cocoa, his reply had been: ‘Cocoa is blood.’ Higgs’s book is a reminder of the relevance of African histories to contemporary questions. There are obvious parallels between the serviçais and the factory workers of 21st-century China, or the cleaners and service providers of Dubai. Modern Western democracies may be founded on ideologies of freedom, but they have yet to reconcile these ideologies with what used to be known as the ‘labour question’. The intellectual incoherence of late capitalism emerges nowhere more starkly than in the paradox of the coercive labour regimes needed to facilitate unlimited free consumption.

[*] Basil Davidson wrote about the decolonisation of Portuguese Africa in the LRB of 18 February 1999.