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Slave Cocoa and Red Rubber: E. D. Morel and the Problem of Ethical Consumption

  • Jonathan E. Robins (a1)

Over the last two decades, consumption, consumerism, and the idea of consumer agency have attracted a great deal attention from scholars across a number of disciplines. Among historians, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been identified as a crucial period for consumption, one in which consumers emerged as an influential group of political, economic, and social agents. Historians of the English-speaking world have advanced bold claims about the prominence and impact of consumers during this period. Consumer movements were conspicuously absent in two major scandals of the early twentieth century, however. This article uses these commodity-centered cases—of rubber in the Congo Free State, and cocoa in the Portuguese colonies of São Tomé and Príncipe—to question the salience of “consumerism” in turn-of-the-century political thought. By tracing the career of British journalist and humanitarian activist E. D. Morel through the “red rubber” and “slave cocoa” scandals, the article demonstrates that consumers were only one of many influences along the commodity chain of production and consumption.

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1 For a synopsis of the case, see Olenka Frenkiel, “Children of the Etireno,” Guardian (Manchester), 4 Oct. 2001, (accessed 10 Apr. 2012).

2 Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.), 27 June 2001: A10; Star-Telegram (Forth Worth, Tex.), 11 Oct. 2001: n.p.

3 Annual reports 2007–2009, “Oversight of Public and Private Initiatives to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labor in the Cocoa Sector in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana,” Payson Center, Tulane University, (accessed 10 April 2012).

4 John Angela V., “A New Slavery?History Today 52, 6 (June 2002): 3435.

5 There is currently no good modern biography of Morel. For an early hagiographic take, see Seymour Cocks F., E. D. Morel: The Man and His Work (London: Allen and Unwin, 1920). For a more balanced study limited to his humanitarian activism and political career, see Ann Cline Catherine, E. D. Morel, 1873–1924: The Strategies of Protest (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1980). See also Robert Wuliger, “The Idea of Economic Imperialism with Special Reference to the Life and Work of E. D. Morel” (PhD diss., University of London, 1953).

6 Hilton Matthew, Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1.

7 Cross Gary, An All-Consuming Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

8 Sussman Charlotte, Consuming Anxieties: Consumer Protest, Gender, and British Slavery, 1713–1833 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

9 Trentmann Frank, “Before Fair Trade: Empire, Free Trade and the Moral Economies of Food in the Modern World,” in Nützenadel Alexander and Trentmann Frank, eds., Food and Globalization: Consumption, Markets and Politics in the Modern World (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 253–76.

10 Sklar Katherine K., “The Consumers’ White Label Campaign of the National Consumers’ League, 1898–1918,” in Strasser Susan, McGovern Charles, and Judt Matthias, eds., Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1735.

11 Trentmann Frank and Taylor Vanessa, “From Users to Consumers: Water Politics in Nineteenth-Century London,” in Trentmann Frank, ed., The Making of the Consumer: Knowledge, Power and Identity in the Modern World (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 5379.

12 See Lang Tim and Gabriel Yiannis, “A Brief History of Consumer Activism,” in Harrison Rob, Newholm Terry, and Shaw Deirdre, eds., The Ethical Consumer (London and New York: Sage Publications, 2005), 3954. Lang and Gabriel's Anglo-centric account identifies four “waves” of consumer activism, beginning with the nineteenth-century British co-operative movement. In their narrative, this movement was supplanted by a turn-of-the-century “value-for-money consumer” movement. After a hiatus, consumerism returned in the late twentieth century with “Naderism,” followed by globalization and the emergence of today's “alternative consumers.” For an American-centered perspective with a different periodization, which takes consumer activism back to the American Revolution, see Glickman Lawrence, Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

13 Bauman Zygmunt, Consuming Life (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 28.

14 Hilton, Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain, 4, 2.

15 Aldridge Alan, Consumption (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), 6.

16 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “consumer.” The Early English Books Online database contains only one reference to the “last consumer” before 1700 (a 1692 pamphlet by John Locke). A search of digitized texts in the Google Books database reveals more than a dozen different uses of this expression in books published between 1700 and 1820.

17 Smith Adam, Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 5th ed. (London: Methuen & Co., 1904), IV.8.49; Trentmann Frank, “The Modern Genealogy of the Consumer: Meanings, Identities and Political Synapses,” in Brewer John and Trentmann Frank, eds., Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives: Historical Trajectories, Transnational Exchanges (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 2128.

18 Trentmann, “Modern Genealogy of the Consumer,” 26.

19 Ibid., 27. The idea did not originate with Say: according to the Oxford English Dictionary's entry “consumer,” Locke used the word in 1692 to identify an intermediate user of commodities: “Money may be considered as in the hands of the Consumer, under which Name I here reckon the Merchant who buys the Commodity, when made, to export.”

20 Say J. B., Treatise on Political Economy, 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1855), I.X–XI; III.III. As Say's American translator noted, the purpose of identifying “reproductive consumption” as a distinct economic process was understanding “the exact nature of capital,” which Say believed could be used up productively and unproductively (A.10). See also discussions of “consumption” in Williams Raymond, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 79; Warde Alan, “Consumption,” in Bennett Tony, Grossberg Lawrence, and Morris Meaghan, eds., New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 5759.

21 Hobson John A., Wealth and Life: A Study in Values (London: Macmillan, 1929), 303.

22 Brewer John and Trentmann Frank, “Introduction: Space, Time and Value in Consuming Cultures,” in Brewer and Trentmann, eds., Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives: Historical Trajectories, Transnational Exchanges (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 117, here 3.

23 Trentmann, “Modern Genealogy of the Consumer,” 37, 39.

24 Ramsey MacDonald J., Labour and the Empire (London: George Allen, 1907), 85.

25 Hilton, Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain, 12.

26 The most accessible account is Hochschild Adam, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1999). Morel's own account can be found in his Red Rubber (London: T. F. Unwin, 1906). His unfinished history of the Congo campaign was edited and published with supplementary chapters by Roger Louis William and Stengers Jean as History of the Congo Reform Movement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968). See also Porter Bernard, Critics of Empire: British Radical Attitudes to Colonialism in Africa, 1895–1914 (London: Macmillan, 1968), 239–90.

27 Morel, History of the Congo Reform Movement, 58.

28 Grant Kevin, A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926 (New York: Routledge, 2005), 67.

29 Morel, Red Rubber, 174. For an example of popular literature incorporating the “rubber is death” message, see Strang Herbert, Samba: A Story of the Rubber Slaves of the Congo (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906), 341.

30 Morel's correspondence is held at the London School of Economics archive (hereafter “Morel Papers”). I could find no record of contact with rubber firms or related industries. Morel briefly discussed the idea of a rubber boycott with several correspondents, but he did not display any enthusiasm for the idea (Meyer to Morel, 10 Feb. 1909, F8/108/22; Strachey to Morel, 13 May 1903, F8/135/18, Morel Papers; I am indebted to Dean Pavlakis for these references). Morel did suggest that rubber-laden freighters be barred from British territorial waters, but this was as far as proposed economic sanctions went (Red Rubber, 183).

31 Morel, History of the Congo Reform Movement, 64.

32 Ibid., 58.

33 Cline, Morel, 10.

34 Morel, Red Rubber, 179.

35 Ibid., 180.

36 Morel, History of the Congo Reform Movement, 136.

37 Duffy James, A Question of Slavery (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), 210. For a detailed analysis of the contract labor system, see Gervase Clarence-Smith William, “The Hidden Costs of Labour on the Cocoa Plantations of Sao Tome and Principe, 1875–1914,” Portuguese Studies 6 (1990): 152–72; and Gervase Clarence-Smith William, “Cocoa Plantations and Coerced Labor in the Gulf of Guinea, 1870–1914,” in Klein Martin, ed., Breaking the Chains: Slavery, Bondage, and Emancipation in Modern Africa and Asia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 150–70.

38 So states the official Cadbury Brothers account in, “Labour in Portuguese West Africa: Summary of Steps Taken by Cadbury Brothers, Ltd.,” 120, Cadbury Papers, University of Birmingham Special Collections (hereafter “Cadbury Papers”).

39 Ibid. See also Dellheim C., “The Creation of a Company Culture: Cadburys, 1861–1931,” American Historical Review 92, 1 (1987): 4344; Satre Lowell J., Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005), 1415.

40 Dellheim, “Creation of a Company Culture,” 17.

41 The most comprehensive treatment remains Duffy, A Question of Slavery, a book that emphasizes high imperialist politics between Great Britain and Portugal. See also Stone Glyn, “The Foreign Office and Forced Labour in Portuguese West Africa, 1894–1914,” in Hamilton Keith and Salmon Patrick, eds., Slavery, Diplomacy and Empire: Britain the Suppression of the Slave Trade, 1807–1975 (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2009), 165–95. A recent account of Cadbury Brothers’ involvement can be found in Satre, Chocolate on Trial; and Grant, Civilised Savagery. For a popular account of the story, see Cadbury Deborah, Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry between the World's Greatest Chocolate Makers (New York: PublicAffairs, 2010). Finally, William Cadbury's own version of the story was published as: Cadbury William A., Labour in Portuguese West Africa, 2d ed. (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969 [1910]).

42 “Labour in Portuguese West Africa: Summary of Steps taken by Cadbury Brothers, Ltd.,” 120, Cadbury Papers.

43 W. A. Cadbury to Fry & Sons, 31 Mar. 1903, 180/953, Cadbury Papers.

44 William Cadbury estimated São Tomé production at 24,000 tons, out of a world supply of about 147,000 tons. Cadbury Brothers alone bought one-third of the Portuguese crop. See Grant, Civilised Savagery, 175–76; Cadbury, Labour in Portuguese West Africa, 31.

45 “Labour in Portuguese West Africa,” 120, Cadbury Papers.

46 For a recent biography of Nevinson, see John Angela V., War, Journalism and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century: The Life and Times of Henry W. Nevinson (London: I. B.Tauris, 2006). Nevinson reported on conflicts around the world in the early twentieth century, and was active in campaigns for women's suffrage and other political causes in Britain.

47 Nevinson Henry W., A Modern Slavery (London: Harper & Brothers, 1906).

48 “Slave Blood Mixed with Our Cocoa,” Review of Reviews, Sept. 1907: 266.

49 Quoted in Satre, Chocolate on Trial, 54.

50 Satre's Chocolate on Trial gives a full account of the trial. The jury ruled in favor of Cadbury Brothers, but awarded damages of one farthing. The Times announced that it was “a victory which may seem to [Cadbury] a little too much like a defeat” (7 Dec. 1909: 4).

51 Cadbury to Morel, 5 July 1905, F8/11/31, Morel Papers; Roger Louis William, “Morel and the Congo Reform Association 1904–1913,” in Roger Louis William and Stengers Jean, eds., History of the Congo Reform Movement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 171220, here 172.

52 Cadbury to Morel, 5 July 1905, F8/11/31, Morel Papers.

53 William Cadbury's subsidies to Morel have been controversial. According to Kevin Grant, William Cadbury “appears” to have “deftly exploited” Morel, whom Cadbury recognized as “a brilliant propagandist” and “a potential political leader,” to “distract attention from his company's own slavery scandal” (Civilised Savagery, 111). But as Cline observes, Morel was “a true believer in his own propaganda” (Morel, 15, 50). He had no qualms about accepting patronage for causes he believed in, and there is every indication in the Cadbury-Morel correspondence that Morel found William Cadbury's policies both ethical and efficacious. For more on Morel's personal finances, see William Roger Louis and Jean Stenger's “Critical Note D” in History of the Congo Reform Movement, 258–60. This was not the only instance in which Morel's need for patronage appeared to compromise his morals. Soap magnate William Lever gave Morel money in the hopes that he would back Lever's bid for palm oil concessions in Nigeria. Morel initially supported Lever but turned against the businessman when his racist ideas and monopolist plans became clear. Morel did not return the money. See Dike Nworah K., “The Politics of Lever's West African Concessions, 1907–1913,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 5, 2 (1972): 248–63, here 258. For Grant's take on the Lever affair, see Civilised Savagery, 82–87.

54 Morel's final break with Jones came in May 1903, when Morel told him it was impossible to believe “that you alone are ignorant of all these horrors or of the system under which they are endemic and inevitable” (Morel to Jones, 3 May 1903, F8/94/8, Morel Papers).

55 Holt to Morel, 31 Dec. 1901, F8/83, Morel Papers.

56 Dean Pavlakis, “The Congo Reform Movement in Britain, 1896–1913” (PhD diss., State University of New York at Buffalo, 2011).

57 Morel E. D, The Black Man's Burden (Manchester: National Labour Press, 1920), 151.

59 Quoted in Pavlakis, “Reforming Red Rubber.”

60 Morel, The Black Man's Burden, 151.

61 The wording is Ann Cline's Catherine. “Review, James Duffy's A Question of Slavery,” Catholic Historical Review 56, 4 (Jan. 1971): 691.

62 “Labour in Portuguese West Africa,” 120, Cadbury Papers.

63 Cadbury, Labour in Portuguese West Africa.

64 Quoted in Satre, Chocolate on Trial, 140.

65 Hirschman Albert O., Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970).

66 “Slave Blood Mixed with Our Cocoa,” 266.

67 The Spectator, quoted in “The African Cocoa Slave,” Current Literature, Nov. 1909, 497–98, quote 498.

68 Cadbury, Labour in Portuguese West Africa, 187.

69 Ibid., 98.

70 Ibid., 132–33.

71 On this point Satre (Chocolate on Trial) and Grant (Civilised Savagery) agree.

72 Morel to Cadbury, 4 May 1908, Cadbury Papers 180/782.

73 This fact is crucial in understanding Morel's troubled relationship with Nevinson and other leaders of humanitarian and reformist movements. Looking over Britain's own imperial record, this latter group was perfectly willing to point out British evils, decrying “Chinese slavery” on the Rand and atrocities in India. Morel feared that this only gave ammunition to apologists for coercion elsewhere in Africa. One Portuguese pamphlet used quotes from Nevinson's Modern Slavery to show how the British endorsed “anarchy,” connecting anti-slavery campaigning to revolutionary anti-colonialism: see “Pseudo-Philanthropy in Theory and Practice,” in Joyce Donald F., ed., Slavery in Portuguese Africa: Opposing Views (Northbrook, Ill: Metro Books, 1972), 6263.

74 Quoted in the Republican (Springfield, Mass.), 26 July 1909: 6.

76 New York Times, 4 Aug. 1909, 6.

77 Satre, Chocolate on Trial, 134.

78 Glickman, Buying Power, 158.

79 Speech, F2/2/7 A87, Morel Papers. The date given on the typescript is July 1908, but should read 1909; there was no British boycott before 1909.

80 Cline, Morel, 109–15.

81 Ibid., 109.

82 Nation, 30 June 1917, quoted in Freeden Michael, Liberalism Divided: A Study in British Political Thought, 1914–1939 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 51.

83 Morel, The Black Man's Burden, 153.

85 Ibid. Hobson similarly argued that “man, as worker, is closely associated with his fellow man, as consumer is a detached unit.” J. A. Hobson, “The New Industrial Revolution,” 638, quoted in Freeden, Liberalism Divided, 71.

86 Morel, The Black Man's Burden, 153.

88 Glickman, Buying Power, xi.

89 Unfortunately for Morel's legacy, his last major campaign in Foreign Affairs condemned the stationing of African soldiers in occupied Germany. Morel delivered a series of uncharacteristically racist attacks on black soldiers as part of his wider opposition to the Allies’ punitive post-war policy toward Germany. See Cline, Morel, 126–28; Winkler Henry, Paths not Taken: British Labour and International Policy in the 1920s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 73; Reinders Robert C., “Racialism on the Left: E. D. Morel and the ‘Black Horror on the Rhine,’International Review of Social History 13, 1 (1968): 128.

90 House of Commons Debates (5th series), 30 July 1923, vol. 167, cc1006–7. See also 7 May 1923, vol. 163, cc1899–900 for an inquiry into coffee production; and 11 July 1923, vol. 166, cc1389–91 for a statement comparing peasant and plantation production in Kenya. Morel made similar inquiries to the end of his life in 1924 (House of Commons Debates, 26 Feb. 1924, vol. 170, c310).

91 House of Commons Debates, 3 Mar. 1924, vol. 170, c1092.

92 The phrase is Henry Winkler's (Paths not Taken). Winkler argues that the abandonment of radical ideas like Morel's was necessary, resulting in a Labour Party infused with “a strong element of realism” that better prepared it for the realpolitik of the 1930s (p. 192).

93 Cheryly Stonehouse, “The Evil Slave Traders Who Deal in Misery so You Can Eat Chocolate,” The Express, 27 Sept. 2000: n.p.

94 Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee, “How Your Chocolate may Be Tainted,” Knight Ridder Newspapers, 24 June 2001: n.p.

95 Natasha Walter, “Where Are the Ethical Consumers?” Independent, 16 Oct. 2000: 5.

96 Sarah Grossman-Greene and Chris Bayer claim that media coverage of “chocolate slavery” in 2000–2001 caused a 2 percent drop in UK chocolate sales, the only fall in chocolate consumption recorded between 1996 and 2002: “A History of Child Labor, Child Rights, and the Harkin-Engel Protocol,” 11, n. 39, Tulane University, Payson Center for International Development, Nov. 2009, History of Child Rights, Child Labor, and the Harkin-Engel Protocol.pdf (accessed 10 Apr. 2012). A British retail trade magazine attributed the drop to increased spending on mobile phones and games, compounded by an unusually small number of new chocolate product launches. Sales of non-cocoa sweets also fell over the same period (The Grocer, 15 Dec. 2001, (accessed 10 Apr. 2012).

97 A possible exception in the cocoa industry is the charitable Hershey Trust, which continues to own a controlling stake in the Hershey firm. Cadbury Brothers absorbed fellow Quaker firm Fry & Sons, was in turn bought by multinational giant Schweppes, and was finally acquired in 2010 by the even bigger Kraft Foods. Quaker-owned Rowntree was reduced to a brand of the Nestlé foods empire. See Fold Niels, “Restructuring of the European Chocolate Industry and Its Impact on Cocoa Production in West Africa,” Journal of Economic Geography 1, 4 (2001): 405–20.

98 It remains to be seen what Cadbury will do if and when ethical consumption threatens profits. As a subsidiary of Kraft Foods, Cadbury is “judged by investors on its ability to increase profits margins—not the size of its heart” (Zoe Wood, “Socially Aware Chocoholics Rejoice as Cadbury's Dairy Milk Goes Fairtrade,” Guardian, 22 July 2009: 25).

99 See Grossman-Greene and Bayer, “History of Child Rights.” Annual reports of the Payson Center's oversight project can be found at the project's website:

100 International Cocoa Initiative, “Q&A,” Apr. 2011, accessed 10 Apr. 2012,

Acknowledgments: This article began as a paper for Robert Foster's seminar on “Global Culture” at the University of Rochester in 2006. I am grateful to Bob, as well as to Stewart Weaver and other members of the University of Rochester History Department for their comments and encouragement. Archival research was supported by a travel grant from the University of Rochester. I also wish to thank Brett Berliner of Morgan State University and the anonymous CSSH reviewers for their extensive critiques of the manuscript.

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