A New Slavery? Angela V. John Looks at the Uncomfortably Long and Close Links between Slavery and the Cocoa Trade. (Cross Current)

By John, Angela V. | History Today, June 2002 | Go to article overview

A New Slavery? Angela V. John Looks at the Uncomfortably Long and Close Links between Slavery and the Cocoa Trade. (Cross Current)


John, Angela V., History Today


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 Sao Tome 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.

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