Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. By Catherine Higgs. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012. Pp. vi, 230. $26.95.)


Between June 1905 and March 1907, Joseph Burtt traveled to São Tomé and Principe, Angola, Mozambique, and the Transvaal on a fact-finding mission to determine the veracity of reports that alleged that the Cadbury Brothers Chocolate Company was purchasing slave-produced cocoa from Portuguese Africa. As Catherine Higgs states, her engaging microstudy adds to the oft-analyzed narrative of the cocoa scandal “the perspective of Joseph Burtt, erstwhile bank clerk, Quaker utopian, employee and friend of William Cadbury, and ultimately antislavery activist” (171).

Higgs's accessible and graceful prose captures the complexities, contingencies, and contradictions of Burtt's voyage through his own words as expressed in letters written to William Cadbury. Burtt's mission was to determine whether or not Cadbury was purchasing cocoa produced by enslaved, coerced, or free laborers. But Higgs uses Burtt's insecurities with himself as a utopian Quaker in foreign lands to demonstrate that the cocoa scandal really was about the definition of labor in the early twentieth century. For many British philanthropists, labor was either free or enslaved, and any form of coercion signified slavery. For the Portuguese, dignity was the definitive signifier of free or enslaved labor, and they felt plantation work allowed Africans to live dignified lives. As Burtt traveled in British and Portuguese colonial Africa, he observed and experienced the tensions in the two nations' approaches to the creation of laborers.

Higgs's primary source material is Burtt's letters to Cadbury, but the book is excellently researched and illustrated with images of the cocoa plantations and labor-recruiting trails. Nonspecialists will find the engaging story about one of the largest early twentieth-century industries interesting and informative. Specialists will be pleasantly surprised that a book with such excellent analysis and documentation is also an engaging story that is much closer to historical narratives produced by journalists than to dry academic fare.

Higgs lets Burtt take the reader on the voyage with him, beginning with his intellectual origins in the utopian Whiteway Colony in England. Burtt then steamed to the chocolate island plantations of São Tomé and Principe where Cadbury Bros. purchased its cocoa. After visiting mostly model plantations, Burtt traveled on to the Hungry Lands in Angola and followed them to the labor-recruiting networks' origins in the hinterlands. He also traveled to Mozambique and even the British Transvaal to examine the working conditions of Africans laboring in mines. Ultimately Burtt's careful reporting did convince the Cadbury company that slave labor and labor recruitment were part of cocoa production.

Higgs's focus on Burtt's experiences humanizes a moment in history when colonialists were deciding what defined humanity. Higgs's narrative analysis through Burtt's letters is also decidedly European. As long as readers do not expect to read history from Africans' perspectives, they will find Chocolate Islands to be a fascinating journey approachable for scholars and casual readers. Still, adding Burtt's fevered, exhausting struggles and contributions to the cocoa scandal highlights functionaries' importance in colonial bureaucracies that is too often analyzed from the distant, lofty gaze of wealthy businessmen and colonial politicians.