Chocolate and empire: from the land where the cocoa grows

The relationship between Rowntree's British workers, and those on its plantations overseas, casts a fascinating light upon attitudes to empire, says Emma Robertson, who has been researching the company archives

Men sealing cases of Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa, York, Yorkshire, 1893. (Photo by Borthwick Institute/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In March 1902, workers at the Rowntree confectionery company in York received their very first copy of the Cocoa Works Magazine (CWM). This in-house journal had been instigated by their Quaker employer, Joseph Rowntree, in the hope that it would “make up for the loss of personal intercourse” caused by the expansion of the firm. DS Crichton, in his Editor’s Note, referred to the magazine “as a means of making the work of the Social Department more effective”, and the Notes and Jottings feature encouraged workers to take part in company-sponsored activities at the factory such as singing classes and Sick Benefit Clubs.

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However, turning to page three of the CWM, readers could also learn of J Wilhelm Rowntree’s recent visit to the company’s cocoa plantations in the British West Indies, during which he had what he described as a “narrow escape” from an explosion in the hold of the steamer on which he was travelling. This dramatic tale was the first of many accounts in the CWM of the Rowntree firm’s connections with the wider world, and in particular with the British colonies, reassuringly labelled in the magazine as “our ‘Dominions beyond the Seas'”.

The source of chocolate

Today, British consumers are increasingly concerned with the origins of the cocoa beans used in their chocolate, seeking out ethically-sourced products which guarantee a fairer deal for farmers. In response, many companies now offer fair trade varieties to the consumer.

Yet early in the 20th century, Rowntree workers at the factory in York were learning of their dependence for essential cocoa supplies on the labour of non-white British subjects in the empire, while simultaneously being reassured of their own powerful position in a colonial commodity chain that privileged western manufacturers and consumers.

Beginning with the inaugural issue, the CWM featured regular articles on the farming of key ingredients such as cocoa. Rather than focusing on the intricacies of agricultural methods, however, these accounts offered York readers some insight, from the perspective of white male officials, into the tropical landscapes and socio-cultural contexts of cocoa farming: “I must carry you up into the hills before the sun goes down, and the mosquito comes out of its lair, hungry for your blood, singing its shrill ping-ping music” (CWM, May 1902).

While the magazine included few illustrations in early editions, no doubt due to the expense entailed, these articles were invariably accompanied by at least one photograph displaying foreign locations and peoples. The representation of cocoa plantations and farmers in the magazine is indicative of the varied ways in which people and places seemingly fixed at the start of the commodity chain were making their influence felt at the ‘heart’ of chocolate production in York. By February 1912, Rowntree workers were encouraged to imagine themselves at the centre of an industry with a global, rather than merely imperial, jurisdiction: “If the sun never sets on the British empire, we may with even greater justice claim that it never sets on Rowntree’s employees”.

Tales of exotic workers were intended for the amusement of white workers in York

Without leaving the shopfloor, York men and women could physically touch the wider world: “the sand of an African desert is found in the Gum Store room; … the rose leaves on the chocolates packed by Miss Leake’s girls were plucked last summer by a dark-eyed French maiden of old Provence” (CWM, March 1912).

Despite this impulse to make connections between Rowntree workers across the globe, imperial hierarchies were firmly maintained within the pages of the magazine. Tales of exotic workers and of traces of exotic locations finding their way into the York factory were intended for the amusement of white workers, who were implicitly placed in a shared position of superiority with the author. Describing his safe arrival in the West Indies after his near-death adventure in 1902, JW Rowntree was relieved “to hear the witless chatter of the negro boatmen as they clustered around the steamer”. Although grateful, Mr Rowntree immediately establishes intellectual and racial distance from his non-white rescuers.

Another white male Rowntree representative was being rowed ashore, 23 years later, but this time in the more threatening space of the ‘Dark Continent’. The focus of the cocoa trade had shifted from the West Indies to West Africa by the 1920s and the three major British confectionery firms of Rowntree, Cadbury and Fry had established collaborative buying operations in Ghana and Nigeria. One AV Iredale, arriving in Accra on the Gold Coast on a mission to monitor cocoa production, was transfixed by the “ten lusty Kroo boys like beautiful bronze statues” who rowed his boat. Yet his desire is edged with fear, and in the CWM of April 1925 he evoked, only half-jokingly, shared cultural stereotypes of cannibals for his readers: “Surf boats… look very much like the pictures we see of savage war canoes. However, I managed to avoid being the pièce de resistance at a cannibal feast”.

Alongside such stories of nerve-wracking encounters, Rowntree agents travelling in the empire brought home exotic artefacts to be exhibited in the factory. The CWM of December 1923 featured photos of objects collected by Mr SH Davies in the West Indies, under the heading “From the Land Where the Cocoa Grows”. The entire collection, including the jaws of a shark and the body of a baby alligator, was placed on display in the visitors’ rooms of the factory dining block.

The arrangement of objects and photographs within the factory, and on the pages of the works’ magazine, indicate an anthropological urge to categorise colonial subjects. The CWM of February 1908 included “Scenes from Jamaica” in which photographs of black Jamaicans and Indian workers were deliberately juxtaposed: “if the printer does his work well the great difference in features between these [Jamaican negroes] and the coolies will be easily seen”. Indian women appeared frequently in illustrations. Photographed wearing elaborate necklaces and bangles and in graceful poses, they were rarely depicted in the act of labouring on the plantations.

While these women were treated by Rowntree observers as exotic beauties with “picturesque” names, black Africans and black West Indians (particularly men) could arouse more complex responses. For AV Iredale, African men were a source of fascination, fear and disgust. On his way to set up West African cocoa buying stations in 1925, he met a former king of Ashanti and recounted for CWM readers a tale of 400 human sacrifices apparently made at the king’s “enstoolment”: “which I just mention to illustrate how very few years, even now, West Africa is removed from savagery”. He insists on a photograph of the king, “against his wish”, which is reprinted in the April edition of the CWM. The reader thus becomes complicit in voyeuristically observing King Prempeh, now a Christian and dressed in a western suit, from a safe distance. The CWM allowed York workers to view photographs of colonial workers and other ‘natives’ juxtaposed with photographs of white co-workers from the York factory.

With visits from West African officials to England, the safety of geographical distance collapsed and York workers came into direct contact with colonial representatives of the cocoa industry. A CWM article from autumn 1937, for example, detailed the visit of the Alake of Abeokuta and his family. Importantly, this piece illustrates the contact between the visitors and the women workers on the shopfloor: “In two departments the girls were so enthusiastic that they left their work to crowd around the party. They then proceeded to show what English community singing can be”. The ‘girls’ certainly seem to have made an impression on the Nigerian chief: “The Alake spoke of his interest in seeing the various processes the cocoa underwent after leaving Nigeria, and the number of people, mostly girls, engaged in the work, and the cheerful manner in which the work was done”. Whether he relayed quite such a positive story back to the Nigerian people is impossible to ascertain.

There were, then, tangible manifestations of empire within the very walls of the Rowntree factory in the early 20th century. Through stories and images in the CWM, displays of ‘exotic’ objects and the presence of colonial subjects – not to mention the daily arrival of essential ingredients from the colonies – the empire literally ‘came home’ to York. Connections between coloniser and colonised, manufacturer and farmer, were being made, explored, and tested. In reassessing the history of the York Rowntree factory and its workers, we need to be aware of how, even in this provincial ‘city of antiquity’, the people of the modern British empire made their presence felt.

Dr Emma Robertson studied the Rowntree Company Archives during research for her book Chocolate, Women and Empire (Manchester University Press, 2009).

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A Rowntree worker abroad

It was not only male representatives of Rowntree who travelled to the empire. One woman, Mrs Alice Tabuteau, featured frequently in the Cocoa Works Magazine in the early 20th century, with news from her new home in South Africa. A former women’s supervisor at the factory, her letters were described in the inaugural 1902 issue as demonstrating her “keen interest in the doings of her old friends in York”. Two such letters took pride of place on the front pages of the January and February editions in 1904.

Alice Tabuteau left Rowntree to move to the Transkei with her husband, who held a senior position on the railways. She quickly became an important figure in her own right, acting occasionally as a midwife for the ‘natives’. Her perspective on the South African people she encountered was ambivalent, both challenging and reinforcing racial hierarchies. In February 1904, she described how: “The whites are mostly horrid, but I love the blacks; they are splendid in many ways, especially, as up here, they are not allowed to be served with drink, and therefore are not so demoralised as the Cape blacks”. Distaste for the company of certain South African whites highlights distinctions within the category of ‘whiteness’ and perhaps lingering resentments from the Boer War. Her patronising affection for “the blacks”, meanwhile, was reserved for those who remained sober.

Although clearly happy to leave behind “congested” English towns, Mrs Tabuteau expressed a degree of homesickness. In January 1904, she wrote of her disappointment upon seeing the local railway station: “a mere shanty compared to our lovely York station”. Emigrants defined York and England in relation to their new homes, and vice versa.

Former Rowntree workers (women and men) emigrated for a variety of reasons. Their letters in the CWM offer a fascinating insight into how they experienced life out in the empire, and how they interpreted their experiences for friends back home. Like the cocoa commodity chain, they highlight the significant, long-standing interconnections between York and the wider world.

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This article was first published in the April 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine