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Deja Vu

December 28, 2009

The Town That Chocolate Built

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2009: The British confectioner Cadbury is fighting for its corporate life as Kraft predator drones have targeted the company for a hostile takeover.This has led to a great outpouring of support laced with nationalistic horror ("Dairy Milk owned by the Americans—Never!"). Cadbury has become a symbol of how the British do things differently, with even the U.K.'s Business Secretary saying bids for the company have to "respect the company's heritage and work force." In the British press, George Cadbury is remembered fondly as the architect of Bournville in the 1870s, a model village near the company's factory. One of several BBC stories on the situation reported on the cultural roots of the Cadbury creed:

The Cadbury family, with their Quaker beliefs that all human beings should be treated equally and should live in peace, believed in social responsibility and social reform. They improved working and social conditions for their employees and the community…

George was driven by a passion for social reform and wanted to provide good quality low cost homes for his workers in a healthy environment—giving an alternative to grimy city life. So he set about building a village where his workers could live.

George said of his plans: "If each man could have his own house, a large garden to cultivate and healthy surroundings—then, I thought, there will be for them a better opportunity of a happy family life."

1905: With the happy workers churning out so much chocolate, there was a tremendous need for cocoa, which grows only in the equatorial regions. In the necessarily global trade in the stuff, one major supply source for the British chocolatiers was the Portuguese-controlled island of San Thome. There, plantation (roça) owners had their own ideas about what kinds of accommodations best harmonized profits with regard for human life. Henry Nevinson, a British journalist, visited the region in 1905 and published a series of stories about it in Harper's. They were later collected into the book, A Modern Slavery, from which the following is drawn:

One early morning at San Thome I went out to visit a plantation which is rightly regarded as a kind of model—a show-place for the intelligent foreigner or for the Portuguese shareholder who feels qualms as he banks his dividends. There were four hundred slaves on the estate, not counting children, and I was shown their neat brick huts in rows, quite recently finished. I saw them clearing the forest for further plantation, clearing the ground under the cocoa-trees, gathering the great yellow pods, sorting the brown kernels, which already smelled like a chocolate-box, heaping them up to ferment, raking them out in vast pans to dry, working in the carpenters' sheds, superintending the new machines, and gathering in groups for the mid-day meal… All looked as perfect and legal as an English industrial school. Then we sat down to an exquisite Parisian dejeuner under the bower of a drooping tree, and while I was meditating on the hardships of African travel, a saying of another of the guests kept coming back to my mind: "The Portuguese are certainly doing a marvelous work for Angola and these islands. Call it slavery if you like. Names and systems don't matter. The sum of human happiness is being infinitely increased."

The doctor had come up to pay his official visit to the plantation that day. "The death-rate on this roça," he remarked, casually, during the meal, "is twelve or fourteen per cent a year among the services," "And what is the chief cause?" I asked. "Anaemia," he said. "That is a vague sort of thing," I answered; "what brings on anemia?" "Unhappiness [tristeza]," he said, frankly.
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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