Chocolate Islands — 2012

Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa

By Catherine Higgs

“Higgs provides a fascinating exploration of the use of forced labor in Portuguese African colonies and the politics of humanitarian investigations in the early 20th century…. This well-written book deserves to be read by scholars of colonial Africa and imperialism. Summing Up: Highly recommended.


“An excellent study…illustrated by numerous contemporary photographs…. (Joseph) Burtt's correspondence with Cadbury, together with his report and writings, form the basis of a large part of Higgs's skillfully written and important book, which critically reassesses Cadbury's struggle between moral integrity and the need for competitively priced cocoa.”

African Affairs

“Higgs's accessible and graceful prose captures the complexities, contingencies, and contradictions of Burtt's voyage…. A fascinating journey approachable for scholars and casual readers.”

The Historian

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In Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, Catherine Higgs traces the early-twentieth-century journey of the Englishman Joseph Burtt to the Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe—the chocolate islands—through Angola and Mozambique, and finally to British Southern Africa. Burtt had been hired by the chocolate firm Cadbury Brothers Limited to determine if the cocoa it was buying from the islands had been harvested by slave laborers forcibly recruited from Angola, an allegation that became one of the grand scandals of the early colonial era. Burtt spent six months on São Tomé and Príncipe and a year in Angola. His five-month march across Angola in 1906 took him from innocence and credulity to outrage and activism and ultimately helped change labor recruiting practices in colonial Africa.

This beautifully written and engaging travel narrative draws on collections in Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Africa to explore British and Portuguese attitudes toward work, slavery, race, and imperialism. In a story still familiar a century after Burtt’s sojourn, Chocolate Islands reveals the idealism, naivety, and racism that shaped attitudes toward Africa, even among those who sought to improve the conditions of its workers.

Catherine Higgs is a professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is the author of The Ghost of Equality: The Public Lives of D.D.T. Jabavu of South Africa, 1885–1959, Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, and coeditor of Stepping Forward: Black Women in Africa and the Americas, all published by Ohio University Press.

Cover of 'Chocolate Islands'