Ohio University Press · Swallow Press ·

Chocolate Islands
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.


“Catherine Higgs’s Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa is an elegantly written, well-illustrated account of the ensuing investigations into this so-called new slavery in Africa orchestrated largely by Cadbury and the British Foreign Office.… [The] study resonates today, dealing, as it does, with the often tainted international origins of our later era of mass consumerism.”

American Historical Review

“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

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 Professor of History in the Department of History and Sociology in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. 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.   More info →


“Joseph Burtt and William Cadbury shared a concern for the English worker, an opposition to slavery in any form, and through their membership in the Society of Friends, a long acquaintance. Their paths crossed professionally in 1904 when Cadbury, a director of the chocolate firm Cadbury Brothers Limited, offered Burtt an eighteen-month contract to investigate the working conditions of African laborers in the Portuguese colonies of São Tomé and Príncipe and Angola. Burtt’s mission was to determine if rumors that slaves were harvesting cocoa on the island colony of São Tomé and Príncipe were true..”
— Introduction


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Retail price: $26.95, S.
Release date: August 2013
38 illus. · 236 pages · 6 × 8½ in.
Rights:  World

Retail price: $80.00, S.
Release date: May 2012
38 illus. · 236 pages · 5½ × 8½ in.
Rights:  World

Release date: May 2012
38 illus. · 236 pages
Rights:  World

Additional Praise for Chocolate Islands

“As the history of a commodity and social movement, Chocolate Islands is useful because it pulls together so many important narratives within African history. It is a worthwhile companion for multiple university applications, from modern Africa courses to world history, or as an excellent example of narrative historical techniques for graduate students.”

African Studies Quarterly

“Catherine Higgs has written a marvelous book examining the European dilemma over post-abolition forms of African labor…. Higgs weaves, with eye-opening success, seemingly disparate threads into a single historical landscape.”

Journal of African History

Chocolate Islands is a superb book…. (It) should be read by undergraduates, graduate students, and the general reader who search for an understanding of the complexities of the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, and the incongruities of the labor-recruitment policies of the Portuguese and other European colonizers.”

Enterprise and Society

“Like Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, Catherine Higgs takes us into another ‘heart of darkness’ of colonial rule. Chocolate Islands is a compelling read examining how the British chocolate firm Cadbury Brothers investigated the use of slave labor in Portuguese colonies to produce cocoa. It raises challenging questions not only about how a business with a humanitarian streak dealt with the use of forced labor in the early twentieth century, but also about the labor practices of businesses in the twenty-first-century world.”

Robert R. Edgar, Howard University, editor of An African American in South Africa: The Travel Notes of Ralph J. Bunche and coauthor of African Apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a Twentieth-Century South African Prophet

“(Chocolate Islands) takes the reader into the politics, diplomacy, and highly personal interactions among planters, philanthropists, missionaries, journalists, and anti-slavery activists, Portuguese colonial administrators, and authorities in both the British and Portuguese foreign offices…. Higgs’s careful work…adds depth and texture to our understanding of the Chocolate Islands and the turn of the century struggles around highly sought-after cocoa….”

International Journal of African Historical Studies

“A considerable contribution to the literature on modern Portuguese colonialism and its Quaker critics”

H-Net (H-Luso-Africa)

“Higgs’s book is a reminder of the relevance of African histories to contemporary questions. There are obvious parallels between the serviçais and the factory workers of 21st-century China, or the cleaners and service providers of Dubai. Modern Western democracies may be founded on ideologies of freedom, but they have yet to reconcile these ideologies with what used to be known as the ‘labour question’. The intellectual incoherence of late capitalism emerges nowhere more starkly than in the paradox of the coercive labour regimes needed to facilitate unlimited free consumption.”

London Review of Books

“Catherine Higgs has combined careful academic research with the kind of skillful writing you'd expect in a good historical novel… . The book is strikingly relevant to today's headlines. It is an excellent study for academics who want to know how to research at a professional level and then write well for the public, and it will strongly appeal to general readers.”

Book News

“Catherine Higgs writes about the chocolate islands with clarity and conviction, commanding the evidence while presenting an argument about the ‘dignity of labor’ with an elegance of style. In terms of presentation, research and structure, the book is a tour de force.”

David Birmingham, author of Portugal and Africa and Trade and Empire in the Atlantic, 1400 to 1600

“A fine, detailed work about the intersection of chocolate and slavery in the first decade of the 20th century.”

Library Journal

“Higgs offers a well-researched examination of the dynamics of race, labor, and colonialism in the early part of the twentieth century.”


“Higgs takes us into the plantations of the chocolate islands and along the slave routes of southern Africa in this deeply researched and beautifully written investigation of slave, free, and coerced labor in early colonial Africa that began when Cadbury Brothers was accused of using cocoa harvested by slaves.”

Robert Harms, H. J. Heinz Professor of History and African Studies, Yale University, and author of The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade

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