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December 16, 2017

Book Review: Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa


Chocolate Islands is a historiographical work with a unique style of writing that focuses specifically on the letters exchanged between Joseph Burtt, who was sent to Africa to investigate living and working conditions, and William Cadbury, an English businessman and industrial mogul who ran the helm of one of the world’s largest chocolate firms. Chocolate Islands has a specific focus on the aspects of how labour functioned within the Portuguese colonies within Africa, and author Catherine Higgs offers a modernized look at how corporatized Europe viewed the international ‘slave labor’ that was being pushed for in ‘non-modern’ attempts at colonialization.

The goal of this book was to provide an interesting and factual background for understanding the complex interactions between the labour policies of empires in Africa and the so-called “legitimate” commercialization that came from such expansionary procedures. Chocolate Islands can be described as a history of the chocolate industry through the eyes of the manufacturers that turned Western Africa into the cocoa empire that it became during and after the early colonial period. The subject of this book would have to have been the morality of industrial powerhouses through the backlash of legislative and commercial records, with a majority of the information coming from the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries.

This historical insight of this period is as rich and dark as the chocolate that the industry provided to the world. As capitalistic endeavors began to sweep across the so-called unfiltered third world of Africa, European ‘empires’ began to establish plantations to generate increasingly important revenue to continue the push for exploration. As European powerhouses such as Spain and Portugal realized that the far-away lands of the New World were ‘built’ to withstand large-scale production of sugar and cocoa, it became clear that lands of the same temperate would be able to provide similar benefits. These Europeans, specifically the Portuguese who settled across islands such as Sao Tome and Principe, had the concept of finding and settling such land to increase sugar production for a new-age globalized market.

Economic outputs became a centerpiece for the systematic problems that would follow. By the 1500s, Sao Tome would become one of the world’s largest and most lucrative production center for sugar and sugar byproducts. Portugal, or as Higgs describes it, “the sick man of Western Europe”[1], began to lose their significant standing ground in the European Theatre after centuries of decline. The Netherlands and France and, eventually, England began to take over specific areas that were once Portuguese centers of operation. At this point, the corporatized powers of Europe began to influence the foundations of this new ‘chocolate empire’, and the question arose: was slavery, something that was barred from the citizens of countries such as Cadbury’s home of Britain, still prevalent in these chocolate islands?

Cadbury, along with other European industrial powerhouses, feared the backlash that would circulate around the slave labour that existed throughout the older Portuguese empire once they took it over through commercial interrelations. Higgs does a fantastic job at expressing how Cadbury ‘dealt’ with the problems at hand by walking through the steps it took for Cadbury to properly understand the way labour actually worked in Sao Tome and other sugar strongholds. Through several secondary reports and letters to missions to Lisbon (the capital of Portugal) and the islands that the sugar and cocoa came from. The typical arguments of laborers being ‘well fed’ and the continuation of work ‘well after contracts ended’[2] were implied by Portuguese planters; but Cadbury, unwilling to ignore his own findings, pushed for further investigation in fear of public backlash as slavery of any kind was illegal through modern British law.

This book, like any other, has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to its overall level of professionality and research. One of the most important strength that Chocolate Islands has would have to be its fantastic selective bibliography. As History for Historians has shown, it takes an incredible amount of skill to empathize with historical works using only secondary sources. Catherine Higgs has a fantastic strength when it comes to her extensive research through a plethora of secondary sources and the historiographical outlook between individuals. Although primary sources, specifically the aforementioned letters between Burtt and Cadbury and fantastic maps, illustrations, and photographs. It feels as if Higgs was attempting to draw her readers into the world that we have left – as if her narrative was more than just a spittoon of research and ‘facts’. Her extensive research through manuscripts, letters, published reports, and a select few resources from the internet allowed for an excellent transition through secondary publications.

This book review could spend pages upon pages when it comes to discussing the primary and secondary resources that make up Chocolate Island’s selective bibliography[3]; but the summarization of how the book portrays research is clear: the tapestry Higgs weaves is very sophisticated, and she did an excellent job when it came to bringing her central thesis together. This is more than a study on Europeans or Americans or Africans, Chocolate Islands truly connects the dots in a way that isolates it from other historiographical works. In a sense, her narrative initially comes off as a historical fiction novella of some sorts. At first, I was personally disconnected from her style of writing as it was different from other styles of writing; but, the book bounces back into a research-based narrative that portrays itself not as statistical charts and longwinded analyzation, but as a real story – what history truly is.

But, like any other work, Chocolate Island possesses weaknesses alongside strengths. This book, as it portrays facts through narrative and lightheartedness, is definitely not a first-time read for non-history students. If one is completely unaware of the historiography between the three areas of study that Higgs identifies early on in her writing, then Chocolate Islands would serve as nothing more than a hellfire of information with little background. It’s history from the bottom up, as our class discussion on the topic dived into the fundamental structure of Higgs research and writing styles.

Overall, Catherine Higgs set out to write a book portraying a new and interesting perspective on the chocolate industry, and she accomplished what she wanted to do. The book is worth reading, but I would personally hope that any prospective reader would check out some of the collections within her selected bibliography before taking on the challenge of reading the unique and intriguing case study provided by Higgs. Chocolate Islands fills in the intellectual gap through a characterization of data, something more scholarly academics should be doing. The narrative style of writing appears to charm those who wouldn’t have picked up a history book to begin with, but the overall data would go well over the heads of those who had no background information within the aforementioned history.

Although there could have been more use of primary resources through oral interviews or other formats of primary letters, but these so-called ‘flaws’ do not outshine the fantastic creation and publication known as Chocolate Islands. The overall structure of the book remains thorough and organized in a chronological structure that truly reads like a narrative work with great findings, but it is clear that the target audience of this work would not be the typical reader skimming through the shelves of big bookstores. It would be impossible, however, to critique Chocolate Islands for this problem – as most historical works would fall into this characterization as well.

[1] Catherine Higgs, Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, Ohio University Press, 2012.

[2] Catherine Higgs, Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, Ohio University Press, 2012. Pages 12-15, 53.

[3] Catherine Higgs, Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, Ohio University Press, 2012. Pages 211-223.

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