The British Empire Library

Chocolate Wars: From Cadbury to Kraft:
200 years of Sweet Success and Bitter Rivalry

by Deborah Cadbury

Although Chocolate Wars is a book principally about the Cadbury Company and the chocolate business in general, it is also a book which weaves itself intimately within many colonial and imperial connections. In essence, this is a book about how a small Quaker company grew despite strong domestic competition, it then steadily expanded and innovated before it entered the era of globalisation first as a major player but then actually becoming a victim of this globalised world itself. However, the role of the Empire and various colonies in helping Cadbury be able to compete in that globalised economy is clearly laid out and provides a powerful framework. Indeed, one of the reasons for it becoming a target of takeover by Kraft in 2010 was precisely because it had well developed market penetration in what economists call newly emerging markets or what we might call ex-colonies like India, in South-East Asia and Africa or in ex-dominions like Australia and New Zealand. You could say that the corporate trajectory of Cadbury neatly followed the rise and fall of the British Empire.

It is interesting to understand why Quakers came to dominate the chocolate trade in the Nineteenth Century. They were keen to encourage alternatives to the demon alcoholic drink and all the famous chocolate companies at this time started off with hot chocolate drinks to offer as an alternative. Additionally, the Quakers seemed to have had a lot of respect for one another and certainly seem to have helped one another within the Quaker community with a more supportive form of capitalism. It was also no accident that the Fry Company began in Bristol where the ships could bring the all important cocoa beans into its bustling port. Fry's Company happened to be the first company to figure out a way of producing solid chocolate that could be eaten rather than drunk, although the Cadbury company would innovate tastier and more successful hard chocolate varities in the years to come. In general though, the book covers the business philosophy and ethics of Quakerism quite effectively. I found it interesting to note that even non-Quakers - like the Hershey company of Pennsylvania - seemed to be equally influenced by the unusually benevolent form of capitalism that seemed to permeate through the chocolate industry from its earliest days. Or at least this form of Quaker Capitalism-lite seemed to succeed until that Quaker influence was diluted by repeated share issues and business consolidation in the more modern era. It is clear that it did indeed sacrifice much in the long run as they increasingly chased market share and profits.

Certainly competition was fierce in the British market expanding as it was in the hey day of industrial expansion and urbanisation. However, it was interesting to read how Cadbury pioneered overseas markets particularly those in the white settler colonies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, often following other imperial innovations like the steamship and newly laid train lines. Originally just a sole Cadbury representative plied the entire Australian colony but over time Cadbury would become as much as a household name in Australia as back home in Britain. Of course, the tropical colonies would have their own issues of chocolate melting in the hot climes, but over time even these were addressed by a Cadbury seeking to find new markets for their products through product innovation. Cadbury also seems to have managed to have entered the Indian market before the gates to foreign companies were firmly closed in the post-independence era. This allowed Cadbury India to be in the privileged position of being able to offer its products in India without the external competition from some of its more global competitors. Yet another unintended legacy of empire.

However, it is not just in the distribution of chocolate products where the empire's links were strong. It also came to be an important part of the production process. Cocoa was originally bought from Portuguese plantations in South America, but over the years, they moved its production to their colonies in West Africa where it was found to grow even more effectively. Taking note of this imperial transposition, by 1822 the British started growing cocoa in their own West African colonies like the Gold Coast. The Quakers would later come under some scrutiny as people realised the extent of slave labour used by Spanish and Portuguese colonial suppliers and seemingly slave-like labour from British colonial suppliers. This particularly jarred when chocolate was otherwise marketed as a wholesome product. It also played on the long tradition of anti-slavery campaigning spearheaded by non-Conformists like the Quakers themselves! Indeed, the Cadbury company would end up fighting a long and drawn out court case against the Standard Newspaper in 1909 against just such allegations. The company technically won the case saying that they did not knowingly use slave labour in the production of the cocoa that it purchased, but the jury was obviously underwhelmed by the company's efforts to source its products ethically and awarded the miserly awards total of just a single farthing. The hollow victory made the company reexamine its procurement policies and it would late spearhead Fair Trade policies. However, we often think that ethical sourcing and free trade issues are a modern concern, but this book helps explain that consumer pressure and the power of publicity are far older concepts than we perhaps appreciate.

Two thirds of the book is made up of these early pre-World War One developments of the various chocolate companies that came to so dominate the world. The book really does give you an understanding of a rapidly globalising market place and how Britain, Switzerland and the United States seemed to vie for supremacy amongst one another for so long. There are so many household names and products oozing from the pages even after many of them have been subsumed into one another. However, the last section of the book is also something of an indictment of these globalising values and you cannot but help come away from the book thinking that capitalism in general and the chocolate industry in particular lost something precious in the era of mega-mergers, downsizing and consolidation. The Quaker dream seems to have been slowly consumed by the realities of modern capitalism. But the journey was an interesting one and the author has done a good job at showing its development and it is hardly her fault that the ending was so sad.

British Empire Book
Deborah Cadbury