Social responsibility

Rowntree Society investigates history of slavery and forced labour in cocoa company’s colonial-era past

By Anthony Myers

- Last updated on GMT

The Rowntree factory in York, circa 1950. Pic: Nestlé /YorkChocolateStory
The Rowntree factory in York, circa 1950. Pic: Nestlé /YorkChocolateStory

Related tags Rowntree's Slavery

The Rowntree Society has said it has uncovered links to slavery and historic racial abuse in the brand's supply chain in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Rowntree chocolate factory in York was founded in 1862 and is the home of the KitKat bar since 1935.

Research into the company’s past, carried out last year partly in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, reviewed the company’s global supply chains and histories of slavery, forced labour, colonialism and racial injustice.

If we are to continue to be inspired by Joseph Rowntree’s belief that religious, political and social work should seek to address the ‘underlying causes’ of problems and not merely their ‘superficial manifestations’, then it is clear that we need to confront uncomfortable questions about the Rowntree family and company’s participation in colonialism and racialised exploitative working practices. -- The Rowntree Society

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) issued a statement  statement saying they were appalled by the findings: “We are deeply sorry that the origins of our endowment have roots in shameful practices that caused deep suffering and created enduring harms.​”

Rowntree was bought by Nestlé in 1988. A spokesperson for the Swiss confectionery giant told ConfectioneryNews:  "Since 1988, Nestlé has been the custodian of Rowntree’s as a confectionery brand and we acknowledge and welcome these statements made by other organisations that bear the Rowntree name.

“This is a very important piece of work that expands the well-known history of the Rowntree’s Company and recognises the significant impact of colonialism at the turn of the 20th Century.

“Nestlé is a diverse, global company that is firmly anti-racist and has zero tolerance for slavery. We will continue to learn from the actions of our predecessors.”

York remains the head office for Nestlé Confectionery, producing over a billion KitKats a year and is also the home for Aero, Aero Bubbles, Polo, Yorkie and Milkybar. The former Rowntree factory is also the location for Nestlé’s global centre for confectionery research in the form of the Product Technology Centre.

‘Five areas of concern’

While the Rowntree Society “found no evidence that the Rowntree family owned or traded in enslaved people​”, it did identify five areas of concern – and called for fuller research.

  1. Rowntree & Co. (later Rowntree Mackintosh) has its origins in a grocery business established in York by Joseph Rowntree Senior in 1822. Among other things, the businesses sold commodities of empire, which are likely to have been produced by enslaved or unfree workers. The operation of the Rowntree grocery business between 1822 and 1838 was concurrent with the transatlantic slave trade. Although the Abolition Act passed by UK Parliament in 1807 prohibited the sale of people as slaves, enslavement continued to be lawful within the British Empire and in other colonial regimes. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 outlawed slavery in some British colonies, but not all, and enslaved people in the British West Indies were forced to work for enslavers as unpaid ‘apprentices’ until 1838.
  2. The Rowntree Company benefitted from colonial indenture, a system of bonded labour in which European imperial powers recruited people from India and Southeast Asia to work on plantations in the Caribbean and West Africa. This system was developed in the 1820s following the end of the transatlantic slave trade and was abolished in 1920. In the 1890s, Rowntree & Co. purchased several plantations in the British West Indies on the islands of Dominica, Jamaica, and Trinidad. Further research is required to understand the full extent to which the use of indentured workers facilitated the growth of the Rowntree businesses between 1822 and 1920.
  3. Together with other British Quaker chocolate manufacturers, Rowntree & Co. purchased cocoa and other goods produced by enslaved Africans in the Portuguese-colonised West African islands of São Tomé and Príncipe in the early twentieth century. While the companies became concerned about slavery on the islands and sent a representative to report on these, it was the investigative journalist Henry Nevinson who first published evidence of enslavement in the region in 1905. Nevinson, together with the Aborigines’ Protection Society (now Anti-Slavery International), brought pressure on the chocolate companies to boycott goods from the islands. Rowntree & Co. continued to purchase raw ingredients from the region along with the other companies while they sought to address conditions of slavery via diplomatic means. This approach did not succeed, and in 1909 the chocolate manufacturers announced publicly that they would no longer purchase cocoa from São Tomé and Príncipe. Further research is required to understand the motivations of Rowntree and Co. in developing its approach to enslavement within its supply chains at this time.
  4. Rowntree & Co. joined with the manufacturer Cadbury-Fry in 1919 to form ‘Cocoa Manufacturers Ltd.’, a buying and shipping agency based in southern Nigeria with its headquarters in York. The company also purchased cocoa and other goods from Ghana. The agency changed its name to ‘Rowntree Fry Cadbury Nigeria Ltd.’ in 1947 and was wound up in 1972. Further research into the experiences of workers in West Africa and broader histories of colonial relations in these regions is required to place the agency’s operations in fuller context.
  5. Initial research has also encompassed alleged racial discrimination at Wilson Rowntree, Rowntree Mackintosh’s fully owned subsidiary in South Africa, in the twentieth century. In the early 1980s, Wilson Rowntree used tactics including summary dismissal and forced unemployment to suppress unrest among its black work force. During the period of unrest, black workers were subjected to human rights abuses by state police. The activities of Rowntree Mackintosh, Wilson Rowntree management, South African trade unions and state police merit further investigation.

The review was backed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT).

The JRF Trustees and JRHT Board said they are committed to recognising and learning from every part of our history.

“It is especially important to us that the experiences of people whose labour was taken under duress and slavery should occupy a more prominent place in the Rowntree story. We should have done this much earlier.”

They also said funding will be available to The Rowntree Society for further investigations: “We know that the harms caused by these practices are still creating injustice and suffering today.

Many of the injustices faced by black and minority ethnic people in the UK are fuelled by attitudes similar to those used during imperialism to justify the worst forms of exploitation​.”

Each of the organisations has also issued their own statement in response to the research​ from the Rowntree Society.

The Rowntree Society was established in 2004 and has supported projects involved with the Rowntree family and company and their continuing relevance today.

It said: “The philanthropic work of the Rowntree family — in education, welfare, democracy and humanitarianism — continues to inform and inspire our work. In addition, we know from our engagement with local communities that the Rowntree family’s investments in industrial welfare for employees at its factory in York hold deep meaning for people in the city who have personal connections to this heritage.

“However, it is important to recognise that the Rowntree story also includes histories and legacies of racial exploitation. Our initial findings show that the company was an active agent in colonial economies in Africa and the Caribbean across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They indicate that the Rowntree businesses benefited from unfree labour systems which caused harm to people of colour.

If we are to continue to be inspired by Joseph Rowntree’s belief that religious, political and social work should seek to address the ‘underlying causes’ of problems and not merely their ‘superficial manifestations’, then it is clear that we need to confront uncomfortable questions about the Rowntree family and company’s participation in colonialism and racialised exploitative working practices.”

In 1904, founder Joseph Rowntree drew attention to slavery in a memorandum calling it one of ‘the great scourges of humanity’.

Black Lives Matter 

The Rowntree Society said the prominence and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and growing global recognition of long histories of systemic racism led it to prioritise research in this area.

Although this latest research focuses on historical instances of slavery in the cocoa industry, global chocolate companies, including Nestlé, are still being accused of evidence of child labour in their supply chains, as a recent NORC study highlighted​, despite efforts to eradicate the problem once and for all.

Related topics Editor's Blog

Related news

Show more


From Slave Free

Posted by Ayn Riggs,

Oh come on, history of slavery in the chocolate industry in Colonial Africa is common knowledge. An "investigation" into the subject implies that something unknown is coming to light. Doing this to stand with BLM while illegal child labor and child slavery is rampant in their industry is beyond the pale. Rowntree Foundation people, if you actually care about anything other than profits, figure out how to bring the handful of complicit companies to the table to actually make the decisive and meaningful change that was promised 20 years ago.

Report abuse


Posted by John Smith,

Slavery is when someone actually owns you like a piece of property. Servitude is similar to slavery - you might live on the person's premises, work for them and be unable to leave, but they don't own you. Forced labour means you are forced to do work that you have not agreed to, under the threat of punishment. <a href="">Concrete Contractors Colorado Springs Co</a>

Report abuse