British chocolate-maker Rowntree apologises for ‘shameful’ role in slave trade

The Rowntree chocolate company has apologised after research into its own history revealed ‘shameful’ links to the slave trade and ‘oppressive practices’ in South Africa during the apartheid era.

The investigation into the company’s history was party prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement and revealed evidence that the famously philanthropic family business may have profited from the slave trade. 

Research by the Rowntree Society, which promotes the history of the company, also uncovered allegations of racial discrimination and anti-union tactics at the firm’s South African subsidiary Wilson Rowntree during the apartheid era as recently as the early 1980s. 

Rowntree’s was founded by a deeply religious Quaker family in York with a strong reputation for looking after its British workers. 

But a question mark has been placed over its role in slavery after the research came to light, as the company apologises for the trust’s findings.

The company’s charities say they are ‘appalled’ by the findings of the review, which was carried out by heritage organisation the Rowntree Society. 

A statement by the Rowntree Society stressed that it had found no evidence that Rowntrees directly owned or traded in enslaved people.

The Rowntree chocolate company (pictured) has apologised after research into its own history revealed 'shameful' links to slave trade and 'oppressive practices' in apartheid era South Africa

The Rowntree chocolate company (pictured) has apologised after research into its own history revealed 'shameful' links to slave trade and 'oppressive practices' in apartheid era South Africa

The Rowntree chocolate company (pictured) has apologised after research into its own history revealed ‘shameful’ links to slave trade and ‘oppressive practices’ in apartheid era South Africa

But it said its early research highlighted five ‘areas for investigation’. 

The first area is that the business sold ‘commodities of empire’ which are likely to have been produced by enslaved or unfree workers. 

Rowntree also benefitted from colonial indenture, a system of bonded labour in which European 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.

The report also states that, in the 1890s, Rowntree bought several plantations in the British West Indies.

‘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’, the Rowntree Society says.

Having a KitKat? Workers take a break at the new Rowtree's factory in York in the 1950s

Having a KitKat? Workers take a break at the new Rowtree's factory in York in the 1950s

Having a KitKat? Workers take a break at the new Rowtree’s factory in York in the 1950s

Ladies packing Pastilles at the Rowtree's factory in York in 1910

Ladies packing Pastilles at the Rowtree's factory in York in 1910

Ladies packing Pastilles at the Rowtree’s factory in York in 1910

The first tube of Smarties, which until 1937 were known as Chocolate Drajets. The 1930s gave birth to icons as company rebranded products and made them more popular with new names

The first tube of Smarties, which until 1937 were known as Chocolate Drajets. The 1930s gave birth to icons as company rebranded products and made them more popular with new names

The first tube of Smarties, which until 1937 were known as Chocolate Drajets. The 1930s gave birth to icons as company rebranded products and made them more popular with new names

An advertisement for Kit Kats

An advertisement for Kit Kats

Rowntree's chocolate boxes

Rowntree's chocolate boxes

Pictured: (L) KitKat remains one of the company’s most recognised brands and (R) an advertisement for the standard assortment range of chocolate biscuits in the 1950s

Who was businessman Joseph Rowntree? 

Businessman Joseph Rowntree

Businessman Joseph Rowntree

Businessman Joseph Rowntree

During his lifetime, Joseph Rowntree became known for his philanthropic work and focus on social reform.

Even as a powerful businessman, he was deeply interested in improving the quality of life for his employees.

The company was famed for what it provided for staff: their own village in New Earswick, a library, ballroom, school rooms, theatre, swimming pool, bank, dentist, allotment and sports ground to name but a few. 

New Earswick is located on the outskirts of York and was created by Joseph Rowntree as a ‘Model Village’ – an alternative to the slums of York and housed many of his workers. Still today there are no pubs in New Earswick. 

This led him to pursue various charitable causes and in 1904, he established three charitable trusts.

The first was the Joseph Rowntree Village Trust, established to build and manage the garden village of New Earswick which was built for employees.

He also set up the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Social Services Trust which is now known as the Joseph Rowntree Social Reform Trust.

The latter two were both set up to effect social reform. 

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The third ‘area of investigation’ centres around the fact that, together with other British Quaker chocolate manufacturers, Rowntree bought 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.

Rowntree joined with 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 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,’ the Rowntree Society says.

The final area the report highlighted was the alleged racial discrimination at Wilson Rowntree, Rowntree Mackintosh’s fully owned subsidiary in South Africa, in the twentieth century.

The Rowntree Society said: ‘In the early 1980s, Wilson Rowntree used tactics including summary dismissal and forced unemployment to suppress unrest among its black work force,’ the society says.

The research comes as the country has seen its colonial history re-examined largely in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

 Historical figures with any links to slavery were called out by campaigners and some targeted statues or memorials.

 In June last year, a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol, sparking worldwide debate on the issue.

After Colston’s statue was torn down in Bristol, protesters across the UK challenged a number of long-standing monuments which celebrated people with links to slavery or colonialism.

That month, governors at Oriel College in Oxford voted to remove the statue of imperialist and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes. 

A statue to Winston Churchill was defaced with the words ‘was a racist’ and ‘f*** your agenda’ written underneath the memorial to the war time PM in Westminster Square, London.

Slave trader Robert Milligan’s was covered with a shroud and the message ‘Black Lives Matter’ was placed on it in West India Docks amid calls for it to be taken down. It was later removed by Tower Hamlets Council. 

People cheered after the statue to the 17th Century slave trader was dumped into the water during a Black Lives Matter protest last summer as tensions grew over Britain's colonial past

People cheered after the statue to the 17th Century slave trader was dumped into the water during a Black Lives Matter protest last summer as tensions grew over Britain's colonial past

People cheered after the statue to the 17th Century slave trader was dumped into the water during a Black Lives Matter protest last summer as tensions grew over Britain’s colonial past

Other figures targeted included Oliver Cromwell and author Charles Dickens. 

The statues were torn down amid growing tensions about Britain’s colonial past, sparked by global outcry following the death of George Floyd in the US.

Floyd was killed when white police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds despite his desperate pleas that he ‘can’t breathe’. He passed out and later died in Minneapolis on May 25.

His death is seen as a symbol of systemic police brutality against African-Americans sparking outrage and largely-peaceful protests first across the US before quickly spreading worldwide.

Other establishments that have carried out similar reports include the National Trust and the British Library. 

The Rowntree Society’s research has sparked apologies and soul searching from the four trusts – The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust – established by philanthropist Joseph Rowntree in 1904.

In a joint statement released today, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust said: ‘We are deeply sorry that the origins of our endowment have roots in shameful practices that caused deep suffering and created enduring harms.

‘The JRF Trustees and JRHT Board 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.

Production line: Kit Kats rolling off a belt and being packed at the factory in York in the 1950s

Production line: Kit Kats rolling off a belt and being packed at the factory in York in the 1950s

Production line: Kit Kats rolling off a belt and being packed at the factory in York in the 1950s

Creative: a 1930s advertisements for Rowntree's Pastilles and Clear Gums, which were marketed as 'the smoker's favourite sweet' and were later called fruit pastilles and fruit gums

Creative: a 1930s advertisements for Rowntree's Pastilles and Clear Gums, which were marketed as 'the smoker's favourite sweet' and were later called fruit pastilles and fruit gums

Creative: a 1930s advertisements for Rowntree’s Pastilles and Clear Gums, which were marketed as ‘the smoker’s favourite sweet’ and were later called fruit pastilles and fruit gums

Pride of place: York city centre factories by bank of the River Ouse in the early 1900s

Pride of place: York city centre factories by bank of the River Ouse in the early 1900s

Pride of place: York city centre factories by bank of the River Ouse in the early 1900s

‘Therefore, alongside the other independently endowed Rowntree trusts, we will fund the Rowntree Society to investigate this part of our history more fully.’

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust said: ‘The preliminary research identified evidence that suggests that the Rowntree company purchased cocoa and other goods produced by enslaved people and benefitted from the system of colonial indenture.

‘As a Trust we are appalled by what we have learned about these abhorrent practices, which are at odds with our Quaker values and our commitment to building a more just society.

‘We know that such actions caused extreme and enduring harms and we recognise their role in embedding the systemic racism that is still present in the UK and globally.

‘As a former shareholder in the Rowntree company and an institutional beneficiary of its wealth, we are deeply sorry.’

On the allegations of ‘oppressive and exploitative practices’ at the Rowntree company’s South African subsidiary, Wilson Rowntree, during the apartheid era, the Charitable Trust added: ‘JRCT was a shareholder in the Rowntree company at the time, and we say sorry to those who endured such appalling treatment.

A display of Aero bars from 1935. The aerated chocolate, which remains one of its most popular bars, was completely new and helped Rowntree's take the fight to Cadbury's

A display of Aero bars from 1935. The aerated chocolate, which remains one of its most popular bars, was completely new and helped Rowntree's take the fight to Cadbury's

A display of Aero bars from 1935. The aerated chocolate, which remains one of its most popular bars, was completely new and helped Rowntree’s take the fight to Cadbury’s

‘Whilst we know that JRCT trustees put significant and public shareholder pressure on the company to change its behaviour, we will examine and reflect on the Trust’s actions during this period.’

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust said: ‘It is known that the Rowntree Company actively participated in colonial era trade, but this has rarely featured prominently in narratives about the company’s history.

‘We recognise the importance of learning from all parts of our history and enabling the experiences of people whose labour was taken under duress and slavery to take their central place in the Rowntree story.

‘JRRT is contributing to the funding of work by the Rowntree Society to sponsor a research fellowship to explore aspects of the Rowntree history in more detail. In retrospect we should have started this process earlier.’

A spokesperson for Nestle, who took over the company in 1988, said: ‘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.’

From humble beginnings to one of the country’s most famous brands: A history of Rowntree’s chocolate

Henry Rowntree

Henry Rowntree

Henry Rowntree

Rowntree was launched in July 1862 as a small cocoa powder-making outfit in the city of York.

It’s founder was Henry Isaac Rowntree after he bought Tuke’s department store’s cocoa production.

He almost sent the firm bankruptcy before his elder brother Joseph joined him in 1869.

Luckily Joseph, who ran the business under strict Quaker principles – like Cadbury’s – soon turned the company’s fortunes around. 

It went from simply making the ingredients for a chocolatey drink to creating a host of sweets that have stood the test of time – and, on the way, became pioneering in market research and developing the concept of branding. 

Rowntree’s most famous brands include KitKat, Aero, Fruit Pastilles and Smarties and it also created the Rolo and Quality Street brands in the 1980s. 

Claude Gaget was hired in 1879 and asked to create a new range of sweets. They were called Rowntree’s Pastilles and Rowntree’s Clear Gums.

These later became Fruit Pastilles and Fruit Gums. The company then became known for its sweets and chocolate.

In 1882 Gaget created ‘Chocolate Beans’ – or Smarties as they became known when they were rebranded in the 1930s.

Pioneering: Original signage used to advertise Rowntree's long-forgotten Rock Cocoa in 1890 as the firm was just starting become a household name in Britain

Pioneering: Original signage used to advertise Rowntree's long-forgotten Rock Cocoa in 1890 as the firm was just starting become a household name in Britain

Pioneering: Original signage used to advertise Rowntree’s long-forgotten Rock Cocoa in 1890 as the firm was just starting become a household name in Britain

The 1930s was an important time of rebranding with Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp being renamed Kit Kat.

It is now the most recognisable chocolate brand in the word. Nestle makes a billion of them each year in York – five million a day – and they are also made around the world.

During the 1930s chocolate bars became more of an everyday item to be bought with the grocery shopping.

Rowntree’s also changed the way that boxes of chocolates were regarded by the public.

In 1925 one of its boxes cost 100 shillings – an enormous sum – and giving it to a woman was tantamount to a proposal.

But in 1933 Black Magic was introduced and was marketed as a box that was affordable and made Brits think of it as an everyday product.

In the 1960s, multi-packs were introduced and showed that innovation kept the company ahead of the game. 

In 1933 Black Magic was introduced and changed the way Brits saw chocolate boxes

In 1933 Black Magic was introduced and changed the way Brits saw chocolate boxes

In 1933 Black Magic was introduced and changed the way Brits saw chocolate boxes

The company launched After Eights in 1962 and its Yorkie and Lion Bars were introduced in 1976.

In 1988, the company was taken over by Nestle which was, at the time, the largest food company in the world.

Nestlé has invested more than £200 million in the Rowntree business since 1988, making the York site one of the world’s largest confectionery factories. 

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