When does Contract Labour become Slavery? - The answer is quite simple - when the person under Contract has been secured by force or fraud. For a hundred years natives of the African Continent have been shipped by the Portuguese from the mainland to their cocoa-producing islands of St. Thome and Principe. The struggle for their freedom and for the reform of the labour systems in the territories of our 'Ancient Ally' has fallen mainly upon a handful of British subjects, with some help from a few Portuguese, Americans and Swiss. Those who have borne the main burden have been Joseph Burtt, William Cadbury, H. W. Nevinson, and to a lesser degree the author and his wife.
The centre of this tragedy, for it has been a human tragedy for a hundred years and now promises to move swiftly to an economic disaster, is the 'pearl of the Atlantic,' situated on the Equator and called St. Thome, with its little sister island of Principe to the north.
St. Thome owes its name to the fact that on St. Thomas' Day (December 21) of 1470, the island was discovered by a bold Portuguese navigator named Ioao de Santarem. The island is about 400 square miles in extent, approximately that of New York. It was 157 years after its discovery that the Portuguese commenced their modestly lucrative industry, the farming of sugar cane. In 1822, however, an enterprising planter with that love of nature which is one of the most attractive traits of the Portuguese introduced into Principe from Brazil an ornamental plant for his gardens. Twenty years later that ornamental plant, introduced by Jose Gome's, had spread itself over both islands and was beginning to pour forth an export of cocoa beans to Europe and America. Throughout the nineteenth century the plantations were extending everywhere until the islands were covered with cocoa trees. By 1910 the Portuguese planters were sending to Europe and America over 36,000 tons of cocoa annually.
But throughout that century the cocoa had been shipped from the islands to the accompaniment of the anguish of untold thousands of Africans, whilst the very highway from the coast to the heart of the African Continent was marked along its stretch of a thousand miles by the bleaching bones of countless slaves who had died on their way - 'to hell,' as the natives called St. Thome. How true it seemed to that little band of reformers that 'the mills of God grind; slowly,' but at long last those mills are grinding 'exceeding small.' Nemesis has stricken the 'pearl of the Atlantic,' and the cocoa plants are being destroyed wholesale by a fatal disease.
In the early part of this century a gentleman called at Bournville to see Mr. Cadbury, and upon enquiry as to his business, disclosed that he had a cocoa plantation to sell in St. Thome. It is understood that Messrs. Cadbury had no desire to buy a plantation, for they were content to purchase St. Thome cocoa in the ordinary market, and that only because it was useful to mix with other qualities; however, they thought it well to read the documents left for their perusal, and one can imagine something of their astonishment to read the following item in the schedule of assets: '200 black labourers £3,550'! (That is, slightly less than £18 per head.)
Here was a disclosure indeed, here was evidence of the most damning kind that the current rumours of the prevalence of Portuguese slavery in West Africa had a substantial basis. The disclosure placed upon Cadbury Brothers a responsibility which they did not shirk, namely, to leave nothing undone to get at the whole truth, to find out beyond question the methods adopted to produce the cocoa of which they were using such large quantities in the Bournville factory.
On paper the Portuguese Contract Labour system left nothing to be desired; the form of labour was stated to be a voluntary contract under which the Servical was stated to be engaged for agricultural work. The natives of Africa, it was said, voluntarily agreed to go overseas to work in the islands for a period of three years, they joyously boarded the ships at the West African ports, and their three years on the islands were one blissful holiday, rewarded by short hours, good food and clothing, modern houses and substantial wages, then a return to their African homes with their accumulated earnings - on paper!
But on November 22,1909, Sir Edward Grey invited the Portuguese Foreign Minister to come and see him, and told him what the British Foreign Office knew about the willingness or otherwise of the Africans going to the cocoa plantations. 'I explained to him,' says Sir Edward Grey, 'that the information I had received from private sources placed beyond doubt the fact that it had been the custom for natives to be captured in the interior by people who were really slave dealers.' Sir Edward Grey would not lightly charge the Portuguese Government with permitting slave-dealing, and in fact he is known to have possessed overwhelming evidence of these dreadful practices.
During the celebrated Cadbury v. Standard case in December, 1909, a good deal was made of the evidence upon what the Portuguese called 'recruiting,' but which the British Foreign Secretary called slave-dealing. Sir Edward Carson asked the Court whether Judge and Jury had ever heard in the world's history of worse conditions of slavery than in the Contract Labour system of Portuguese West Africa - 'have you ever heard of conditions more revolting, more cruel, more tyrannous, and more horrible than what has been deposed to as regards the slavery in San Thome? Men recruited in Angola, women recruited in Angola, children recruited in Angola, torn away against their will from their homes in the interior, marched like droves of beasts through the Hungry Country, and when they are unable to walk along for a thousand miles to the Coast, shot down like useless dogs or useless animals, and others brought down to be labelled like cattle and brought over to San Thome and Principe, never again to return to their homes.'
When Mr. Joseph Burtt, who had made a special study of the system on the spot, was being examined in court by Sir Edward Carson, he was asked: Then I may take it that your evidence here to the Jury is that you are satisfied that under the Servical system as it existed then, thousands of black men and women were against their will, and often under circumstances of great cruelty, taken away every year from their homes and transported across the sea to work on unhealthy islands from which they never returned? - Yes.
The Cadbury-Standard case produced overwhelming evidence that the 'Contract' systems in West Africa involved slave-trading, slave-raiding and slave-owning. The array of eminent Counsel was formidable and included Sir Rufus Isaacs (Lord Reading), Sir John Simon, and Sir Edward Carson (Lord Carson).
Thus some of the most brilliant legal minds in the kingdom were brought to bear upon conditions in Portuguese West Africa. It is, however, of first importance to realise that the actual existence of slave-owning and slave-trading was never once contested throughout the action. The issue before the Courts was the conduct of Messrs. Cadbury, but beyond question, if a clear case against slave-owning and slave-trading could have been established it would have been raised. It was never once raised, and moreover this body of eminent men were unanimous upon the point that the Portuguese Contract Labour was nothing but slavery, and Sir Edward Carson formally declared that this was common ground between Counsel: My learned friend, Mr. Isaacs (Lord Reading) said in the course of his opening that the question of slavery in the Islands of San Thome and Principe was not in issue in this action. Gentlemen, it is not an issue in one sense; it is not an issue in the sense that it is denied - it is admitted....
The labourers had been secured by slave-raiding and slave-trading practices, and were held on the islands in bondage so rigid that 'none ever returned.' Lady Simon in her book 'Slavery' tells us that in the twenty years from 1888 to 1908 alone, over 67,000 natives were shipped to the Cocoa Islands and that: 'In spite of statements made by apologists - that at the termination of the Contract the labourers were repatriated - we know that practically none was ever allowed to return to the mainland from these Islands.'
Mr. William Cadbury, who made a personal enquiry into the subject, satisfied himself that during twenty years none of the contracted labourers had ever been allowed to go back to their homes by consulting the Curator at Novo Redondo in Angola, who 'informed us that on December 4th (1908) there returned to Novo Redondo from San Thome on the S.S. Malange the first ten men ever repatriated.'
The Portuguese apologists insisted that the contracts were of limited duration. This contention was shattered by the British Consul, Mr. Drummond Hay, who visited the islands and then submitted a report to Sir Edward Grey in which he pointed out that he had examined at random a group of 'Contracts' numbering 163 (97 men and 66 women), that in only 28 cases was it possible to discover the years they had been kept on the islands, and that the average period the 28 had been in servitude upon the islands worked out at more than 31 years each.
But the evidence given in the British Law Courts was only part of the volume of evidence which then and to this day unhappily still constitutes the indictment of the Portuguese labour system in West Africa. During the five years 1912 to 1917 the British Foreign Office issued a whole series of White Papers, the cumulative effect of which was overwhelming, and in addition to these Foreign Office papers there was a veritable cloud of witnesses. Lady Simon, commenting upon the recent report of two Americans, Messrs. Ross and Cramer, says: 'The allegations they make with regard to corruption or cruelty, or slavery under an alias, are but a repetition of accusations that have been made by a long line of reliable witnesses. Colonel Colin Harding found and disclosed a similar state of affairs in 1901 to 1902. In 1904-5 he was followed by a British journalist, Mr. H. W. Nevinson, who exposed the same evils of oppression and corruption in his book "A Modern Slavery." In 1908 to 1909 the Rev. Charles Swan told the same story in his book "The Slavery of To-day." Next, the veteran English missionary, Dan Crawford, who had lived in Angola since 1888, laid before the public his experiences in "Thinking Black." Then followed the enquiry instituted by the Cocoa Firms, Messrs. Cadbury, Fry, Rowntree and Stollwerck. Mr. Joseph Burtt, the Commissioner sent out by the firms, could only confirm with new details the old story. Then Mr. William Cadbury went out to West Africa and added his evidence in "Labour in Portuguese West Africa." These disclosures by administrators, journalists, missionaries, merchants and Consular Officers, have provided a mass of evidence, and the outstanding fact is that all the witnesses are in substantial agreement.'
The British public naturally feels a deep concern at the reports of slavery and analogous systems in Portuguese West Africa. This concern arises firstly because between our two countries there exist explicit treaty obligations for abolition; secondly, owing to the fact that our most ancient ally is joined to us by a peculiar relationship, which in turn obliges us to use the forces of Great Britain in defence of Portuguese territory. Upon this point the late Lord Cromer sounded a strong note of warning: 'There are some things that no British Government, however powerful otherwise, can undertake to perform. First and foremost amongst those things is the use of the war-like strength of the British Empire to maintain a slave state. In spite of the longstanding friendship between the two countries, in spite of historical associations which are endeared to all Englishmen, and in spite of the apparently unequivocal nature of Treaty engagements, it would, I feel assured, be quite impossible, should the African possessions of Portugal be seriously menaced, for British arms to be employed in order to retain them under the uncontrolled possession of Portugal so long as slavery is permitted.'
All the evidence from Portuguese West Africa points to a continuance of abuses, but for the time being shipments to the islands have practically ceased, for the 'Angel of Destruction' is sweeping through the islands, the plantations have been stricken with 'thrips,' a pest which is attacking the cocoa trees in both islands, and the former crop of 36,000 tons, worth £2,000,000, has dropped to the very low figure of about 9,000 tons of cocoa of doubtful value; the official bulletins make dismal reading, the Health Department records the prevalence of leprosy, elephantiasis, pneumonia and fever.
The mortality figures amongst the remaining labourers is no lower than it was eighteen years ago, but instead of labourers being imported from Africa, the Government is being compelled by the economic bankruptcy of the islands and the spread of disease to send thousands of the old Servigal or slave population back to the African Continent.
The difficulties of the mainland are still to some extent linked with those of the Cocoa Islands. The most recent reports of any authority are those of Professor Ross and Dr. Cramer. These two American gentlemen were sent to Portuguese West Africa by a Committee which included such eminent men as George Foster Peabody, Raymond B. Fosdick, Joseph P. Chamberlain, James T. Shotwell and Hamilton Holt. The report of their investigations was issued in several countries, but there was really nothing new in what they said. There was the same story of corruption in the administration; the same allegations of theft from the wages of the contract labourers; there were also old and new forms of torture and oppression. One of the most striking features was the abundant evidence of corruption. As Professor Ross says, Colonial service in Portuguese colonies is less a career than a method of obtaining money. 'Why should they [the officials] look ahead and plan to promote the economic upbuilding of the country? They do not care for the country, they never expect to settle there. They care not even for the future of the Government which they represent. Their controlling thought is to make money before another is given their place. They realise it is theirs to "make hay while the sun shines."' (Para. 70, Ross' Report.)
The Portuguese made a feeble attempt to discredit the report of Messrs. Ross and Cramer. The usual line was taken of abusing the investigators, and again the usual Portuguese practice of issuing a whole series of pamphlets and legislation. It has frequently been said that it is quite impossible for any Portuguese judge to read, much less possess, a knowledge of the stream of legislation which has been issued from Lisbon during the last hundred years, but within recent times a Press Bureau has been created for the avowed purpose of trumpeting abroad any new legislation issued from Lisbon, one of the most amusing features of which is a laudatory preface which is now usually attached to any such legislation. One of the most recent issues contained as preamble the following: As a nation, Portugal wishes to call the attention of the world to the following statements regarding her national policy:
It might have been added that some of the slaves, on being brought down to the coast, were baptised into the Christian faith!
British criticism, which has now become international criticism, of Portuguese colonial methods, arises from no antipathy to the Portuguese as a nation - in point of fact the British critics have in their turn been criticised for their friendly attitude towards the Portuguese people. Certainly no one would rejoice more than the critics themselves if Portugal would cease to abuse her critics, stop the continuous issue of legislation which is seldom applied, and set about the task of real reforms in the administration itself. These friendly critics of Portugal undertook a special mission to Lisbon in November, 1910, in the hope of persuading the Government to bring about reforms which would be effectual in putting an end to abuses, but without avail.
Lady Simon in her book applies a twofold test to the Portuguese. It is known that the British Foreign Office made overtures to the Portuguese Government under which, if Portugal would reform her labour system, Great Britain on her part would do what she could in promoting a movement of free labour. It is also well known that the principal cocoa firms of Great Britain continue to refuse knowingly to purchase cocoa grown on Portuguese plantations. Lady Simon thus states these two challenging facts: The two striking facts which no consular despatch and no Portuguese excuse can get over are, first, that the reputable cocoa manufacturers of Great Britain have not withdrawn their boycott; and, second, that the British Foreign Office, though prepared to recommend the withdrawal of the boycott by the cocoa firms, apparently has never yet been satisfied that the consular reports received from West Africa justify the British Government in carrying out its part of the 1913 bargain, under which our consular officials would feel free to recommend labourers to enter into contracts for service with the Portuguese planters!
Until these two things happen, public opinion is surely justified in holding the view that Portuguese labour systems are barely, if at all, distinguishable from slavery.
- Portugal was the first nation to spread abroad in the world the high ideals which are the foundation of civilization.
- Portugal has spent large sums of money in support of religious missions to raise the native races in accordance with the highest traditions of civilization.