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British chocolate-maker Rowntree apologise for 'shameful' role in slave trade


Trusts created by British chocolate maker Rowntree have apologised after research into its own history revealed 'shameful' links to the slave trade.

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. 

Although it's now owned by Nestle, Rowntree's was originally founded by a deeply religious Quaker family in York with a strong reputation for looking after its British workers. 

The company's charities say they are 'appalled' by the findings of the review, which was carried out by heritage organisation the Rowntree Society, adding that they are 'at odds with [their] Quaker values and commitment to building a more just society'.

Nestle has said it 'welcomes these statements made by other organisations that bear the Rowntree name' and will continue to learn from its predecessors.

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

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.

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.