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Catherine HiggsChocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa

Ohio University Press, 2012

by Carla Nappi on November 14, 2012

Catherine Higgs

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With elegant and accessible prose, Catherine Higgs takes us on a journey in Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa (Ohio University Press, 2012). It is a fascinating voyage fueled by the correspondence of Joseph Burtt, a man who had helped found a utopian commune before being sent by the chocolate magnate William Cadbury in the early 1900s to investigate labor conditions on cocoa plantations in Africa. For almost two years, Burtt observed and wrote and fevered his way from São Tomé and Príncipe, to the large Portuguese colony of Angola, to Mozambique in Portuguese East Africa, and finally to Transvaal in British southern Africa. Higgs’s wonderfully evocative account uses Burtt’s journey to tell a much larger story about competing British and Portuguese colonial interests in Africa that was fueled, in part, by tensions over very different notions of “labor” and “slavery.” It is a story of the co-creation of two vital commodities of the twentieth century – chocolate and human beings – that invites readers into the hospitals, roads, ships, and plantations that were such crucial sites of negotiation over the basic components of a free human life. It is an engaging and assignable book built on archival work that will satisfy both academic historians and a general audience.

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