Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

Slave Cocoa and Red Rubber: E. D. Morel and the Problem of Ethical Consumption

Jonathan E. Robinsa1 c1

a1 Morgan State University


Over the last two decades, consumption, consumerism, and the idea of consumer agency have attracted a great deal attention from scholars across a number of disciplines. Among historians, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been identified as a crucial period for consumption, one in which consumers emerged as an influential group of political, economic, and social agents. Historians of the English-speaking world have advanced bold claims about the prominence and impact of consumers during this period. Consumer movements were conspicuously absent in two major scandals of the early twentieth century, however. This article uses these commodity-centered cases—of rubber in the Congo Free State, and cocoa in the Portuguese colonies of São Tomé and Príncipe—to question the salience of “consumerism” in turn-of-the-century political thought. By tracing the career of British journalist and humanitarian activist E. D. Morel through the “red rubber” and “slave cocoa” scandals, the article demonstrates that consumers were only one of many influences along the commodity chain of production and consumption.

(Online publication July 13 2012)


Acknowledgments: This article began as a paper for Robert Foster's seminar on “Global Culture” at the University of Rochester in 2006. I am grateful to Bob, as well as to Stewart Weaver and other members of the University of Rochester History Department for their comments and encouragement. Archival research was supported by a travel grant from the University of Rochester. I also wish to thank Brett Berliner of Morgan State University and the anonymous CSSH reviewers for their extensive critiques of the manuscript.