Statement on Rowntree Colonial Histories

Statement on Rowntree Colonial Histories

Rowntree global supply chains and histories of slavery, forced labour, colonialism and racial injustice

Statement from the Board of Trustees, The Rowntree Society
15 April 2021

In February 2020, we began a new research project exploring the Rowntree company’s historic global supply chains. This was informed by our commitment to expand our audiences nationally and internationally.

To date, there has been little research into the colonial contexts of the Rowntree company’s growth, and although what is known has not been actively ‘hidden’, it has not formed part of the public presentation of Rowntree history, including our own. Academic and popular histories have focused primarily on the contributions of the Rowntree family and businesses to civic philanthropy and social reform in Britain. This omission places Rowntree history within a more widespread phenomenon that the historian Catherine Hall has called ‘turning a blind eye’, a condition of ‘knowing and not knowing’, acknowledging the presence of empire but at the same time not confronting its meanings, especially its unsavoury ones.’

The prominence and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and growing global recognition of long histories of systemic racism led us to further prioritise research in this area. Since then, we have been working with our funders — the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT) — to explore the commercial origins of their endowments. We share the commitment of the Trusts, which were endowed with shares in Rowntree & Co. in 1904, to developing further knowledge and transparency about the company’s impact on people of colour involved in the production of its raw materials.

While our initial research has been limited by the closure of relevant archives and travel restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic, we have identified histories of race-based hierarchies and racial exploitation within the Rowntree story. These have profound implications for the content and direction of our work.

Areas for Investigation

Our enquiry recognises the enduring legacies of colonialism beyond the ‘end’ of the British Empire in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Through our preliminary research, we have considered an extensive historical period from the origins of the Rowntree company as a family-run grocery business in 1822 to the £2.5bn takeover by the Swiss corporation Nestlé in 1988. This broad chronological scope presents a significant challenge as we seek to obtain information from multiple archival sources and to interpret it in relevant social, political, and economic contexts.

Although we have found no evidence that the Rowntree family owned or traded in enslaved people or benefitted from the abolition compensation scheme, we have identified five areas where we believe further research is necessary to create a fuller understanding of how Rowntree businesses benefitted from slavery, unfree labour and other forms of racial exploitation during the eras of colonialism and apartheid:

  • Rowntree & Co. (later Rowntree Mackintosh) has its origins in a grocery business established in York by Joseph Rowntree Senior in 1822. Among other things, the businesses sold commodities of empire which are likely to have been produced by enslaved or unfree workers. The operation of the Rowntree grocery business between 1822 and 1838 was concurrent with the transatlantic slave trade. Although the Abolition Act passed by UK Parliament in 1807 prohibited the sale of people as slaves, enslavement continued to be lawful within the British Empire and in other colonial regimes. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 outlawed slavery in some British colonies, but not all, and enslaved people in the British West Indies were forced to work for enslavers as unpaid ‘apprentices’ until 1838.
  • The Rowntree Company benefitted from colonial indenture, a system of bonded labour in which European imperial 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. In the 1890s, Rowntree & Co. purchased several plantations in the British West Indies on the islands of Dominica, Jamaica, and Trinidad. 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.
  • Together with other British Quaker chocolate manufacturers, Rowntree & Co. purchased 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. While the companies became concerned about slavery on the islands and sent a representative to report on these, it was the investigative journalist Henry Nevinson who first published evidence of enslavement in the region in 1905. Nevinson, together with the Aborigines’ Protection Society (now Anti-Slavery International), brought pressure on the chocolate companies to boycott goods from the islands. Rowntree & Co. continued to purchase raw ingredients from the region along with the other companies while they sought to address conditions of slavery via diplomatic means. This approach did not succeed, and in 1909 the chocolate manufacturers announced publicly that they would no longer purchase cocoa from São Tomé and Príncipe. Further research is required to understand the motivations of Rowntree and Co. in developing its approach to enslavement within its supply chains at this time.
  • Rowntree & Co. joined with the manufacturer 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 changed its name to ‘Rowntree Fry Cadbury Nigeria Ltd.’ in 1947 and 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 to place the agency’s operations in fuller context.
  • Our initial research has also encompassed alleged racial discrimination at Wilson Rowntree, Rowntree Mackintosh’s fully owned subsidiary in South Africa, in the twentieth century. In the early 1980s, Wilson Rowntree used tactics including summary dismissal and forced unemployment to suppress unrest among its black work force. During the period of unrest, black workers were subjected to human rights abuses by state police. The activities of Rowntree Mackintosh, Wilson Rowntree management, South African trade unions and state police merit further investigation.


Our response to the findings

The Rowntree Society was established in 2004 and over the last seventeen years we have led and supported projects engaging with the rich histories of the Rowntree family and company and their continuing relevance today.

The philanthropic work of the Rowntree family — in education, welfare, democracy and humanitarianism — continues to inform and inspire our work. In addition, we know from our engagement with local communities that the Rowntree family’s investments in industrial welfare for employees at its factory in York hold deep meaning for people in the city who have personal connections to this heritage.

However, it is important to recognise that the Rowntree story also includes histories and legacies of racial exploitation. Our initial findings show that the company was an active agent in colonial economies in Africa and the Caribbean across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They indicate that the Rowntree businesses benefited from unfree labour systems which caused harm to people of colour.

If we are to continue to be inspired by Joseph Rowntree’s belief that religious, political and social work should seek to address the ‘underlying causes’ of problems and not merely their ‘superficial manifestations’, then it is clear that we need to confront uncomfortable questions about the Rowntree family and company’s participation in colonialism and racialised exploitative working practices.

  • In his founding memorandum for the three charitable trusts in 1904, Joseph Rowntree drew attention to slavery as one of ‘the great scourges of humanity’. Is there any other evidence to indicate what the Rowntree family and their associates at the Rowntree businesses thought about slavery and indentured labour?
  • What were the attitudes of the Rowntree family towards race? How did these attitudes relate to other voices at the time?
  • To what extent was the Quaker Rowntree family involved in anti-slavery campaigns? How did they balance concerns about slavery with their commercial interests?
  • What impact did the Rowntree company have on the lives of people of colour within the colonial global economy and in its aftermath?
  • Who were the people of Black and Asian heritage working for Rowntree’s, directly and indirectly? What were their experiences, and how can their stories be told?


As an educational organisation which is a beneficiary of Rowntree wealth, we want to explore the complexity of these questions with nuance and develop ways to include a wide range of people in this exploration, including people of Caribbean, Asian and African heritage.

Ensuring that our work has contemporary relevance is central to our purpose. We recognise the lasting damage inflicted by the colonial global economy in countries where the Rowntree businesses operated and the effects of historic slavery and colonialism for people and communities of colour in Britain today.  History is not closed. Its legacies, and our understanding of those legacies, continue to shape the present, and it is only by reflecting critically on the past that we can learn and inform the future.

What we will do

We will continue to work closely with our colleagues at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to explore global historical perspectives on Rowntree commercial and philanthropic activities. With funding from the Trusts, and in collaboration with academic partners, we will develop options for further academic research arising from our preliminary findings. In addition to this work, we will continue to pursue and support projects locally, regionally and nationally which explore the legacies of welfare and social justice achieved by the Rowntree family.

Our Governance

The Rowntree Society is a small charity, with one full-time member of staff, a Board of Trustees, and a small number of volunteers. We are all white. We recognise that organisational structures, including those in charity governance, often reproduce unequal systems.

We will seek to address these limitations even as we operate within them. We will draw up a plan of action for addressing diversity on our Board as part of an on-going process of reviewing our mission, vision and values, and will share these on our website when complete.

Further information

Responses to the preliminary research from our funders and partner organisations:

Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF)

Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT)

Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT).

Supplementary notes to this statement are also available.

We’ve compiled a List of Historical Resources relevant to our research, including academic books, online articles and short videos.

The Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York holds the Rowntree Company archives, alongside the archives of the Rowntree family and trusts.


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Support Us

Our work is enabled by grant funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. If you would like to make a financial donation to further support our work, it is easy to pay online (with or without Gift Aid) by clicking the link below. You can get in touch with us about other ways of giving via