In the 2000 film Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, a single mother arrives in a small French town where, to the consternation of the local priest, she establishes a small chocolaterie during Lent. Her deliciously rich chocolate, however, eventually wins around the traditional villagers, changing their lives. Even the enigmatic heroine finds love with a dark, mysterious gypsy. Such romanticised narratives about chocolate, asserts Emma Robertson in this interesting book, are largely divorced from the material conditions of production.
Unlike tea and coffee, cocoa growing was never successful as a plantation crop. In the early 20th century, smallholders in what was then British West Africa became the main suppliers of cocoa to British firms such as Rowntree, which was established in York in 1862 by a Quaker family. It is on Rowntree in particular that this book focuses. Robertson explores a neglected topic in the published literature, namely the contribution of women workers, both in the UK and in Nigeria, to chocolate production from cocoa bean to chocolate box.
Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including life-history interviews with retired women workers in York and Nigeria, Robertson explores the ways in which gender, race and Empire have structured the cocoa chain. Although it has been commonly assumed that cocoa farmers in Nigeria were male, the majority of Nigerian women Robertson interviewed had their own farms, often acquired later in life, and were still actively managing them, a task that gave them increased status within their communities. Nor did there appear to be a gendered division of labour. As one interviewee, Grace, asserted: "Cocoa-farming operations are never restricted to men. Men and women can do the same tasks. It is only spraying that is difficult for women because of the weight of the pump tank." Even so, the work was hard, with the "under-development" of the cocoa-producing villages standing in stark contrast to the prosperous chocolate-producing town of York.
Yet the Rowntree factory workers were exploited too, insists Robertson, even if the British women seemed unaware of it. Although from 1960, men increasingly worked alongside women in the York factory, the ideological gendering of various tasks remained, with the women doing the lower-status "feminine" tasks of sorting, decorating and packing the confectionery. Since many women worked part-time or were seasonal workers taken on to meet production targets for Easter or Christmas, they did not have equal access to the range of benefits provided by the firm. Indeed, it was expected that the women workers would be married, with husbands to support them.
Yet despite these disadvantages, the women took pride in their work and the friendships they made there, rarely expressing the dissatisfaction with assembly-line work found by other researchers - although some did give ambivalent replies. Robertson rather glides over this life-history material when a deeper probing might have been fruitful. How did the knowledge that she was interviewing three members of her own family for this project influence the research process and the replies given? What was the attitude of the women towards unionisation? What influence did the welfare ethos of the factory, and its Quaker origins, have upon their responses?
Nonetheless, Chocolate, Women and Empire is a stimulating read, illustrating the rewards of studying women's workplace cultures in their local, national and global contexts. While the marketing of Rowntree chocolate may encourage us to enjoy the pleasure of the product - "Have a break; have a KitKat" - this book forcefully reminds us that such indulgence has always been highly political.
Chocolate, Women and Empire
By Emma Robertson. Manchester University Press 2pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780719077777. Published 1 March 2010