What does chocolate have to do with Democracy?
Currently on display in museum’s Living Democracy exhibition is this shop display cabinet associated with chocolate producers J S Fry & Sons and dating from c. 1910. This counter-top display case comprises a painted timber frame and wooden sliding doors at the rear, with glass panels on three sides. The front panel is etched with the inscription ‘Fry’s Choice Chocolate’ and bears a royal insignia ‘By Special Royal Appointment’. Carved and gilded decoration and lettering adorns the timber frame and the painted enamel advertising panel which surmounts the cabinet. This rather nostalgic example of confectionary ware seems on the surface an incongruous and unexpected find in a museum dedicated to exploring democracy. However its gilded surface is imbued with stories of slavery, human trafficking, worker representation and the economics of chocolate.
Many chocolate companies originated in Quaker families and the temperance movement, with chocolate advocated as an alcohol substitute. Dr Joseph Fry sold chocolate from his apothecary business in Bristol from 1761, and is credited with creating the first modern chocolate bar in 1847, having discovered that he could make mouldable chocolate paste by adding melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa. This development, alongside advances in bean grinding technology, resulted in chocolate becoming accessible for widespread consumption. Fry’s developed over 220 products, including the first chocolate Easter egg in the United Kingdom in 1873! In 1918-19 Fry’s merged with Cadbury Brothers Ltd. to form the British Cocoa and Chocolate Company, and later in 1939 became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cadbury’s. Both companies were committed to worker representation in workplace management and in providing for the well-being of their workforce. The company has had a presence in Australia since the merger; indeed, this chocolate display cabinet was sourced from an antiques dealer in Tasmania.
Cacao—from which chocolate is derived—grows best in the tropics, within ten degrees of the equator and in countries with poor human rights records. Today Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana provide the greatest quantities of cacao for export, often harvested by young boys who have travelled along human trafficking channels to provide cheap labour. The Frys are documented as being the first to boycott cocoa, having refused to obtain cacao beans from Portuguese West Africa (Angola) in the nineteenth century after witnessing the slavery of workers on the cacao plantations. This human rights conscience has a twenty-first century equivalent, in the form of the Fairtrade movement which has a growing presence in Australia. Fairtrade Certification aims to consider the welfare of producers in developing countries, empowering them to improve the quality of their lives, tackle poverty and invest in their future. Fairtrade standards seek to address the imbalance of trading relationships in such unstable markets as cacao, providing fair and stable prices.
Fry’s chocolate display cabinet—a favourite object in museum’s collection—is a fascinating and evocative object in its own right and illustrates the enduring presence of chocolate as a commodity enjoyed the world over. Delving more deeply into its centre this cabinet reminds us of the social, political and economic factors that affect the production of chocolate and of the continuing human rights issues at its core. Come and explore the stories behind this cabinet, and other unexpected objects, at the Museum of Australian Democracy.