AN investigation into the history of the Rowntree chocolate company has produced shocking evidence that the famously philanthropic family business may have profited from slavery and forced labour.

Research by the Rowntree Society prompted partly by the Black Lives Matter movement has also uncovered allegations of racial discrimination and anti-union tactics at the firm’s South African subsidiary Wilson Rowntree during the apartheid era as recently as the early 1980s.

A statement by the Rowntree Society today stressed that it had found no evidence that Rowntrees, which donated Rowntree Park to the people of York and also set up the New Earswick 'model village', directly owned or traded in enslaved people.

But it said its early research highlighted five 'areas for investigation'.

These are:

• Rowntree & Co (later Rowntree Mackintosh) began as a grocery business established in York by Joseph Rowntree Senior in 1822. Among other things, the business sold 'commodities of empire' which are likely to have been produced by enslaved or unfree workers.

• Rowntree benefitted from colonial indenture, a system of bonded labour in which European 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 bought several plantations in the British West Indies. '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', the Rowntree Society says.

• Together with other British Quaker chocolate manufacturers, Rowntree bought 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.

• Rowntree joined with 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 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," the Rowntree Society says.

• 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," The Rowntree Society says.

The research has sparked apologies and soul searching from the four trusts - The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust - established by philanthropist Joseph Rowntree in 1904.

In a joint statement released today, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust said: “We are deeply sorry that the origins of our endowment have roots in shameful practices that caused deep suffering and created enduring harms.

“The JRF Trustees and JRHT Board are committed to recognising and learning from every part of our history. It is especially important to us that the experiences of people whose labour was taken under duress and slavery should occupy a more prominent place in the Rowntree story. Therefore, alongside the other independently endowed Rowntree trusts, we will fund the Rowntree Society to investigate this part of our history more fully.”

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust said: “The preliminary research identified evidence that suggests that the Rowntree company purchased cocoa and other goods produced by enslaved people and benefitted from the system of colonial indenture.

"As a Trust we are appalled by what we have learned about these abhorrent practices, which are at odds with our Quaker values and our commitment to building a more just society.

"We know that such actions caused extreme and enduring harms and we recognise their role in embedding the systemic racism that is still present in the UK and globally. As a former shareholder in the Rowntree company and an institutional beneficiary of its wealth, we are deeply sorry.”

On the allegations of ‘oppressive and exploitative practices’ at the Rowntree company’s South African subsidiary, Wilson Rowntree, during the apartheid era, the Charitable Trust added: “JRCT was a shareholder in the Rowntree company at the time, and we say sorry to those who endured such appalling treatment. Whilst we know that JRCT trustees put significant and public shareholder pressure on the company to change its behaviour, we will examine and reflect on the Trust’s actions during this period.”

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust said: “It is known that the Rowntree Company actively participated in colonial era trade, but this has rarely featured prominently in narratives about the company’s history.

"We recognise the importance of learning from all parts of our history and enabling the experiences of people whose labour was taken under duress and slavery to take their central place in the Rowntree story. JRRT is contributing to the funding of work by the Rowntree Society to sponsor a research fellowship to explore aspects of the Rowntree history in more detail. In retrospect we should have started this process earlier.”

Questioned by The Press about whether the reputation of Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree themselves had been damaged by the revelations, Paul Kissack, the group CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust said it was too early to say how much they knew at the time.

But he added: “The Rowntree Society is setting out a more complex story (about the Rowntree company) which involves shameful, abhorrent practices. It is uncomfortable.”

TOMORROW: Is the Rowntree legacy tainted?