Colonialism and the expansion of empires

Tobacco box


Object number 1915.16.26.HITW
Given by Lord Leverhulme, 1915

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Tobacco box

This tobacco box was given to Hall i’ th’ Wood Museum in Bolton by Lord Leverhulme, a generous donor to Bolton Museums. Smoking became a popular habit across Europe throughout the 1600s and 1700s as tobacco production in the Americas expanded through the use of enslaved African labour. Along with sugar, another slave-grown crop, it became one of the most valuable commodities in European trade.

William Lever was born in Bolton and began his working life in his father’s grocery shop. He set up Lever Brothers in 1886 with his brother James, making soap from vegetable oils. The company was hugely successful, made Lever a very wealthy man, and later became Unilever, one of the world's first multinationals. Lever was made Baron Leverhulme in 1917, and Viscount in 1922.

Lord Leverhulme is remembered now as a generous philanthropist who campaigned to improve the lives of ordinary people. He built the model village of Port Sunlight in Liverpool for his factory workers, endowed a school of tropical medicine at Liverpool University and was a major benefactor in his home town of Bolton, buying Hall i’ th’ Wood, Samuel Crompton’s former home, for the town.

However, Lever Brothers was also involved in the practice of forced labour in west Africa, in order to obtain cheap palm oil for soap manufacture. In the early 1900s, Lever was using oil produced in the British west African colonies. In 1911, he turned to the Belgian Congo, notorious for the brutality of its regime and its use of the system of 'travail forcé' (forced labour). Lever Brothers established its own plantations in the Congo and oil production increased from 2,500 tons per year in 1914 to 9,000 tons in 1921. It was not until 1960 that the Congo finally gained independence.

This information was provided by curators at Bolton Museums and Archive Service.