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A review of Cuban Tobacco Slavery: Life, Labor and Freedom in Pinar del Ro, 1817-1886, by William A.
William A. Morgans dissertation focuses on the role of slavery in Cubas tobacco economy during
the nineteenth century. By placing economic and demographic data in conversation with the
observations of contemporary commentators and sources attesting to the experiences of free and
enslaved people of color, Morgan reinvigorates a social history model for the study of slavery in the
Americas exemplified in the 1980s by historians such as Francisco Scarano, Stuart Schwartz, and
Laird Bergad. In doing so, Morgan pushes back against some of the dominant narratives of Cuban
history that mischaracterize the role of enslaved labor in the cultivation of tobacco and thus consider
Cuban slavery primarily through the prism of the sugar economy.
Chapter 1 serves as introduction to Morgans study. Considering the demonstrably consistent
importance of tobacco cultivation throughout Cuban history, Morgan contends that the privileged
position given to sugar in scholarly studies has obscured more than it has illuminated. In particular, it
has cast the specific experiences of slaves laboring in the sugar economy as universal when, in fact,
a majority of Cuban slaves labored in other sectors of the economy. Morgan locates this oversight in
a scholarly tradition originating with Fernando Ortizs Cuban Counterpoint (1940), which reproduced
erroneous characterizations from the nineteenth century of tobacco cultivation as the domain of free
labor. By the 1970s, these mischaracterizations had been given voice in North American scholarship
by historians such as Franklin Knight and Herbert Klein, whose works greatly influenced subsequent
scholarship on slavery in Cuban. Though Rebecca Scott and Laird Bergad both acknowledged that
nineteenth century Cubas slave-plantation economy was more diverse than historians had
previously claimed, for instance, Morgan contends that their works nonetheless retained the
perspective that sugar was the singular definition of Cuban slavery (p. 6).
In Chapter 2, Morgan synthesizes a history of tobacco cultivation in Cuba from the early sixteenth
century until the final abolition of slavery in 1886 that highlights its consistent growth and reliance on

enslaved labor. Cuban tobacco played an integral role in the emerging networks of commodity
exchange that mapped out the contours of the early Atlantic world. In 1717 its importance to the
Spanish Empire was institutionalized when the crown established a monopoly on Cuban tobacco
that would last for a century. Even with the rise of Cubas sugar economy during the nineteenth
century, Cuban tobacco continued to grow as it absorbed some of the lands of Cubas faltering
coffee economy. Throughout this period, enslaved labor played an integral role in the cultivation of
tobacco. When the Spanish crown liberalized the slave trade to Cuba in 1789, tobacco cultivators
were as thirsty for new slaves as their counterparts in the burgeoning sugar economy. And as was
the case with Cuban sugar, the centers of tobacco cultivation continued to rely on enslaved labor
right up until the final abolition of slavery in 1886.
Morgan devotes Chapter 3 to dismantling historic mischaracterizations of Cubas tobacco economy
as a bastion of small-scale, family farms run by a labor force that was predominantly free. Relying
heavily on printed primary sources in the form of official reports, manuals, and travel narratives, he
argues that the nineteenth century saw the steady consolidation of vegas(tobacco farms) into larger
units of production, such that a highly productive segment of Cubas tobacco economy began to
approach the larger scale of production characteristic of sugar plantations. Morgans utilization of
archival sources from the tobacco-producing province of Pinar del Ro adds texture to these
changing patterns of tobacco cultivation as well as to drive the point home that enslaved labor was
an integral component of tobacco cultivation from the smallest family-run farm to the largest
industrial-scale plantation.
Chapter 4 considers the life experiences of slaves laboring within Cubas tobacco economy. Morgan
adheres to the well-argued point that the lives of slaves were structured by the labor regimes they
worked within as he compares the experiences of slaves working on sugar and tobacco plantations.
He argues that the relatively lax working conditions on vegas meant that enslaved women and
children could be as productive as enslaved men. Unlike sugar slaves who were increasingly forced
to live in prison-like barracones (barracks), tobacco slaves lived in bohos (huts). The prevalence of
enslaved women and bohos meant that the enslaved were more likely to form families. Furthermore,
Morgan argues that tobacco slaves were able to cultivate their own provisional plots to a greater
extent than sugar slaves. If, as Morgan contends, sugar slaves experienced one extreme of the
Cuban slave-experience spectrum (p. 154), tobacco slaves experienced another extreme
characterized by a high degree of autonomy.
In Chapter 5, Morgan considers tobacco slaves as economic actors. Influenced by the works of
Sidney Mintz, Philip Morgan, and Ira Berlin, he utilizes legal and municipal records from Pinar del
Ro to demonstrate how tobacco slaves took advantage of their relative degrees of autonomy to sell
crops, livestock, and their labor within an internal economy that saw them market their goods and
services on plantations as well as in taverns and towns. Morgan argues that just as these activities
constituted a form of resistance in and of themselves, they also facilitated more formal emancipatory
practices as slaves used their earnings to take advantage of the Cuban practice of coartacin, which
allowed slaves to purchase their own freedom in installments.

Considering that the institution of slavery in Cuba lasted for close to four centuries and
encompassed multiple economies, Morgan concludes that it is possible to see sugar as atypical
even an aberrationin the history of Cuban slavery (p. 304). In addition to resisting the dominance
held by sugar in the historical literature on Cuban slavery, Morgans decision to situate his study in
Pinar del Ro serves as a reminder that Cuban history did not only happen in Havana and the
regional centers of sugar production. Morgans dissertation thus fits in with the recent works of
historians William Van Norman and Charlotte Cosner, whose respective investigations into Cubas
coffee and tobacco economies have sought to escape the hold that Havana and sugar have held on
the scholarship on slavery in Cuba. While such commodity-oriented studies tend towards the specific
and the particular, in the aggregate they map out the complex range of structures and agencies that
men and women grappled with as they constituted their lives. Morgans work will thus prove to be of
great value to historians of slavery in the Americas interested in reengaging with some of the larger
scales of historical inquiry and analysis.
Andrs Pletch
Department of History
University of Michigan
Primary Sources
Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Havana, Cuba
Biblioteca Nacional Jos Mart, Havana, Cuba
Archivo Histrico Provincial de Pinar del Ro, Pinar del Ro, Cuba
Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin, US
Dissertation Information
University of Texas at Austin. 2013. 345 pp. Primary Advisor: Toyin Falola.
Image: Tobacco Farm, Cuba, ca. 1850; Image Reference Album-27, as shown
onwww.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.