Cuban Tobacco Slavery

A review of Cuban Tobacco Slavery: Life, Labor and Freedom in Pinar del Río, 1817-1886, by William A. Morgan.

William A. Morgan’s dissertation focuses on the role of slavery in Cuba’s 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 Morgan’s 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 Ortiz’s 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 Cuba’s 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 Cuba’s sugar economy during the nineteenth century, Cuban tobacco continued to grow as it absorbed some of the lands of Cuba’s 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 Cuba’s 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 Cuba’s tobacco economy began to approach the larger scale of production characteristic of sugar plantations. Morgan’s utilization of archival sources from the tobacco-producing province of Pinar del Río 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 Cuba’s 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 bohíos (huts). The prevalence of enslaved women and bohíos 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 Río 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 coartación, 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 aberration—in the history of Cuban slavery” (p. 304). In addition to resisting the dominance held by sugar in the historical literature on Cuban slavery, Morgan’s decision to situate his study in Pinar del Río serves as a reminder that Cuban history did not only happen in Havana and the regional centers of sugar production. Morgan’s dissertation thus fits in with the recent works of historians William Van Norman and Charlotte Cosner, whose respective investigations into Cuba’s 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. Morgan’s 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.

Andrés Pletch
Department of History
University of Michigan

Primary Sources

Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Havana, Cuba
Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, Havana, Cuba
Archivo Histórico Provincial de Pinar del Río, Pinar del Río, 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 on, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.



Leave a Reply