Liberalism might not have been the main ideology informing popular notions of emancipation and equality in slave societies such as Cuba. Colonial-era legal traditions and customary notions of rights were a source of flexible, even while hierarchical, racial taxonomies. The presence of vast commons in eastern Cuba facilitated the persistence of custom and of casuistic judicial thinking even at a time of judicial standardization on the island. The commons were therefore a material space with wide-ranging cultural impact. While they opened up possibilities for enslaved and free Afro-descendants to own land by possession and to find havens from plantations and slaveholders, the commons also had legal effects, with judges oftentimes adjudicating casuistically in the favor of such groups in an effort to keep the peace. Moreover, the vastness of the realengos (commons) and the pervasiveness of untitled possession-based ownership informed how people conceived of relationships in their communities beyond land tenure. I argue that the importance of reputation as the source of one’s socio-racial status was tied to ownership regimes centering on possession.
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