The Commons, Casuistry, and the “Common Good”: Afro-Descendants and Ownership by Possession in Eastern Cuba, 1815–68

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 11:10 AM
Beekman Room (New York Hilton)
Adriana Chira, Emory University
This paper asks how the commons shaped popular racial taxonomies in Iberian slave societies and thereby shifts attention away from the plantation as the main force influencing such notions. In Cuba, “racial confraternity” has been the most resilient nationalist narrative, one that has survived insurgencies and authoritarian governments. According to this foundational story, the military experiences of a racially integrated army fighting for independence against Spain (1868-1898) yielded a national community that transcended racial divides. Several questions have arisen across century-long engagements with this topic. How do societies espousing postracial ideologies emerge out of social worlds defined by racial slavery? What do the popular sectors see in such ideologies when they embrace them? Are such ideologies a way of preventing the popular sectors from developing racial consciousness?

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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