The Myth of Cuban Tobacco: Pinar Del Río and the Rise of Plantation Production during the Nineteenth Century

Abstract: Focusing on the province of Pinar del Río, the epicenter of Cuban tobacco cultivation, this article intends to correct a historiography that has either marginalized or inaccurately stereotyped the size and scale of Cuba’s tobacco economy, primarily by failing to recognize the widespread use of enslaved labor. As a conceptually reconfigured site, Pinar del Río offers a new narrative of Cuban tobacco, one that identifies and understands the area as an additional site of slave commodity production in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. Through a pattern of interconnected developments—framed here as latifundia and including increases in farm size, production, and labor force—the agricultural economy of Pinar del Río matured into a plantation system at the same time as a second phase of enslavement developed in the larger Atlantic region. The growth of tobacco cultivation in Pinar del Río, marked by a concentration and expansion of slaves on estates that were increasing in size and efficiency, caused the industry to compete, in terms of scale, not only with the dominant archetype of Cuban plantation slavery but also with other similar slave-based commodities in a world market. Consequently, as the product of a true plantation economy, tobacco is not apart from, but rather fully within, the larger plantation worlds of the nineteenth-century Atlantic.