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  • The Golden Leaf: How Tobacco Shaped Cuba and the Atlantic World by Charlotte Cosner
  • Aldona Bialowas Pobutsky
Charlotte Cosner. The Golden Leaf: How Tobacco Shaped Cuba and the Atlantic World. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014. 214pp. ISBN 978-0-8265-2032-6. $35.

Based on exhaustive research in Spanish and Cuban archives, this volume examines how the use of tobacco and its cultivation influenced culture, society, economics, and governmental control both in Cuba and in the Atlantic World during the colonial period until the official end of the tobacco monopoly on June 23, 1817. Going against the grain of previous scholarship on the subject, which overgeneralized the matter by maintaining that tobacco growers were “poor, white Canary Islanders” (5), Charlotte Cosner provides diverse snapshots of colonial life in Cuba to reveal that tobacco growers also included people of color, both enslaved and free. Because the range of social groups was far broader than has been previously assumed, Cosner stresses that the influence of Spain’s tobacco monopoly caused an all-encompassing shift across colonial Cuban society and influenced Spanish society as well. Such changes included a vast bureaucratic structure, together with Spain’s expanded military presence, to protect both the shipments and the monopoly itself. Adding to this enterprise so many people who would be loyal to the Crown resulted in a large Peninsular population in Cuba as compared to other places in the empire.

Further, Cosner describes how this imposition of colonial rule was met with diverse forms of resistance, including rampant smuggling, demands for quicker and better monetary compensation, and slipshod production habits that frequently failed quality controls. This revisionism of former historical interpretations emerges from her readings of tazmias, documents on the subject of the farmers, collected during the era for the benefit of the monopoly bureaucrats.

Chapter 1, which examines the reception of tobacco in the Old World and its subsequent cultural impact on places from Spain to England, makes a significant contribution to the growing study of the history of migration of foods. Before the Columbian encounter, the indigenous people of the Caribbean and the Americas viewed tobacco as an essential part of their social and spiritual life. Shamans used tobacco to communicate with their deities and to diagnose illness, as well as to heal various conditions, ranging from rheumatism and pain to cough and asthma. Interestingly, tobacco was consumed by “smoking, chewing, snuffing, drinking, and absorbing via enemas” (13).

Next, Cosner traces how tobacco was introduced in Europe and how it provoked contradictory reactions, where some Europeans claimed its curative properties whereas others (the Catholic Church, King James I of England, Czar Michael I of Russia) declared tobacco consumption harmful, demonic, and even criminal. Unlike sugar and chocolate—which were elite consumer products until the eighteenth century—tobacco reached across all [End Page 241] the socioeconomic levels as early as the 1620s because its expanded production caused a drop in prices. How tobacco was consumed varied according to the social classes, where lower classes smoked pipes and higher classes snuffed tobacco. Also, city dwellers preferred to snuff tobacco, whereas the inhabitants of rural areas preferred chewing.

While chapter 2 examines in detail all stages of tobacco production (soil conditions, harvesting, and pest control), chapter 3 focuses on the sociocultural profile of vegueros, the tobacco farmers themselves. Here, Cosner argues that it was precisely the heterogeneity among people involved in Cuba’s tobacco industry, which drew together members across social, racial, and economic sectors, that allowed Spain to exert social and economic control over vast groups. To provide ample examples of individual tobacco growers and their stories, Cosner makes broad use of the archival documents designated for the Crown. Her examples range from individual cases of slaves who obtained funds from growing tobacco to purchase their freedom, to the more general cases of the shortage of slave labor and the ever-growing demand for increased tobacco production on the island. Period documents also illustrate how other groups participated in tobacco production, ranging from retiring soldiers to men serving in the militia, clergy, and Cuba’s titled noble elite (whose participation Cosner claims has been utterly omitted in prior research).

Subsequent chapters address...


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pp. 241-243
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