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Book Chapter

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Sidney Mintz’s Worker in the Cane is a model life history, uncovering the subtlest of dynamics within plantation society by tracing the experiences of a single individual and his family. By contrast, Mintz’s Sweetness and Power gains its force from taking the entire Atlantic world as its scope, examining the marketing, meanings, and consumption of sugar as they changed over time. This essay borrows from each of these two strategies, looking at the history of a single peripatetic family across three long-lived generations, from enslavement in West Africa in the eighteenth century through emancipation during the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s to emigration to Cuba, Louisiana, France, and Belgium in the nineteenth century. Tracing the social networks that sustained these people as they moved and identifying the experiences that shaped their political sensibilities can cast light on the dynamics of the achievement of freedom and on the development of vernacular concepts of equality. The pivot point for the story will be New Orleans, where one member of the family helped these concepts take an explicit political and juridical form in the 1868 Louisiana State Constitution. But the story is also part of a larger Atlantic history of rights, given shape by the movement of people and paper across the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic itself. I shall start where I myself began this inquiry, with a document from the Cuban National Archive in Havana. The letter in question is dated September 1899 and is in the papers of General Máximo Gómez, the revered leader of the Cuban independence struggle. It begins simply as a commercial request, in which a merchant named Edouard Tinchant, writing in English from Antwerp to Havana, addresses the general: “In early and ardent sympathy with the Cuban cause, I have been always and pride myself in being still one of your most sincere admirers. I would be highly honored, should you have the kindness to authorize me to use your illustrious name for a brand of my best articles, your portrait adorning the labels whereof a proof is enclosed.” So a Belgian cigar manufacturer wants to put a famous Cuban on the label of his cigars. No surprise there.