This article explores a core question in the law of slavery: how was an individual's status as slave or free socially discerned and formally adjudicated? Under the doctrine of “freedom by prescription,” a person who had in good faith “lived as free” could argue that the absence of exercise of ownership for a specified term of years extinguished a prior owner's title. In the medieval Siete Partidas of Alfonso the Wise, which continued as a legal point of reference in Louisiana well after the end of Spanish rule, both the law of status and the law of property confirmed this path to freedom. From 1808 onward, Louisiana jurists and legislators sought to eliminate the remnants of the doctrine, but it lingered in popular and even judicial consciousness. The 1853 kidnapping of a woman named Eulalie Oliveau, six of her children, and eleven of her grandchildren for sale in the New Orleans slave market brought the question of “freedom by prescription” back into the courts. The awkward resolution of that case, and the uncertain fate of Eulalie Oliveau and her children, foreshadowed Reconstruction-era struggles over the content of legal freedom and the rights that freedom might bring to those who had once been held as property.
1. The definition of “conditions analogous to slavery,” as enforced in Brazil's domestic labor law and criminal law, is analyzed in Paixão, Cristiano and Barbosa, Leonardo, “Perspectives on Human Dignity (On Judicial Rulings Regarding Contemporary Slavery in Brazil),” Quaderni Fiorentini per la Storia del Pensiero Giuridico Moderno 44 (2015): 1167–84. The European Court of Human Rights has sought to define forced labor and slavery in a sequence of cases of domestic servitude, beginning with Siliadin v. France (Application no. 73316/01; final judgment issued October 26, 2005), and continuing through C.N. & V. v. France (Application no. 67724/09; final judgment issued January 11, 2013). Although cases in the United States are often now addressed under the relatively recent Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or under state law, some prosecutions have explicitly drawn on the language of slavery and on federal statutes dating back to the post-Civil War period. See, for example, U.S. v. Tony Booker, 655 F. 2d 562 (4th Cir. 1981), and more generally Bridgette Carr, Milgram, Anne, Kim, Kathleen, and Warnath, Stephen, Human Trafficking Law and Policy (New Providence, NJ: Lexis Nexis, 2014).
2. Although color categories are only one component of such disputes over civil status, there is a striking parallel with contemporaneous disputes over racial status. See Gross, Ariela, What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), especially 56–57 , for a discussion of “prescriptive” understandings of race connected to the history of performance or non-performance of various components of civil identity.
3. Quoted in Agustín Parise, “A Constant Give and Take: Tracing Legal Borrowings in the Louisiana Civil Law Experience,” Seton Hall Legislative Journal 35 (2010): 1–35 .
4. Las Siete Partidas del Sabio Rey Don Alonso el Nono, glosadas por el Licenciado Gregorio Lopez del Consejo Real de Indias de S. M. Tomo II (Madrid: En la Oficina de Benito Cano, 1789). The first appearance of the rule is in Partida III, Título XXIX, Ley XXIII; the second is in Partida IV, Título XXII, Ley VII. Noel Lenski has pointed out that there is also a precedent in Roman Law. In 300 C.E. or thereabouts, the earlier doctrine of long-term prescriptive acquisition (drawn from property law regarding land, with similar 10 year/ 20 year rules) was cross-applied to the law of persons, allowing for a claim of the acquisition of freedom through long-term possessio libertatis. This made possible an affirmative claim to one's liberty as a person in parallel with the older laws of prescription: “Possession of liberty which began legally and continued for a long time furnishes a full defense. For partiality for freedom and sound reasoning led to the conclusion long ago that those who should remain in possession of liberty for twenty years in good faith and without interruption should be protected against disturbance as to their status by that period of prescription and should become free and be Roman citizens.” Diocletian and Maximian, CJ 7.22.2 (300 C. E.), transl. Lenski, Noel, in The Codex of Justinian: A New Annotated Translation, with Parallel Latin and Greek Text, ed. Frier, Bruce W., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) 1855 ; and Lenski, Noel, “Constantine and Slavery: Libertas and the Fusion of Roman and Christian Values,” Atti dell'Accademia Romanistica Costantiniana 18 (2011): 235–60.
5. Siete Partidas, Partida III, Título XXIX, Ley XXIII. Prescription shares some apparent ancestry with the Anglo-American common law doctrine of adverse possession; however, the provisions of the Siete Partidas do not imply any adverse intent to the possession in question. Indeed, consent by the prior owner can enhance rather than undermine a subsequent claim to freedom by prescription, whereas in common law an owner's previous formal consent to the use of property may defeat a later claim of title by adverse possession. For a careful discussion of intent in modern claims of adverse possession (excluding Louisiana), see Helmholz, Richard H., “Adverse Possession and Subjective Intent,” Washington University Law Quarterly 61 (1983): 331–58.
6. The text from Siete Partidas, Partida IV, Título XXII, Ley VII can be translated as “The servant of someone going about on his own for ten years in good faith, and believing that he was free, in the land in which his master lives, or twenty years in another land, even if his master does not see him, thereby becomes free.” (“Andando el sieruo, de alguno por si diez años, auiendo buena fe, e cuydando q[ue] era libre, en aq[ue]lla tierra do morasse su señor, o veynte años en otra tierra, maguer non lo viesse su señor fazese libre porende.”).
7. See the testimony of Emmanuel Britto (elsewhere Manuel Brito) in Daniel A. Long v. Lewis E. Smith, Docket No. 8676, First District Court of New Orleans, City Archives, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library (hereafter CA, LD, NOPL). On the microfilm copy available at the NOPL, the testimony in the case is interleaved with the closely related case titled Eulalie and her descendants v. Long & Mabry, Docket No. 8668.
8. See the testimony of the widow's personal lawyer, Alphonse Robin, as transcribed in the manuscript record of Eulalie, f.w.c., et al v. Long et al, Docket No. 3979, New Orleans, June 1856, Louisiana Supreme Court, in Historical Archives of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, Special Collections, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans (hereafter LSC, HASCL), 15–18.
9. See the testimony of Emmanuel Britto, in Daniel A. Long v. Lewis E. Smith, Docket No. 8676, CA, LD, NOPL.
10. Manuel Britto was listed in the 1870 census as a “mulatto,” born in approximately 1806 in Spain, which may well mean Spanish Cuba. See Family 223, Ward 9, Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana, on the manuscript schedules of the Ninth Census of the United States, United States National Archives (hereafter USNA), reproduced on USNA microfilm publication M593, accessed through ancestry.com.
11. See Palmer, Vernon, “The Quest to Implant the Civilian Method in Louisiana: Tracing the Origins of Judicial Methodology,” Louisiana Law Review 73(2013): 793–819 ; and Cairns, John, “Blackstone in the Bayous: Inscribing Slavery in the Louisiana Digest of 1808,” in Re-Interpreting Blackstone's Commentaries: A Seminal Text in National and International Contexts, ed. Prest, Wilf (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2014), 73–94 .
12. See Book III, Title XX, Chapter III, Section III, Article 74, A Digest of the Civil Laws Now in Force in the Territory of Orleans (1808, reprint ed. Baton Rouge: Claitors's Publishing Division, 2007): “Slaves may be prescribed for in half the time required for the prescription of immoveable estate and in the same manner and subject to the same exceptions;” and Vernon Valentine Palmer, Through the Codes Darkly: Slave Law and Civil Law in Louisiana (Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2012), 147–49. Law in the French colonies did not include the formal doctrine of freedom by prescription, generally describing apparent slaves without masters as épaves, the equivalent of flotsam, jetsam, or a shipwrecked boat, available for claiming. Even when this rule changed in the French colonies under the Restoration, the concession to freedom was grudging. Those perceived as slaves who were found not to have been properly inscribed in the census, or otherwise without a documented owner, were no longer épaves, but they were required to serve the state for another 7 years. See Section 7, Article 2, of the Ordonnance du Roi sur les recensements dans les colonies, 11 June 1839, listed as No. 91 in Annales Maritimes et Coloniales. Partie Officielle. 1839. (Paris: L'Imprimerie Royale, 1839) 552–57.
13. Palmer, Through the Codes; and “The Quest to Implant the Civilian Method in Louisiana.”
14. Many migrants from Saint-Domingue could in principle claim to have lived as free in good faith as a consequence of the emancipation ratified by the French National Convention in 1794. For an overview of reported suits, see Peabody, Sue, “‘Free upon higher ground’: Saint-Domingue Slaves’ Suits for Freedom in U.S. Courts, 1792–1830,” in The World of the Haitian Revolution, ed. Geggus, David Patrick and Fiering, Norman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 261–83.
15. Metayer v. Metayer, 6 Mart. (o.s.) 16 (La. 1819). For detailed discussions of the case, see Scott, Rebecca J., “‘She Refuses to Deliver Up Herself as the Slave of Your Petitioner’: Émigrés, Enslavement, and the 1808 Louisiana Digest of the Civil Laws,” Tulane European & Civil Law Forum 24 (2009): 115–36; and “Paper Thin: Freedom and Re-enslavement in the Diaspora of the Haitian Revolution,” Law and History Review 29 (2011): 915–24.
16. See, for example, Benjamin, Judah Philip and Slidell, Thomas, Digest of the Reported Decisions of the Superior Court of the Late Territory of Orleans, and of the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana (New Orleans: J. F. Carter, 1834), 124 , in the section titled “emancipation.”
17. Lawyers arguing against specific claims of freedom by prescription were quick to point out this apparent inconsistency. See the discussion of cases in Fede, Andrew T., Roadblocks to Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in the United States South (New Orleans: Quid Pro Books, 2011). Steven Kochevar argues that in Anglo-American property law “Adverse possession shifts title when community members perceive the adverse possessor, instead of the original titleholder, as the owner of property,” and thus functions in the long run to maximize the legitimacy of legal title itself. See Kochevar, “Adverse Possession as Localism,” Working Paper, 2015. In civil law jurisdictions, freedom by prescription functioned somewhat differently, but shared the element of community recognition. The question, however, was: Which community? That of slave traders and their clients, or that of neighbors sympathetic to a specific family's claim to freedom?
18. Partida III, Título XXIX, Ley XXIV of the Siete Partidas. Although the implicit rule in Louisiana was that those held as slaves were presumed to be slaves, a putative owner could face difficulties if he or she sought to use the law to gain actual possession of a person who claimed to be a free person. In one such suit in 1824, the Louisiana Supreme Court did confirm that slave status could not be created simply by holding a free person as a slave. See Delphine v. Deveze, Docket No. 996, Eastern District, LSC, HASCL; decision 2 Mart. (n.s.) 650 (1824). Again, there is Roman precedent: the Codex of Justinian titles a relevant section “Long Time Prescription, which may be used in favor of but not opposed to liberty.” CJ 7.22.
19. Metayer v. Metayer 6 Mart. (o.s.) 16 (La. 1819), 18. On the large scale re-enslavement of Saint-Domingue refugees in Louisiana, see Scott, Rebecca J. and Hébrard, Jean M., Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 65–70 . Many thousands of Africans brought to Brazil in violation of both international and domestic law were similarly “owned” as property in the nineteenth century, making any inquiry into status potentially delicate. See Mamigonian, Beatriz, “O Estado Nacional e a Instabilidade da Propriedade Escrava: A Lei de 1831 e a matrícula dos escravos de 1872,” Almanack 2 (2011): 20–37 ; and Chalhoub, Sidney, A força da escravidão: Ilegalidade e costume no Brasil oitocentista (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2012).
20. Despite occasional declarations that free people of color should provide written or oral proof of status, the government of the Territory of Orleans does not seem to have to have taken steps to inquire systematically into the status of individual refugees. On the categorization of arriving refugees, see Scott and Hébrard, Freedom Papers, 67–68, 210 n6.
21. On possession d’état de libre, see Dominique Rogers, “On the Road to Citizenship: The Complex Route to Integration of the Free People of Color in the Two Capitals of Saint Domingue,” in Geggus and Fiering, World of the Haitian Revolution, 65–78. This doctrine may have been in some tension with the rule that an unowned “slave” was simply property that was now épave, like a wrecked ship available for salvage. Individual judgments presumably turned on showing evidence of social standing as free. See also Adriana Chira's discussion of “tener por libre” (to take as free) in “Uneasy Intimacies: Race, Family, and Property in Santiago de Cuba, 1803–1868,” PhD diss., University of Michigan Program in Anthropology and History, 2016.
22. Kenneth Aslakson, in a recent work, argues that distinctions construed as differences in “color” could be crucial in affecting presumptions of status. He concludes that after the 1811 Louisiana Superior Court ruling in Adele v. Beauregard, a “Negro” faced the burden of proof in a freedom suit, whereas an individual deemed “of color” could invoke a presumption of free status and shift the burden of proof to the person holding him or her as a slave. See Aslakson, Kenneth R., Making Race in the Courtroom: The Legal Construction of Three Races in Early New Orleans (New York: New York University Press, 2014). Aslakson argues that this decision helped “to create a particular racial identity,” that of a “person of color,” as distinct from a “Negro.” He notes that the case was cited in six subsequent Louisiana Supreme Court decisions. However, it remains to be seen whether the reasoning in Adele v. Beauregard (which the court enunciated in part as a hypothetical) actually controlled legal presumptions and practice in a state that saw a mountain of litigation concerning slavery over the next 50 years (Aslakson, Making Race, 181). Debate is likely to continue, moreover, on whether the complex and evolving social categories of New Orleans are best captured by the idea of “three races.”
23. The 1810 events occasioned two cases in the City Court: L. Noret v. L. Meteyer, Docket No. 2093, for the recognition of the debt; and A. Metayer v. B. Cenas, Docket No. 2241, challenging the seizure by the sheriff and Noret. Both are in CA, LD, NOPL.
24. Métayé v. Noret, Parish Court, Docket No. 1035, CA, LD, NOPL. Correspondence introduced in this case suggests that at some point in her journeys, Adélaïde began to use the surname Durand. The court, however, continued to treat her as Adélaïde Métayer. For most purposes, I retain Métayer here because of its use in the testimony and on the court docket.
25. Métayé v. Noret, Parish Court, Docket No. 1035, CA, LD, NOPL. The jury foreman, René Delarue, seems to have been a French-born man much engaged in the buying and selling of slaves. (See multiple entries in Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, comp., “Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719–1820,” now accessible through ancestry.com.) One of the members of the jury may have been Jean Boulard, who in his will declared that he was the father of a “natural child” of color, born of a free woman of color. (The 1817 will of Jean Boulard is in Will Book, Vol. 3, Civil District Court, Orleans Parish, CA, LD, NOPL; digital scan accessible through ancestry.com.)
26. The Supreme Court case is Docket No. 288, Noret v. Métayer, in HASCL, UNO. The decision is 5 Mart. (o.s.) 566 (La. 1819).
27. Metayer v. Metayer, Docket No. 1589, Parish Court, CA, LD, NOPL.
28. Judge Pitot's final decision appears in the re-transcription of these proceedings in the subsequent appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court (see note 29 below). The half-sister of Pierre Métayer was a woman of color named Daine, “natural child” of Charles Métayer. Daine had once been a slave in the Métayer household and was said to have later been the ménagère of Louis Noret, a term meaning “housekeeper,” which in this context suggested sexual intimacy. There was no direct testimony suggesting rivalry between Daine and Adélaïde, and the implied hypothesis of the ménagère’s jealousy seems a less likely explanation of Louis Noret and Pierre Métayer's multi-year campaign of enslavement than bitterness about events in Saint-Domingue and sheer greed at the prospect of converting a woman and her several children into salable property.
29. The second appeal is Peter Métayer v. Adelaide f.w.c., Docket No. 318, in HASCL. The decision is Métayer v. Métayer, 6 Mart. (o.s.) 16 (La. 1819).
30. Moreau Lislet was the judge in the City Court who first authorized Louis Noret to seize “property” belonging to the late Charles Métayer in order to satisfy the alleged debt. He later represented Noret in the Orleans Parish District Court. Henry Carleton co-signed Noret's appeal bond, and represented him before the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Moreau Lislet/Carleton translation was published in New Orleans by James M'Karaher in 1820; the cited text is on page 591. The less categorical version of the prescription principle from Partida III is on pp. 386–87. See also Agustín Parise, “Introductory Essay on the Translators’ Preface to Las Siete Partidas,” Journal of Civil Law Studies 7 (2014): 311–35.
31. “Owners ought not to be subjected to support or exhibit their titles, contradictorily with their slaves.” Trudeau's Executor v. Robinette 4 Mart. (o.s.) 577 (1817) at 581. See also Schafer, Judith Kelleher, Slavery, the Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994) 224 . The decision in Trudeau's Executor v. Robinette presumed a prior finding of slave status, resting on acts of sale and the absence of a demonstrated manumission.
32. On the drafters, see Reynolds, C. Russell, “Alfonso el Sabio's Laws Survive in the Civil Code of Louisiana,” Louisiana History 12 (1971): 137–47; and Batiza, Rodolfo, “The Actual Sources of the Louisiana Projet of 1823: A General Analytical Survey,” Tulane Law Review 47 (1972) 1–115 .
33. See Louisiana Legal Archives, Vol. 1. A Republication of the Projet of the Civil Code of Louisiana of 1825 (New Orleans: T. J. Moran's Sons, 1937), 414 , in the section “Of the prescription of ten years.” Unsurprisingly, the source citation to the Siete Partidas is to the property version in Partida III, not the liberty version in Partida IV.
34. The quoted phrase is from the 1820 Moreau Lislet and Carleton translation of the Siete Partidas, Vol. 1, 387.
35. See General Assembly, Civil Code of the State of Louisiana ([New Orleans?]: Published by a Citizen of Louisiana, 1825).
36. One Louisiana lawyer argued in 1857 that any freedom gained through prescription was “inchoate;” un-perfected unless there had been judicial process. Hence despite the passage of the requisite number of years, the claimant could be denied access to the status of a free person. See “Police Matters,” Daily Picayune, July 9, 1857, 1; also cited by Shafer, Judith Kelleher, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846–1862 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 67 , who identifies the argument with attorney Alexander P. Field.
37. Eulalie Oliveau's family history is documented in judicial, property, and inheritance records now held in the Office of the Clerk of the Court, Pointe Coupée Parish, New Roads, Louisiana; in sacramental records in the archives of the Diocese of Baton Rouge; and in the notarial records of New Orleans, as well as in the case files cited in notes 39, 40 and 41 below. Her experience is analyzed in detail in Rebecca J. Scott, “Unlawful Powers: The Making and Breaking of Property in Persons,” manuscript in preparation.
38. Esneault did not try to offer this document as proof of ownership, and most of his neighbors apparently had no knowledge of it. See Vente d'esclaves Par Ve Simon Porche à Louis Esneault, March 31, 1849, Filed for record, April 23, 1849, Act 998, Property Records, 1849, Office of the Clerk of the Court, Pointe Coupée Parish.
39. See the testimony of David M. Matthews about “Mr. Heno” in Eulalie, f.w.c., et al v. Long et al, Docket No. 3979, LSC, HASCL.
40. Eulalie and her children v. Long & Mabry, 9 La. Ann 9 (1854). By the time the case reached the First District Court on remand, a different trial judge had been seated.
41. Most of the original testimony in Eulalie & her descendants vs. Long & Mabry, Docket No. 8668, First District Court, CA, LD, NOPL, is re-transcribed in Eulalie, f.w.c. et al v. Long et al., Docket No. 3979, in LSC, HASCL.
42. See the report of the trial judge's statements in “Local Intelligence,” The Daily True Delta (New Orleans), December 16, 1854. On the punishment for inciting discontent, see “An Act to punish the crimes therein mentioned, and for other purposes,” Approved March 16, 1830, in Louisiana, Acts at the Second Session of the Ninth Legislature, 96–97.
43. For a careful exploration of this alleged bar to the suit, see Ananda Burra, “The Exception of ‘No Cause of Action’: Procedural Barriers to a Prescriptive Claim of Freedom From Slavery,” research paper prepared for the seminar “The Law in Slavery and Freedom,” University of Michigan Law School, AY2013/ 2014, revised version February 2, 2014.
44. Eulalie, f.w.c., et al v. Long et al, Docket No. 3979, LSC, HASCL.
45. Eulalie and Her Descendants v. Long & Mabry 11 La. Ann. 463 (1856). See concurrence by Spofford, J. and Lea, J.
46. For the official printing of the decision, and the headnote in question, see Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in The Supreme Court of Louisiana, vol. XI, For the Year 1856, W. M. Randolph, Reporter (New Orleans: Printed at the Offices of the Louisiana Courier, 1857), 463–64.
47. For a recent discussion of Somerset, see Minter, Patricia Hagler, “‘The State of Slavery’: Somerset, The Slave, Grace, and the Rise of Pro-Slavery and Anti-Slavery Constitutionalism in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World,” Slavery & Abolition 36 (2015): 603–17.
48. On the 1868 Constitution, see Scott, Rebecca J., “Public Rights, Social Equality, and the Conceptual Roots of the Plessy Challenge,” Michigan Law Review 106 (2008): 777–804 .
49. See Family 60, Twelfth Ward, Parish of Pointe Coupée, Louisiana , Ninth Census of the United States, USNA, reproduced on USNA Microcopy 593, accessed through ancestry.com.
50. Marr filed his own appeal for admission to the bar in conjunction with the United States Supreme Court case Ex parte Garland 71 U.S. 333. On the New Orleans bar, see Ross, Michael, “Obstructing Reconstruction: John Archibald Campbell and the Legal Campaign against Louisiana's Republican Government,” Civil War History 49 (2003): 235–53.
51. Lane, Charles, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction (New York: Henry Holt, 2008). For an admiring account of the insurrection, and Marr's role in it, see Louisiana State Museum, Carpet-Bag Misrule in Louisiana: The Tragedy of the Reconstruction Era Following the War between the States (New Orleans: Louisiana State Museum, 1938).
52. On Hall v. DeCuir and the challenge to the state's antidiscrimination statutes see Scott, “Public Rights.”
53. Eulalie and Her Descendants v. Long & Mabry 11 La. Ann. 463 (1856). Concurrence by Spofford, J. and Lea, J.
She thanks Leonardo Barbosa, Bethany Berger, Richard Brooks, Kathryn Burns, Ananda Burra, Bridgette Carr, John Cairns, Sidney Chalhoub, Adriana Chira, Brian Costello, Alejandro de la Fuente, Sam Erman, Hussein Fancy, Bruce Frier, Malick Ghachem, Thavolia Glymph, Allison Gorsuch, Ryan Greenwood, Keila Grinberg, Sarah L. H. Gronningsater, Ariela Gross, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Hendrik Hartog, Jean Hébrard, Marial Iglesias Utset, Martha S. Jones, Steven Kochevar, Noel Lenski, Beatriz Mamigonian, Olivier Moréteau, Mariana Dias Paes, Agustín Parise, Edgardo Pérez-Morales, Vernon Palmer, Lawrence Powell, Claire Priest, Peter Railton, Dominique Rogers, Michael Ross, Jean-Frédéric Schaub, Thomas Scott-Railton, Scott Shapiro, Kimberly Welch, John Witt, and participants in seminars at Stanford University, the Radcliffe Institute, Yale University, and the University of Toronto for suggestions and feedback. She also thanks Juliet Pazera and Sybil Thomas at the New Orleans Notarial Archives Research Center; Irene Wainwright and Greg Osborn at the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library; Florence Jumonville at the University of New Orleans Library; and the staff of the Office of the Clerk of the Court, Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana, for being generous with their time; and Jeanette Diuble, Bryan LaPointe, and Andrew Walker for helping to transcribe case files. Finally, she gives special thanks to the anonymous reviewers of Law and History Review.
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