By Dr Natalie Zacek, American Studies, University of Manchester. The Rylands Reflects series will explore the history of the John Rylands Library, our collections, and our current practice as heritage professionals in the context of racism, colonisation and representation of marginalised groups. This is the second post of an ongoing series.
In recent years, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has encouraged universities and cultural institutions around the world to examine the ways in which their founding and flourishing was aided by the Atlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery, or by the profits thereof. In the Manchester context, it is appropriate that any such enquiry begin with the John Rylands Library: not only was Rylands one of Victorian Britain’s leading manufacturers of cotton, some of which was cultivated by enslaved men and women on plantations in the Americas, but his wife Enriqueta, the Library’s founder, was born in Cuba at the height of its era of “sugar and slavery.” Enriqueta’s childhood and family background is explored in the next post in this series: “Whiter than white: Enriqueta Rylands’s Cuban roots”. This post focuses on the monetary foundations of the John Rylands Library, the cotton business of John Rylands.
Although John Rylands left a substantial archive (part of the Library’s collections: Rylands and Sons Archive, GB 133 RYL), it includes no hints of his personal views of slavery. It’s worth noting that in 1845 Rylands & Sons offered its customers the option to purchase “free grown cotton” along with its standard product, which was, by implication, cultivated by enslaved labourers, but the company’s motivations for doing so are unclear. It is possible that John Rylands had some sympathy for the abolitionist cause, and hoped to convince his customers to choose commodities generated by free labour; on the other hand, he may have been a canny businessman who was aware that many of his fellow Britons, including a large number of the inhabitants of Greater Manchester, detested slavery, even as practiced in other nations, and hoped to retain their custom by providing them with a guilt-free option, rather than causing them to boycott his products. It is quite plausible that Rylands’ actions were motivated by both of these ideas. Although he was willing to trade in slave-produced commodities, he also appears to have had some sympathy with the enslaved. He owned a copy of the Special Report of the Anti-Slavery Conference (R20358), an account of a meeting held in 1867 in Paris, and in January 1876 his name appears on the list of patrons of a series of concerts held at the Manchester Free Trade Hall by the “Jubilee Singers, emancipated slaves of Fisk University, USA.” The Jubilee Singers’ performance of “Quaint hymns and melodies” may have been particularly appealing to him, as he was a collector of hymns. A copy of the Special Report has been digitised by the Hathi Trust here.
It is, however, beyond doubt that the firm of Rylands and Sons, whose profits underwrote the creation of the Library, was intimately connected to the practice of slavery in the Americas. The great majority of the cotton which this and other Lancastrian firms imported for processing was grown in the American South, and nearly all of it was picked by enslaved men, women, and children. The extent to which Rylands and his fellow textile manufacturers were reliant upon slave-grown Southern cotton is clear from the fact that, after the outbreak of the American Civil War and the blockade of Confederate seaports by Union gunboats, the entire region suffered what became known as the “Cotton Famine.” As supplies dried up, factory owners laid off their workers, many of whom suffered tremendous hardship and were forced to rely upon private charity or public works projects to support themselves and their families. Although many of these “operatives” had little education, and some were illiterate, most were well aware of the reasons underlying the “Famine,” and knowledgeable about the connections between the Southern plantation and the Lancashire factory. This understanding was the cause of the famous meeting held at the Free Trade Hall on New Year’s Eve of 1862, at which the working men and women present expressed their support of President Lincoln’s blockade, of the war, and of the struggle to end slavery—despite the fact that these events were the source of great suffering for them.
But although they and many of their fellow Mancunians were actively opposed to slavery, the city’s rise to a position of unprecedented wealth and power within Britain was due primarily to the flourishing of cotton manufacturing and associated industries. The Library is just one of many buildings in and around the city, public and private alike, which is closely connected to slave-grown commodities.