Map of Cuba, with North West Region highlighted
Collections Rylands Reflects Series

Rylands Reflects: Whiter than white? Enriqueta Rylands’s Cuban roots

Part of the ‘Rylands reflects’ series, this blog-post focuses on the Cuban childhood and family background of Enriqueta Rylands (1843-1908), founder of the John Rylands Library.

By Elizabeth Gow, Special Collections Manuscript Curator and Archivist. The Rylands Reflects series explores 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 third post of an ongoing series.

Part of the ‘Rylands reflects’ series, this blog-post focuses on the Cuban childhood and family background of Enriqueta Rylands (1843-1908), founder of the John Rylands Library. This marble statue in the Historic Reading Room, portrays Rylands, like her husband, in the purest of whites. But what was her racial background? Does her childhood help us to think about the ways white supremacy is written into the John Rylands Library?

Statue in the John Rylands Libary of Enriqueta Rylands, carved in white Carrara marble by John Cassidy, 1907.

Enriqueta Augustina Tennant was born on 31 May 1843 in Matanzas, Cuba, then under Spanish colonial rule. Her mother, Juana Camila Dalcour (1818-1855), was also born in Cuba. She was not Spanish-Cuban, but came from French and Scottish roots. Her family had built up huge wealth trading in land and sugar, profiting from slavery and the exploitation of indigenous peoples in the southern states of America and in Cuba. Enriqueta’s father, Stephen Cattley Tennant (1800-1848), was a British merchant from a Leeds family, with a shipping business in Liverpool. In his 20s, Stephen moved to Havana, Cuba, to look after his family’s business interests. Like most trans-Atlantic merchants, the family profited from sugar, cotton, tobacco and timber – goods produced by the labour of enslaved people.

When Enriqueta was five, her life changed dramatically. On a business trip to England in 1848, her father died in a railway accident. The following year, his unnamed heirs (including presumably the six-year-old Enriqueta) were registered as British slave-owners in Havana. They owned an unknown number of “house slaves”, who were “hired out” – rented to other slave holders for a profit. It is likely that their mother also owned slaves independently of her husband, but as she wasn’t a British subject she wasn’t included in the report. In 1850, Enriqueta’s Cuban childhood came to an end. Juana Dalcour sailed with her daughters for New York (her son would join them later). There she married Julian Fontana, the pianist and Polish exile she had met in Havana. The family moved to Paris, living among radicals and artists. But they were still living from the proceeds of slavery, apparently receiving an income from Juana’s share in the sugar plantation and mill, La Reunion Deseada. When Juana died in 1855, Enriqueta and her twin were 12. The widowed Fontana went to Cuba where he tried, and failed, to seek Juana’s inheritance. Enriqueta’s sixteen-year-old sister Sofia died there in 1859. The younger children, including her half-brother Jules Fontana, were sent to live with members of the Tennant family in England.

G. W. Colton, Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico (New York, 1857). David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries., licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Licence.

Enriqueta was born at the height of Cuba’s era of “sugar and slavery.” In the weeks before her birth (and that of her twin brother), people enslaved on sugar plantations nearby began to rise up against their owners, and against other white Cubans. Increasing white paranoia led to claims of a conspiracy of British abolitionists with free blacks and slaves, which became known as the Escalera. The Spanish authorities responded with terror and violence. Not long after Enriqueta’s birth, her family moved to the relative security of Havana. Here, Stephen and Juana engaged in the literary, political and musical high life, meeting the Polish pianist Julian Fontana.

As a “white creole” in Cuba, Enriqueta Tennant had been born into wealth and privilege. By her teens she was in a precarious position both financially and socially. In Victorian Britain, creole heiresses were subject to discrimination even while they were tolerated for their wealth. Enriqueta did not have independent wealth, nor did she immediately marry into riches. Instead, she became a ‘companion’ to Martha, the second wife of John Rylands. This was an unpaid role usually given to young women without an independent income. After Martha died, some years later, Enriqueta married John Rylands. In the notice of their marriage, she was identified as the ‘eldest surviving daughter of Stephen Cattley Tennant, Esq. of Liverpool and Havana, Cuba.’ But she wasn’t proud of her Cuban roots in the same way she was proud of her Manchester connections. Only after her death was she claimed in Cuba as a ‘Una Habanera Altruista’ (a Havana philanthropist). Inheriting vast wealth from her husband, Enriqueta Rylands reappropriated the privileges of whiteness, and one of those privileges was perhaps that of forgetting. The Library she founded was devoid of references to Cuba or to her childhood.

By referring to the founder of the Library as Mrs. Rylands, we hide one of the few clues to her heritage, her forenames: Enriqueta Augustina. These names are however displayed with pride in the scroll which marks the ultimate accolade for an adopted Mancunian – the Freedom of the City of Manchester. The contribution Rylands made to Manchester and the world of books should be explored and celebrated. But we must also remember how different her story might have been if she had not been born white.

This Freedom of the City of Manchester scroll presented to Mrs Enriqueta Rylands in October 1899.

Find out more

Raul Ruiz, ‘Mrs Rylands’s Cuban Origins’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 85.1 (2003), 121–26.

Catherine Davies, ‘Stephen Cattley Tennant, 1800-48’, Bulletin of John Rylands University Library Manchester, 85.2 (2003), 115–20.

Cecilio Tieles, ‘Julián Fontana: El Introductor de Chopin en Cuba’, Revista de Musicología, 11.1 (1988), 123 (in Spanish).

Jonathan Curry-Machado, ‘How Cuba Burned with the Ghosts of British Slavery: Race, Abolition and the Escalera’, Slavery and Abolition, 25.1 (2004), 71–93.

Aisha K. Finch, Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015)

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