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 fourth post of an ongoing series.
In ‘Whiter than White’ I considered the Cuban childhood of Enriqueta Rylands, the founder of the John Rylands Library. This post considers how Enriqueta’s father and his British compatriots were complicit in the oppression of enslaved people in Cuba.
Enriqueta’s father, Stephen Cattley Tennant (1800-1848), was born and brought up in Leeds, England. After finishing his schooling (probably at Leeds Grammar) he went to Liverpool to join the shipping business established by his father and brother. In 1823, the year John Rylands began business in Manchester, Stephen left Liverpool to establish a branch of the family firm in Havana, Cuba, then under Spanish Colonial rule. Over the next two decades, Stephen travelled extensively, especially between Havana, Charleston (capital of the American slave trade) and New York. The company’s ships transported sugar and sweetmeats between Havana and Liverpool, and almost certainly transported other goods produced by enslaved labourers, such as timber, cotton and tobacco. However, it was not only by trading in Cuban goods that White Britons profited from and perpetuated systems of slavery.
While the British have often seen themselves as leading the suppression of the ‘slave trade’, it was arguably their occupation of Havana in 1762 that precipitated the growth of slavery in Cuba. By 1817, trade in slaves – though not slavery itself – was illegal across most of the Caribbean. However, people trafficking continued, feeding the domestic slave trade in the United States of America and clandestine trading across the region. Despite legislation, or perhaps even because of it, the exploitation of enslaved people became more financially profitable than ever. When Stephen arrived in Cuba, the sugar plantation system and the system of slavery on which it depended were expanding rapidly.
Stephen lived in Havana, a bustling port city populated by free and enslaved Africans and their descendants (classified by the colonial authorities into racial categories), white ‘Creoles’ (usually Spanish Cubans) and Spanish natives, as well as foreigners such as himself. Stephen moved in artistic and liberal circles, living on the street where the Philharmonic Society met. He was a sponsor of the Revista Bimestre Cubana, a progressive anti-slavery periodical. However, this liberal outlook did not stop his involvement in the exploitation of enslaved Africans through trade in produce. Nor did any anti-slavery sentiment stand in the way of his marriage in 1840 to Juana Camila Dalcour (1818-1855). Juana had inherited a share in a sugar plantation and refinery near Matanzas, where Enriqueta was born three years later.
Despite his association with the Cuban creole elite, Stephen remained part of a network of British subjects. Some of these, including William Henry Forbes (his mother-in-law’s cousin), had moved to Cuba from the British West Indies to avoid anti-slavery legislation. They forcibly transported men, women and children who should have been freed in 1838 when slavery was abolished in the British Empire. Others campaigned against slavery, motivated by both ethical and economic concerns. One of Stephen’s acquaintances, David Turnbull (1793?-1851), was a key figure in the abolitionist movement. He took up the case of James Thompson, a free British subject of African descent who had been kidnapped from the Bahamas and sold into slavery in Cuba. In 1841 Turnbull invited ‘the leading English residents’ in Havana to meet Thompson. ‘Mr. Tennant’ expressed ‘sympathy’ but did nothing to help, in case his own interests might be damaged. The text extract below is a rare piece of evidence documenting Stephen and his compatriots in Cuba:
Increasing tensions pitted the Spanish authorities and white Creole elite against slaves and British ‘agitators’. Turnbull was expelled from Cuba and was later accused of leading the ‘conspiracy’ which led to the 1843 uprisings (see Whiter than White). Thompson eventually escaped to Jamaica. Stephen died in November 1848 in a railway accident on the outskirts of London. There has been some suggestion of foul play, that he was perhaps targeted for conspiring against the Spanish authorities in Cuba. But I have seen no evidence that he had been involved in agitation for either anti-slavery or independence. Enriqueta left Havana with her mother in 1850, but family connections continued to tie her to Cuba. Her father had chosen as his executor Robert Morison (1791-1873), another British merchant in Havana. Like Stephen, Robert had expressed ‘sympathy’ for James Thompson but refused to meet him. The year Robert died, his son married Enriqueta’s youngest sister, in a ceremony witnessed by Enriqueta Tennant and John Rylands. The founder of the John Rylands Library may have left Havana when she was seven, but I’m not sure that Cuba ever left her.
Find out more
Davies, Catherine, ‘Stephen Cattley Tennant, 1800-48’, Bulletin of John Rylands University Library Manchester, 85.2 (2003), 115–120.
Curry-Machado, Jonathan, ‘How Cuba Burned with the Ghosts of British Slavery: Race, Abolition and the Escalera’, Slavery and Abolition, 25.1 (2004), 71–93.
Schneider, Elena, ‘African Slavery and Spanish Empire’, Journal of Early American History, 5.1 (2015), 3–29.
Franklin, Sarah L., Women and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century Colonial Cuba (University of Rochester Press, 2012).
Llorca-Jaña, Manuel, ‘Turnbull, David (1793?–1851), Journalist and Slavery Abolitionist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2009).
Murray, David R., Odious Commerce: Britain, Spain and the Abolition of the Cuban Slave Trade (Cambridge University Press, 2002).