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.
Today marks the birthday of the founder of the John Rylands Library, Enriqueta Augustina Rylands née Tennant, born on 31 May 1843 in Matanzas, Cuba. This post continues our investigation of Enriqueta’s Cuban heritage, which I introduced in Whiter than white? The focus here is her first home: the plantation and sugar mill called ‘La Reunion Deseada’.
Where was La Reunion Deseada?
La Reunion Deseada was near the port town of Matanzas, on the northwest coast of Cuba. In the 19th century, Matanzas province became one of the world’s main producers of cane sugar. La Reunion Deseada was about 10 kilometers to the southeast of the town. In the centre of this map of Matanzas Bay, it is labelled as ‘Forbes’ and ‘Belle chausse’. It was well connected: close to the river Canimar and a main road – the Camino Real. The railway shown on this map was built in the early 1840s.
Who lived there?
The name of the plantation translates to ‘The Desired Reunion.’ It reflected the bringing together of three families, who came to Cuba from the southern states of North America in about 1814. Three men had a share in the plantation. Enriqueta’s great-grandfather, John Forbes (1767-1823), was a Scottish trader. His daughter Sophia (see portrait) was married to Francesco Dalcour (1782-1838), the second shareholder. The third partner was Joseph Bellechasse (1761-1840), who was married to Francesco’s sister Adelaide. Joseph and Francesco were both from French families in New Orleans, and had fought for the Spanish against the English and American armies. The Dalcour family motto was ‘Le Bon Temps Reviendra’ (Let the Good Times Roll).
It was the second generation – the children of Francesco and Sophia and of Joseph and Adelaide – who were most closely connected to La Reunion Deseada. They were born, married, and had children in Matanzas. Enriqueta’s mother Camilla and her aunt Adelaide married British merchants (see Our Man in Havana and An anniversary post). Other marriages consolidated the family’s position in the French-American elite. Camilla’s sister Catalina married their cousin Jean Luis Bellechasse, and Laura married their second cousin Barthelemy Olivier. Her brothers Augustin and Teodore married the sisters Clarita and Sidonie de Bullet.
‘[she] grew up in the midst of the sugar world; she was surrounded by sugar cane plantations, refineries and mills, large barrels, clear brandy… However, she was also surrounded by hundreds of human beings, treated as merchandise by the shameful practice of slavery.’Raul Ruiz, ‘Mrs Rylands’s Cuban Origins’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 85.1 (2003), p.123.
The quote above from Cuban historian Raul Ruiz is about Camilla, but it applies equally to her daughter Enriqueta. These white families were not the only people living at La Reunion Deseada. They were far outnumbered by people forced into slavery or indentured labour. Enslaved people, largely of African descent, were made to work on the plantations: growing, picking and processing sugar, and waiting on the white families who benefited from their labour.
What was it like?
Although Enriqueta never wrote about her early childhood, and there are no images of La Reunion Deseada, we do have a clue about how she might have seen her surroundings. In 1870, Narciso and Alfonso, the sons of the Cuban revolutionary General Ambrosio José Gonzales (1818-1893), came to stay at La Reunion Deseada. Narciso, aged 12, wrote to his aunt:
…it has a fine house much better than the one here, a grassy yard with a plenty of trees in it & many other things that we like… we had a splendid time of it, romping playing & reading… there is a nice library & plenty of books in the house & I sincerely hope they will be left there when they go away so that I may have a chance to read them all.Letter from ‘Nanno’ (Narciso Gonzales) to ‘Emmie’, 29 July 1870, Elliott and Gonzales Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina
Such blissful blindness to the exploitation that underpinned the sugar business is typical of pictures of other Matanzas plantations. What Enriqueta saw or remembered is impossible to say. While she probably did not inherit more than a small amount of money from the plantation, her sense of herself would have been shaped by this upbringing steeped in white supremacy.
In less than a century, the families that came together at La Reunion Deseada had dispersed. Enriqueta’s mother was the first to leave Cuba for good. By the late 1870s, the reunion had collapsed, the families dispersed across America and Europe. But the history of La Reunion Deseada maps to important episodes in the history of Cuba.
1814? La Reunion Deseada founded. The early years of the Sugar rush in Cuba.
1815 Matanzas becomes capital of the province.
1817 Sophia Forbes married Francisco Dalcour.
1818 Custom House built in Matanzas
1823 John Forbes died. Francisco Dalcour was his executor.
1838 Francisco Dalcour died. Stephen Tennant was his executor.
1840? Joseph Bellechasse died.
1840 Camilla Dalcour married Stephen Tennant in Matanzas Cathedral.
Stephen brought to the marriage 4000 pesos. Camilla brought 24,934 pesos, about 200 enslaved persons, furniture, and ‘the fifth part of the third part’ of La Reunion Deseada valued at 146,766 pesos.
1843 Enriqueta and her twin brother baptized in Matanzas Cathedral.
1843-4 Matanzas was at the centre of La Escalera, an alleged slave uprising, which was followed by a period of brutal repression known as the Year of the Lash. Enriqueta moved with her immediate family to Havana.
1848 The ‘heirs of Stephen Tennant’ (including Enriqueta) listed as British residents at Havana owning enslaved people.
1850 Enriqueta left Havana for New York with her mother and sisters. Her brother may have been at an American school.
1855 Enriqueta’s mother died in Paris. Her uncle Augustin Dalcour was buying-up shares in La Reunion Deseada.
1857 Enriqueta’s stepfather Jules Fontana tried (but failed) to claim Camilla’s 10% share in the plantation.
1868-1878 Ten Years War – the first Cuban War of Independence
1870 Augustin Dalcour left for Baltimore with his wife and six children
1870 Narciso and Alfonso Gonzales stayed at La Reunion Deseada, with Teodoro Dalcour
1893-1898 Second Cuban War of Independence. La Reunion Deseada had been abandoned.
Find out more
Raul Ruiz, ‘Mrs Rylands’s Cuban Origins’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 85.1 (2003), 121–26.
Discussion of ‘Vista de Una Casa de Calderas’ at the website Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora.
Lorena Tezanos Toral, ‘The Architecture of Nineteenth-Century Cuban Sugar Mills: Creole Power and African Resistance in Late Colonial Cuba’ (PhD thesis, The City University of New York, 2015).
Charles Burroughs, ‘The Plantation Landscape and Its Architecture: Classicism, Representation and Slavery’, in Buen Gusto and Classicism in the Visual Cultures of Latin America, 1780-1910, edited by Paul B. Niell and Stacie G. Widdifield (UNM Press, 2013), pp. 114–36.
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)
Sarah L. Franklin, Women and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century Colonial Cuba (University of Rochester Press, 2012).
Index of Baptisms at Matanzas Cathedral, Cuban Genealogy Club of Florida.
Elizabeth Gow: ‘Enriqueta Rylands: from Cuba to Manchester’, online discussion from the Instituto Cervantes: