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Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies

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About the Project

Document fragments from church archives in Cuba
Document fragments from church archives in Cuba

The ESSSS project is dedicated to identifying, cataloguing, and digitally preserving endangered archival materials documenting the history of Africans and Afro-descended peoples in the Iberian colonies. ESSSS currently has projects in Colombia, Cuba and Brazil. The project is directed by Jane Landers and is administered at Vanderbilt University.

The Catholic Church mandated the baptism of African slaves in the fifteenth century and extended this requirement across the Catholic Americas. Baptismal records thus became the longest, and most uniform, serial data available for the history of Africans in the Americas. Once baptized, Africans and their descendants were also eligible for the sacraments of marriage and Christian burial. Through membership in the Catholic Church, Africans and their descendants also generated a host of other religious records such as confirmations, petitions to wed, wills, and even, on occasion, divorce actions. In the Iberian colonies, Africans joined church brotherhoods organized along ethnic lines, through which they recorded not only ceremonial and religious aspects of their lives, but also their social, political, and economic networks.

Ecclesiastical sources are, therefore, the longest, and most uniform, serial data available for the history of Africans in the Americas, and many are in perilous condition. Most are held in religious archives or local churches, at risk from climate, bug infestation, and other damage. Too often, lay persons or parish priests are their only guardians, and most of these well-meaning individuals are unaware of the historic significance of the documents they manage, or how fragile they are. Sadly, there are few resources available for preserving these treasures and if not captured quickly, some may be lost forever. The dispersed nature of the records also makes them difficult for scholars to access, especially those scholars whose countries can offer little research support. Most have never been seen by scholars and if not captured quickly, will never be seen.

Also significant for the history of slave societies are the secular records of African and Afro-descendant communities found in the municipal and provincial archives of Cuba, Brazil, and Colombia. Most are in terrible peril.

The municipal and provincial records documenting the slave society that was Matanzas, Cuba begin in the early 16th century and run to the end of the 19th century. They include notarial records, civil contracts, and the secular records of Spanish colonial administrators. They yield demographic statistics as well as information on ethnicity, resistance, occupations, property, the economy of free and enslaved Africans and more. Unfortunately, Cuba’s tropical climate and lack of resources for preservation mean that Matanzas’ vast archival patrimony is deteriorating at an alarming rate.

The Chocó region of western Colombia is one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the Americas. In addition to the common problems caused by tropical weather and lack of resources for preservation, civil war and paramilitary activity have helped destroyed centuries of historical records. Many of the region’s archival materials are dispersed, uncatalogued and piled on floors or open shelves in rooms without climate or humidity control and at-risk from bug infestation and mold. The Chocó’s extreme tropical climate and the volatile socio-economic conditions of this Colombian region make the preservation of these records urgent.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the rich pearl beds of the understudied Guajira peninsula attracted English, Dutch, French and Spanish smugglers. Later, La Guajira became an important cattle ranching area based upon slave labor. As in other areas humidity, fungus, and oxides threaten the integrity of the records and “old” documents have been discarded. The recent resurgence of paramilitary and government violence also threaten archival treasures that document land and slave sales, civil disputes, the formation of merchant societies, wills and testaments of the most important families in the region, and their manumission of slaves.

See also:

Mariza Soares, Jane Landers, Paul E. Lovejoy and Andrew McMichael, "Slavery in Ecclesiastical Archives: Preserving the Records," Hispanic American Historical Review 86, 2 (2006): 337-346.

Angela Sutton, "Disappearing Documents: Guerilla Preservation in Latin America (An interview with Dr. Jane Landers and Pablo Gomez of Vanderbilt University, and Dr. Mariza de Carvalho Soares of Fluminese Federal University, Rio de Janiero.)," History Compass Exchanges.