Creating a digital archive of Afro-Colombian history and culture: black ecclesiastical, governmental and private records from the Chocó, Colombia
Project Director: Dr. Pablo Gómez, University of Wisconsin
With the support of a British Library Endangered Archives Grant (EAP 255) , this project has recovered, catalogued, digitized and made freely available to researchers through the internet, approximately 100,000 ecclesiastic, governmental and personal records of African and Afro-descendant communities in the Chocó region of Western Colombia.
Thousands of African slaves were forcibly transported to the Chocó to exploit the gold and silver mines in the basin of the Atrato River. The Afro-descendant communities of the Chocó live in one of the poorest and more dangerous areas of Colombia, and of the entire Americas. There, not only paramilitaries and guerrillas, but also the brutal conditions of the tropical forest in which most of the territory is located, have damaged centuries of church and official records going back to the fifteenth century. Probably more than in any other place in America, the surviving records in the Chocó were in imminent danger of being lost forever, making the preservation of these records urgent. In peril were materials dating from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries that hold the memory of the most African region in the Americas. The history of this population has been, for the most part, ignored in Colombian and Latin American historiography and is waiting to be written. The documents rescued represent the longest, and most uniform, serial data available for the study of Afro-Colombians. Furthermore, they hold the only available systematic data on African ethnicities in Colombia, information of use for nations in West and West Central Africa who lost populations to the slave trade.
The archival materials digitized through this project include those of the First Notary of Quibdó, the Notary of Buenaventura, the Parochial Archive of Tadó and the Parochial Archive of Novitá. The project will also digitize the badly deteriorated records of the San Francisco de Asissi Cathedral in Quibdó, capital of the Chocó. The documents in these local churches and notarial offices were uncatalogued and piled on floors or open shelves in rooms without climate or humidity control. Clerks often discarded these treasures as “old papers.” At least 5% of the documents overall were in a very advanced state of deterioration, and 50% showed some degree of deterioration. Particularly problematic were the records of the Notary of Buenaventura. Probably more than in any other place in America, the surviving records in the Chocó were in imminent danger of being lost forever due to the region’s extreme tropical climate and the volatile socio-economic conditions of the Chocó.
The Centro Nacional de Documentación y Estudios de las Culturas Afrocolombianas (National Center for the Documentation and Studies of the Afrocolombians cultures, hereafter, CNDECA) at the Technological University of the Chocó (TUC), in the department capital, Quibdó, spent three years locating material in urgent need of preservation throughout the western Colombian Pacific Coast. This institution, however, did not have the resources or technical knowledge to organize, digitize, and preserve the thousands of folios in immediate danger of disappearance that they located. The British Library project combined the local knowledge and identification of archives in the Chocó by the people from the CNDECA, with the know-how of a team already experienced in Cuba and Brazil in the preservation of colonial documents related to the African Diaspora---the ESSSS project directed by Jane Landers , at Vanderbilt University.
Funding from the British Library enabled experts from Texas Christian University, Vanderbilt University, and Michigan State University to train local historians, archivists and university students from the Chocó in paleography, transcription, basic preservation and digitization techniques, and basic collections and grant management. Once trained, team members from the Chocó created high-resolution digital images that have now been stored on multiple drives, copied on disk and magnetic tape to ensure their long term preservation, and made available via Vanderbilt Library’s Digital Collections webpage.
* The image above is of a workshop carried out in Quibdó and was taken by David LaFevor of Vanderbilt University
Creating a Digital Archive of a Circum-Caribbean Trading Entrepôt: Notarial Records from La Guajira
Project Director: Dr. Jane Landers, Vanderbilt University
With the support of a British Library Endangered Archives Programme grant (EAP 503), Jane Landers is digitizing some 100,000 notarial records from the city of Riohacha, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and the peninsula of La Guajira. The understudied Guajira peninsula has significance for the history of Colombia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Atlantic World. Riohacha was founded in 1545 by Ambrosio Alfinger, an agent of the Welsers, an important German merchant family. In the XVI and XVII centuries the area's rich pearl beds attracted English, Dutch, French and Spanish smugglers. Later La Guajira became an important cattle-producing area where large-scale ranchers created great wealth based upon slave labor. By the 18th century Riohacha had become the provincial capital. This region remained an important entrepôt for both legal and contraband trade in slaves, gold, and other commodities. The endangered records of Riohacha offer unique information on the economic and social history of the region and will contribute to scholarship on Latin American, the Atlantic world, the circum-Caribbean, slavery and borderlands studies.
The Notaria Primera (First Archive) holds materials that document the region's rich commercial and social history. These include documents for the purchase and sale of public and private properties from both urban and rural settings; land petitions and adjudication of disputes over public and private lands; documents pertaining to the formation of merchant societies and to the commercial exchanges among Spaniards, foreigners, and indigenous Guajiros; slave sales and purchases, as well as manumission documents; wills and testaments of the most important families in the region which detail social and political alliances and the formation of wealth. The appreciation of the importance of archival collections as an important patrimony of the greater Caribbean is only now developing in Colombia, with some preservation efforts being made in Cartagena, Santa Marta and Valledupar. Other areas of Colombia, such as Riohacha, lack any archival organisation to preserve these precious, and rapidly disappearing, materials. The endangered notarial documents of Riohacha are the administrative responsibility of a public notary, but because they are public records, anyone can consult them.
The Riohacha documents are in a precarious condition. Local temperatures reach the high 90s and materials are stored on aluminium and iron shelving, which when exposed to the humidity produces an oxide that damages the documents. Humidity and fungus also threaten the integrity of the documents. An estimated 25-30% of the documents are beyond saving, but 70-75% could be digitised and, thus, preserved. Unfortunately, no Colombian agency is preserving these documents and the archive allows open access. "Old" documents have been discarded. The recent resurgence of paramilitary and government violence also threaten these documents.
Adding to the importance of these documents is the fact that Colombia still struggles with the legacy of slavery. Approximately one-fourth of the nation has African ancestry and yet their history has been largely ignored. Recently, there is a growing interest in Colombia's multi-racial past and the Colombian Constitution requires inclusion of Afro-Colombian history in school curricula. The documents that will be rescued will enrich the national and regional narrative by capturing a multi-racial frontier society that included enslaved and free people of African descent as well as many other ethnic groups.
Copies of the records will be freely accessible through the internet on a website maintained by Vanderbilt University. Copies will also be deposited with the University of Cartagena, the archive of the Notaria Primera of Riohacha and with the British Library.