Phase I: Ecclesiastical Sources and Historical Research on the African Diaspora in Brazil and Cuba
In 2003 the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Jane Landers of Vanderbilt University, Mariza de Carvalho Soares, of the Universidade Federal Fluminense (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), and Paul E. Lovejoy, of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples, York University (Toronto, Canada), a two-year Collaborative Research Grant of $150,000 to fund the project entitled “Ecclesiastical Sources and Historical Research on the African Diaspora in Brazil and Cuba.”
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.
At the project's conclusion in 2005, more than 120,000 images of rich, underutilized, and at-risk ecclesiastical sources for Africans and persons of African descent in Brazil and Cuba had been preserved and stored at Vanderbilt University.
Phase II: Pilot project to identify endangered African diaspora collections at the major archives of the province of Matanzas, Cuba
Dr. Oscar Grandío Moráguez, University of North Florida
During the nineteenth century, Matanzas became the center of Cuban sugar production, which influenced a high demand for slave labour. The territory became the major destination for African slaves in Cuba. This explains why Matanzas currently holds the most valuable documents related to the history of enslaved Africans and their descendants in Cuba. Matanzas' records are among the longest serial data available for the history of Africans in Cuba. The region's archives are very rich in all kind of information on the African populations living in Matanzas, beginning in the early 16th century to the end of the 19th century, including demographic statistics, information on ethnicity, resistance, occupations, property, economy of free and enslaved Africans, etc. Colonial Spanish administration, churches, estates, and notaries offices originated this documentation.
These materials are unique and their condition perilous. Most of the collections are about to disappear, due to the extremely bad conditions in which they are deposited. Cuba's weather is hot and wet, which makes conservation a difficult task. Matanzas' archives lack financing and therefore do not have access to the necessary technology. The reality is that the vast holdings of this region are deteriorating at an alarming rate. Nature and negligence are together creating an urgent need to rescue this important part of Cuban and slavery history. Conservation work and infrastructure reform at the Matanzas' archives would take much time and resources. Unfortunately, in the short and middle term, the only strategy available at the Matanzas' archives is digitization.
With the support of a British Archive Endangered Archives Grant, this project explores the most important archives in Matanzas Province, Cuba, containing the most important collections on African slaves and their descendants. These archives are: 1) Archivo Provincial de Matanzas, 2) Archivos Parroquiales de Matanzas, 3) Archivo Histórico Municipal de Cárdenas, 4) Archivo Histórico Municipal de Colón.
The project identifies the bodies of endangered, rich, under-utilised, and at-risk documents on Africans and persons of African descent in the archives above mentioned. It focuses on training in digitization techniques to the staff on the archives above mentioned. During this phase, some of the documents already identified have been digitized.
The project also generates a detailed inventory of the documents identified as at risk. The digitization of some of these documents will be continued as part of the training process of the archival staffs. This facilitates the feasibility of a future major project of digitization of all the material already identified.
The last objective involves the creation of a database with all the material identified and all the documents digitized. The database and copies of all the material will be delivered to the British Library and the archives involved in the Pilot Project.