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.