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Project Description

EAP843: Creating a digital archive of ecclesiastical documents from Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo, Trinidad and Baracoa, Cuba

Project Director: Dr. David LaFevor, The University of Texas at Arlington

padreBritish Library Endangered Archives Programme Pilot Grant 843 enabled the location and evaluation of the oldest ecclesiastical and secular documents surviving in five of the seven original “villas” (towns) in Cuba. In Trinidad, Camagüey, Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba, and Baracoa, the grantees conducted surveys in Church archives, photographed current storage conditions, and created detailed priority lists to guide digitization efforts in the future.

As regional centers, many of these archives include colonial records from smaller outlying parishes. The location of scattered collections in a single site have helped preserve many important sources that would have been lost or destroyed, but having them under one roof also increases the chance that a natural disaster could erase the documentary history of entire regions. Unfortunately, some of the volumes evaluated are too far deteriorated for digitization or meaningful preservation. These findings clearly indicate the need to carry out this work as quickly as possible.

The documents evaluated and registered in these multiple sites provide quantitative and qualitative data that are essential to creating a clearer understanding of the slave trade, African and Afro-Cuban life in Colonial Cuba, race relations, kinship and god parentage, the evolution of the agro-export plantation complex, migration and immigration, gender, revolutionary movements, demography, urbanization, and a number of other important topics. These sources will also contribute to Atlantic World and circum-Caribbean historical research.

baracoaDespite creative preservation initiatives by local Church archivists, the majority of these irreplaceable records are in deplorable conditions. General material scarcities, hurricanes, earthquakes, and general climatic conditions, have made preservation extremely difficult. Many of the volumes are marked with “No” to indicate that they are too fragile to open.    

Previous projects in Havana have assessed conditions and digitized many of the endangered archives located in the colonial churches in the capital. As part of EAP 843, the sacristan of one of the oldest churches in Cuba, Espiritu Santo was trained and equipped to carry out the digitization of the entire archive of sacramental documents pertinent to the African Diaspora there. This site should furnish 18-20,000 images dating from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries.

The archives located in Trinidad de Cuba contain sacramental documents extending from the late seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Those in Camagüey cover roughly the same period, with a few outliers dating from even earlier.  The archive in Bayamo contains important ecclesiastical and secular records, with a few from the sixteenth century.

The Archbishop’s archive in Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city, contains hundreds of volumes from Santiago and from the region surrounding the city.  Important collections there contain the sacramental books from parish of Caridad del Cobre, one of the oldest and the most important pilgrimage sites for the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba.

Generous funding from the British Library Endangered Archives Programme has allowed the grantees to draft a precise plan of action to digitize, preserve and disseminate these unique sources in future projects in the coming years.

felix and david

Top of page: Father Bendito, parish priest of the Santísima Trinidad church, stands next to part of the archive. Middle of page: The present condition of 18th-century manuscripts in Baracoa. Photo by David LaFevor. Above: David LaFevor and Felix Knights in the sacristy of the Espíritu Santo church. Photo by Matt LaFevor.