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About the Project

documents A detail of the Archive in Trinidad, Cuba. Photo by  David LaFevor.

The Slave Societies Digital Archive (formerly known as Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies) is dedicated to identifying, cataloguing, and digitally preserving endangered archival materials documenting the history of Africans and Afro-descended peoples in the Iberian colonies. Slave Societies is directed by Jane Landers and 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, annulments. 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 the countries in which we work. Many of these records, which include bills of sale,  property registries and disputes, dowries, and letters of manumission, among other sources,  are also imperiled and are being preserved in the Slave Societies Digital Archive.