Ecclesiastical  and Secular Sources for Slave Societies

Project Description

Phase I                  

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 Resource Centre on the African Diaspora, 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

Since 2005, Landers and Soares have continued to direct teams of graduate students in additional preservation work in Cuba and Brazil and some of these students now direct their own projects with grants. With grants from the British Library Endangered Archives Program, Oscar Grandio Moraguez directs a project to digitize municipal and provincial archives in Cuba and Pablo F. Gomez directs a project to digitize notarial records in Quibdo, Colombia. As the focus of the project expanded it was renamed and is now the Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies project (ESSSS). 

Each of the countries whose African history we are tracking still struggles with the legacy of slavery and its political, economic, and social consequences. There is great scholarly and popular interest in African history and heritage in these countries and each modern nation must respond to this interest in defining national identities in multi-cultural societies. The modern nations of the sending areas of West and West Central Africa are equally interested in the discoveries this project is generating. 

The ESSSS project is producing and disseminating important new research in the humanities while establishing international facilities and collaborations designed to continue the research beyond the life of the project. As part of that effort, the project has incorporated and trained undergraduate and graduate students from the United States, Brazil, and Canada, many of whom are using the project data, and the databases they are creating from it, in their theses and dissertations.

Project Administration at Vanderbilt University

The ESSSS project is directed by Jane Landers and is administered at Vanderbilt University, home of  the nation’s earliest center for Brazilian Studies, now the Center for Latin American Studies, and the host of the Brazilian Studies Association 

The Vanderbilt University Library has provided significant assistance to the project. Marshall Breeding, the Director for Innovative Technologies and Research, created the project's web-based interface and metadata, and incorporates additional materials as they are digitized.  Graduate assistant, Courtney Campbell, is creating additional metadata to allow scholars to more easily search the collection. Researchers can view individual document pages and save transcriptions, notes, and annotations in the datatbase. The Vanderbilt Library ensures the preservation of the files by storing them on network servers with multiple layers of protection against hardware failure or human error.  All files are also copied onto backup tapes and stored off-site at the library’s remote storage facility to guard against catastrophic events on campus.  The library will also migrate the project content forward through changes in technologies and file formats. Project teams have also deposited CDROMs of all materials with the Cuban, Brazilian, and Colombian institutions in which they were collected.

Project Collaborators

    Project collaborator Mariza Soares, of the Universidade Federal Fluminense, directs the Brazilian portion of this project and maintains satellite offices at the Universidade Federal Fluminense office of LABHOI, at the Archive of the Diocese of Nova Iguaçu, and in offices donated by the Diocese of Niteroí and the Diocese of Petropolis. Her project website may be viewed at .

   Paul E. Lovejoy supports the technical needs of both the Cuban and Brazil components through the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples at York University The Tubman Institute also contributes to the wide dissemination of project research through its web page, its international network of scholars, and its international conferences which have provided a venue for project collaborators to share their findings with Diaspora scholars from around the world.                         




For more information, please contact Jane Landers.