Endangered Archives

EAP255: Creating a digital archive of Afro-Colombian history and culture: black ecclesiastical, governmental and private records from the Choco, Colombia

Dr Pablo Gomez , Vanderbilt University
2009 award - Major project
£44,834 for 24 months

Archival partner: Centro Nacional de Estudios y Documentación de las Culturas Afrocolombianas, Quibdo, Chocó

Project Overview

This project will recover, catalogue, digitise and make freely available to researchers through the internet, approximately 100,000 ecclesiastic, governmental and personal records of African and Afro-descendant communities in the Chocó region of Western Colombia.

Thousands of African slaves were forcibly transported to the Chocó to exploit the gold and silver mines in the basin of the Atrato river. The Afro-descendant communities of the Chocó live in one of the poorest and more dangerous areas of Colombia, and of the entire Americas. There, not only paramilitaries and guerrillas, but also the brutal conditions of the tropical forest in which most of the territory is located, have damaged centuries of church and official records going back to the fifteenth century. In peril are materials dating from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries that hold the memory of the most African region in the Americas, the record of a people largely ignored in Colombian and Latin-American history.

This documentation represents the richest available historical record of the majority of Africans and their descendants in Colombia. The history of this population has been, for the most part, ignored in Colombian and Latin American historiography and is waiting to be written. The documents that will be rescued represent the longest, and most uniform, serial data available for the study of Afro-Colombians. Furthermore, they hold the only available systematic data on African ethnicities in Colombia, information of use for nations in West and West Central Africa who lost populations to the slave trade.

The archival material is currently dispersed in several places in the Colombian pacific coast including Quibdó, Buenaventura, Nóvita, and Tado. The documents are held uncatalogued and piled on floors or open shelves in rooms without climate or humidity control in churches, and notarial offices in these towns. At least 5% of the documents overall are in a very advanced state of deterioration, and 50% show some degree of deterioration. Particularly problematic are the ones of the Notary of Buenaventura. Although rapidly deteriorating it is still possible to capture and preserve these through digitisation.

Probably more than in any other place in America, the surviving records in the Chocó are in imminent danger of being lost forever. The Chocó's extreme tropical climate and the volatile socio-economic conditions of this Colombian region make the preservation of these records urgent. Most of the material is held in local churches or municipal governmental back rooms and is at risk from climate, bug infestation, and other damage. Clerks often discard these treasures as old papers. Furthermore, both churches and governmental offices are often the first places to be destroyed in guerrilla or paramilitary attacks.

The Centro Nacional de Documentación y Estudios de las Culturas Afrocolombianas (National Centre for the Documentation and Studies of the Afrocolombians cultures, hereafter, CNDECA) at the Technological University of the Chocó (TUC), in this department capital, Quibdó, for the last three years has been locating material in urgent need of preservation throughout the western Colombian Pacific coast. However, this institution does not have the resources or technical knowledge to organise, digitise and save the thousands of folios in immediate danger of disappearance that they have located.

This project will therefore unite the local knowledge and identification of archives in the Chocó by the people from the CNDECA, with the know-how of a team already experienced in Cuba and Brazil in the preservation of colonial documents related to the African Diaspora. In Vanderbilt, together with universities in Canada and Brazil, the ESSS team led by Prof. Jane Landers has already digitised and made available to the world through the internet 80,000 documents some of which have since already disappeared.

The proposed documents for digitisation are already identified and consist of colonial church and notarial records, early twentieth century photographs and maps. Among the most endangered materials to be digitised and catalogued will be the First Notary of Quibdó, the Notary of Buenaventura, the Parochial Archive of Tadó and the Parochial Archive of Novitá. The project will also digitise the very deteriorated records of the San Francisco de Asissi Cathedral in Quibdó, capital of the Chocó. The humidity of the Colombian Pacific is a major threat to the integrity of the documents, and water damage and mould is visible on the oldest documents. In total there are approximately 110,000 folios in danger of disappearing. The value of these documents for studying the African Diaspora is difficult to overstate. 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, continuing through to almost the end of the nineteenth century. Once baptised, Africans and their descendants became eligible for the sacraments of marriage and Christian burial, thus generating additional records of their lives.

The primary aim of the project involves preserving all these materials by training local Chocó historians and archivists to create high-resolution digital images that will be stored on multiple drives, copied on disk and magnetic tape to ensure their long term preservation, and made available via Vanderbilt Library's Digital Collections webpage. This project will also train local Chocó personnel in palaeography, transcription, basic preservation and digitisation techniques, as well as basic collections and grant management. The proposed trainees of this project will be recent graduates from the TUC all of whom come from Chocó.

At the end of the project, the results of the project will be publicised in conferences in Colombia and North America and the newly created archive will be highlighted through the use of advertising in h-net and similar academic outlets.

Visit the project's website and view the digital images of the documents.

Project Outcome

The project created a digital archive of approximately 130,000 high quality digital images, catalogued and with basic metadata, from the archives in Quibdo, Carmen de Atrato and Buenaventura, Colombia. Comprehensive metadata was created for the six oldest volumes in the collection. The images and their corresponding descriptive fiches have been redundantly stored in external hard drives and network servers at the Centro Nacional de Estudios y Documentación de las Culturas Afrocolombianas (National Centre for the Study and Documentation of Afro-Colombian Cultures]) Quibdo, Chocó, Colombia; and the Jean and Alexander Heard Library,Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. The archive at Vanderbilt University has been stored on mirrored web servers. The files are stored off-site at the library’s remote storage facility to guard against catastrophic events on campus.

The complete digital archive is now available for researchers worldwide through the ESSS Digital Archive here and here

The Centro Nacional de Estudios y Documentacion de las Culturas Afrocolombianas has retained the computers and photographic equipment from the project and is already planning on conducting other digitisation projects in the Colombian Pacific.

Two week-long workshops on archival digital preservation were held, with local technical personal at Quibdo. Personnel from Vanderbilt University travelled to Choco, and conducted and coordinated the workshops, with some 60 archivists and librarians from the Choco region attending. It is expected they will start applying this training to identify and catalogue materials at their respective institutions.

Four archivists from el Choco worked full time in the digitisation of the material object of this project and on its adequate material and digital storage. After working on the project for two years they are trained to assume positions of leadership in the management of local archives in the region and multiply their experience in archival preservation.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP255/1 Records of the Notaria de Carmen de Atrato
  • EAP255/2 Records of the Notaria Primera de Quibdó
  • EAP255/3 Records of the Notaria Única de Buenaventura

The catalogue is available here.