Endangered Archives

EAP323: Endangered African diaspora collections of the state of Pará in the Amazon region of Brazil

Mr Carlos Liberato, Harriet Tubman Institute, York University
2009 award - Major project
£56,874 for 24 months

Archival partner: Arquivo Público do Estado do Pará

Project Overview

This project will focus on two archives in the State of Pará, which hold collections on African slaves and their descendants in the Amazon region of Brazil - the Aquivo Público do Pará and the Museu Integrado de Óbidos. The previous pilot project identified endangered files that are rich, under-utilised, and at-risk documents on Africans and persons of African descent. This major project will concentrate on the digitisation of this vast body of documents. The project also aims to continue the training of local staff at the targeted archives in manuscript handling and preservation, digital and archival management, manuscript photography, and creation of digital and manuscript catalogues and databases.

The Amazon region of Brazil is the country's poorest one. Despite its rich history, the social and economic processes of this history, as well as its particularities and participants, are still largely unknown. African and Black presence in the region, although of importance, remains almost invisible in both official discourse and historical research. The material housed by the Aquivo Público do Pará and the Museu Integrado de Óbidos contains important information on African and Black slavery and slave life produced by civil, administrative, military, ecclesiastic, and judicial personnel from the 17th to the 19th century. The digitisation of these endangered collections will not only improve preservation of the originals but also ensure access to local and world-wide researchers on the subject.

The archives in this region of Brazil are in a very bad shape. Facilities and restoration are seriously compromised by the lack of appropriate financial and material resources. Despite personal and institutional efforts to preserve archival collections, most original documents suffer from fading, severe mould, weather injury, insect damage, and iron gall ink corrosion.

In colonial times, the Portuguese Amazonia was known variously as Maranhão, Maranhão and Pará, and Grão Pará and Maranhão. The modern Brazilian State of Pará is located in the lower Amazon river basin bordering on six Brazilian states, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and the Atlantic ocean. The Portuguese settled in the area during the 17th century in order to keep out English, French, and Dutch incursions. Until the 1750s there was moderate sugar, rum, and cacao production. The so-called 'drogas do sertão' (black pepper, vanilla, clove, cinnamon, etc.) were the principal products of the region. Most of the labour force was made up of enslaved Native Americans. In 1751, the northern region of Portuguese America was dismembered from its central and southern counterparts, and Belém was transformed into the capital of the newly-created State of Grão Pará and Maranhão. In 1755, 'Indian' slavery was abolished in the Portuguese Amazonia. In the same year, the Grão Pará and Maranhão Company was created to develop the region with African slave labour and approximately 22,000 Africans were brought to the region in the next 20 years. The Marquis of Pombal, prime minister of Portugal, banned Jesuit missionaries from the region and many were imprisoned and sent to the metropolis. After Brazilian independence from Portugal in 1822, Pará struggled for its own independence for more than one year. Between 1823 and 1835, provincial life suffered from political disorder and violent social disturbance, culminating in the civil war called 'Cabanagem' (1835-1840). About 30 to 40% of an estimated total population of 100,000 died during the conflict. The participation of African and Black individuals in the civil war was never deeply studied. In 1888 Brazil abolished slavery, and thousands of Africans and their descendants remained more or less integrated to economic activities in the Amazon region, while many others created isolated settlements scattered along the main rivers and their branches.

The Arquivo Público do Estado do Pará (public archive) is an autonomous government agency subordinated to the Secretary of Culture. It is one of the most important archives of the Amazon region due to the privileged situation of Belém, which remained the capital of Portuguese Amazonia for several decades. However, the documentation was neglected for many years. Long-lasting negligence and weather conditions caused the destruction of considerable number of documents and, today, many more are under the risk of being lost. The documentation is divided into 10 major collections covering subjects related to Executive, Legislative, and Judicial powers, mainly for the 17th-19th centuries. The archive holds approximately four million original documents. The codices are bounded into volumes, stored in carton boxes and/or wrapped in brown paper. Besides manuscripts and printed documents, the archive possesses collections of iconographic material, maps, blueprints, drawings, and a copy of the rare Atlas da Costa Brasileira published in 1640 by the cosmographer João Teixeira de Albernaz.

The Museu Integrado de Óbidos was created in 1983 by the Associação Cultural Obidense. The main objectives of the association were: to restore architectural patrimony, to preserve and stimulate regional culture, and to establish a museum unit. In 1985, Museum facilities were installed in a 19th-century building, which also houses an important collection of local, colonial, and independent government documents. The documents are basically bound into 200 volumes and approximately 1,000 one-page manuscripts. Each book contains 150 to 250 pages. The inline extension of the collection is approximately 20 meters. The documents are placed into metal cabinets, in files (manuscripts) and wrapped in brown paper (volumes). Weather conditions threaten the documents since there is no climatic and humidity control. Fungi have already destroyed several documents.

Local staff will be trained on manuscript handling and preservation, digital photography, and archival management of digital copies and databases. At least four workshops will be organized convening professional photographers, computer technicians, research assistants, senior researchers, and local archive's staff.

Team members and specialists from the Arquivo Público do Estado do Pará will provide at no-cost the fundamentals on archival material handling and preservation of originals and digital copies (the latter entirely based on the EAP Copying Guidelines). Team members will be regularly instructed on the production of detailed lists, following the rationale established in the EAP Listing Guidelines. Team members and local archival staff will digitise collections and generate Preservation and Access copies of the material, following the EAP technical recommendations.

This project will limit its scope by only focusing on 50,000 endangered files concerned with African and Black slavery in the region. Most of the targeted files have already been identified during the execution of the previous pilot project. Digital copies of all material and lists will be delivered to the British Library, the two archives involved in the project, and the Harriet Tubman Institute.

Project Outcome