Endangered Archives

EAP505: Digitising parish record collections at the major archives of the province of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil

Dr Vilma Lúcia de Oliveira, Arquidiocese de Natal
2011 award - Major project
£7,530 for 12 months

Project Overview

This project aims to recover, organise, digitise and make available to researchers in Brazil and worldwide through the use of the internet, archives related to the memory of minority communities in the province of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil. The population of Rio Grande do Norte is very mixed, comprising of the original Indian people, and then the later settlers of Portuguese and African people, resulting in people of mixed-race descent, called ‘mestizos’. These records can help to build a demographic history. However, lack of investment on behalf of the public institutions, but also the brutal conditions of the tropical weather and high humidity, in which most of the territory is located, have damaged centuries of church and official records dating back to the eighteenth century.

The history of this population has mostly been ignored in Brazil and Latin American history and is waiting to be written. The documents planned to be rescued represent the longest, and most uniform, serial data available for the study of the people of Rio Grande do Norte. This project will also generate information of interest to the Brazilian nation. The Center for Historical and Archeological Studies and Documentation (NEHAD) at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) in Natal, has for the last decade been locating material throughout the region in urgent need of preservation in the entire state. However, neither UFRN nor the Arquidiocese has the financial resources to preserve the documents.

This project will bring together the local knowledge and identification of the material by the Arquiodiocese de Natal, with the technical skills to preserve the documents by experts from the NEHAD. The proposed documents for digitisation have already been identified and consist of colonial church and notarial records dating back to the mid-eighteenth century.

The archival material is currently dispersed inside the Arquidiocese de Natal. The documents are uncatalogued and piled on floors or open shelves in rooms without climate or humidity control in the main church of Natal. At least 20% of the documents are in a very advanced state of deterioration, and 50% show some degree of deterioration. Although rapidly deteriorating the records are suitable for digitisation. The humidity of the northeast area of Brazil 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 40,000 folios in danger of disappearing. The value of these documents for studying the demography and the people of Rio Grande do Norte is difficult to understate. The Catholic Church mandated the baptism of the population in the seventeenth 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 population in the Americas, continuing through until almost the end of the nineteenth century. Once baptised, people and their descendents became eligible for the sacraments of marriage and Christian burial, thus generating additional records of their lives.

The project will involve the training of workers at the Arquidiocese de Natal, historians and archivists to create approximately 40,000 high-resolution digital images that will be stored on multiple drives and on disk, and made available via the NEHAD webpage. Copies will be deposited with the Arquivo da Arquidiocese de Natal, the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte and the British Library.

Project Outcome