Endangered Archives

EAP596: Safeguarding Anguilla's heritage: a survey of the endangered records of Anguilla

Mr Jan Liebaers, Anguilla Archaeological and Historical Society
2012 award - Pilot project
£12,315 for 3 months

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Project Overview

No archival work has been undertaken in Anguilla to date. Many historically significant records which have survived neglect and disasters are scattered around the island where they remain at risk of loss, decay and further neglect.

Although inhabited by Europeans since the early 17th century, until a few decades ago Anguilla was a poor and undeveloped sub-territory in the British West Indies, ruled by Antigua and St Kitts. For centuries, the island relied on a subsistence economy and remittances from abroad for survival. The impoverishment of the island meant that it was largely abandoned by the colonial authorities in both Antigua (the head of government of the Colony of the Leeward Islands for many years) and London. There was little public administration until the Peacekeeping Committee assumed the island’s administration at the time of the 1967 Revolution. The first Legislature to make laws for Anguilla was not started until 1976, although the first court for the trial of felonies sat in 1825 and applied St Kitts-made laws. During this time the island was to some degree connected by trade and family connections with the surrounding Leeward Islands, but remained an isolated and unique place.

A number of records have survived from the early period, including records from Anguilla’s mainly self-appointed executive council, government records such as the Register of births, deaths and marriages, the Registry of Deeds (c.1820-), records of the Court of King’s Bench, and vital records from a number of churches on the island. These records are currently housed in very poor conditions where they remain at risk of loss and further decay. Other contemporary documents doubtless exist, relating to the unique socio-economic conditions that prevailed in the small landholding and subsistence society of pre-industrial Anguilla.

No national or cultural institution has assumed formal responsibility for archives in Anguilla. Very little archival work has been undertaken to date, and only on a voluntary and non-professional basis. Most notably, the Anguilla Archaeological & Historical Society (AAHS), although lacking in resources, has intervened on an ad hoc basis in order to prevent the destruction of historical records wherever possible.

No national survey of historical documents has yet been undertaken in Anguilla. Consequently, the full extent and historical significance of Anguilla’s documentary heritage remains largely unknown. Many irreplaceable archival materials have already been destroyed as a result of natural forces – including hurricanes – and human neglect. Urgent action is required if the remaining historical resources are to survive for future generations of Anguillians and the broader research community interested in the history of the Leeward Islands.

The proposed survey will focus on the identification and relocation to safe storage of historical records created by government and private entities. While it remains uncertain how many pre-1900 records have survived, it is anticipated that more recent records will also be captured in the project, including records relating to the boat building and salt industries, early records of Radio Anguilla, and varied records relating to the Revolution of 1967.

The AAHS is aware of a number of locations which harbour archival records, including a central ‘archives’ room in which a number of bound manuscripts and archival documents have been amassed over the years, and a number of filing cabinets in government offices which contain unique documents relating to the Anguilla Revolution of 1967 and the British invasion of 1969. Other unidentified and unprotected records are known to linger in various government and private offices and locales. It is intended that the proposed project will conduct a systematic survey of government offices and the central library facility, and will further identify additional locations where records are held, by means of personal contacts and interviews with local historians and interested individuals known to the AAHS Board members.

A trained contract archivist will execute the project by collecting information gathered during meetings with government officials and other stakeholders, paying particular attention to the records’ context, original order and physical condition. The archival materials identified in the project will be relocated to a secure storage room in the Government’s Courts Building, which has been made available for this purpose to the AAHS. A group of records will be digitised from the earliest surviving records, including the Register of births, deaths and marriages. In addition to preserving these documents via a surrogate record, this will also serve as a trial of equipment and techniques for a larger digitisation project and will leave a legacy of equipment and local skills on Anguilla, which presently do not exist.

Urgent action is required to systematically identify, relocate and properly box the archival records of Anguilla and prepare the process of digitising significant records for wider dissemination.

Project Outcome

The survey yielded somewhat more pre-1900 material than expected. Although only a small proportion of Anguilla’s original documentary record, it nevertheless represents a valuable resource for research into the island’s history. The material offers a portrait of social and economic conditions, distilled from the King’s Bench records of the 18th century as well as from the Deed series that begins in 1824 and continues through into the later 20th century.

There is abundant documentary material that relates to the Revolutionary period, although much of it has been destroyed by natural disaster and human neglect. The Revolutionary documents have stimulated the most local interest and also detail the extraordinary transformation of Anguilla from an island in 1970 without telephones or electricity to the complex tourist-based economy and society of the present day.

An original objective was the collation of all identified historic documents within the existing ‘archive room’ in the Court House. However, given the imminent take-over of this room for office space, this was neither viable nor appropriate. The documents identified by the survey therefore remain scattered across a number of locations, both in government and private hands. Those in the archive room, currently safe and reasonably stable, have an uncertain future and should be considered as threatened. There is the realistic possibility that they could be destroyed after the next move, either as the result of a single catastrophic event, or over the mid-term due to poor storage conditions.

The project’s secondary focus was on the trial digitisation of selected materials. Four document series, comprising six bound volumes, one newspaper and one group of unbound documents, were digitised, resulting in the creation of 2,491 digital images.

A member of the Library staff, Miss Anthea Roach, was trained in digitisation, data management and document listing during the course of the project. By the latter stages of the project she also undertook training of other volunteers – a role she is expected to continue to fulfil after the completion of the project.

A number of outreach and publicity events took place, including on local radio and newspaper, as well as a presentation at the AGM of the host institution and a ‘Digitisation Day’, where local people where invited to bring in their old photographs and documents for digitisation.

The digital copies of the documents have been deposited with the Anguilla Archaeological and Historical Society, Anguilla Public Library, and the British Library.

Survey report (PDF format 817KB)

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP596/1 Court House [1751-1978]

The catalogue is available here.