Endangered Archives

EAP794: Digitising the endangered historic records of Nevis in the Leeward Islands

Dr Andrew Pearson, Independent Researcher
2015 award - Major project
£39,269 for 24 months

Archival partner: Nevis Island Administration

Project Overview

This research is a continuation of the earlier pilot project EAP093. It will concentrate on the digitisation of historic documents held on the Caribbean island of Nevis. These manuscript records date from between 1705 and c. 1920, and provide a vital insight into the island’s social and economic history, during both its slavery and post-slavery eras. 170 volumes will be digitised.

Nevis was one of the earliest and richest of the British West Indian sugar islands. In the 18th century there were up to 10,000 slaves of African origin working on over 100 estates. Their modern descendants have only a generalised grasp of the history of Nevis, and over time their sense of that history is being lost, particularly due to continued emigration. In this scenario the written records with which we are concerned are just as significant for local Nevisians as they are to regional and international historians.

Although there are important Nevisian records held in the UK National Archives and in the government archive at St Kitts, the principal sources for Nevis’ history are held on the island itself, mainly in the Supreme Court Registry and the Registrar General’s Office. These are crucial, endangered documents, and the information they contain is replicated nowhere else.

This project will focus on records dating between 1705 and 1920. It is proposed that all historic documents in the Supreme Court House vault will be digitised and a selective, early series of volumes from the Registrar General’s Office (of 19th-century date) will also be digitised. In total the digitisation of 170 volumes is envisaged.

As a whole, these documents elucidate, for a period of over two centuries, the complex economic and social interactions of Nevisian society. They also record the difficult process of the development of an independent, small-scale economy in the post-Emancipation era. The records preserve much micro-historical detail: for example, they commonly list the age, health, monetary value, occupations and family relationships of enslaved people. Similarly, estate plans potentially provide locations for lost slave and post-Emancipation villages. This is not only intrinsically valuable archaeological data, but may also inform planning decisions on an island whose economy is geared to tourism-based development. These documents complement other regional collections of similar character, including those for St Vincent, Grenada and Anguilla, which have been the subject of EAP projects.

Nevis’ historical resource has diminished over time, due to natural disasters and human actions, as illustrated by the following chronology:

  • 1706 French invasion: records burned in the street
  • 1837 Fire in Charlestown destroys the Court House
  • 1873 Court House fire
  • 1882 Nevis and St Kitts united in one Presidency: Nevis records transhipped to St Kitts
  • 1982 Court House fire in St Kitts: Nevis records burnt
  • 2014 Fire in Nevis Treasury

The surviving records, on which this project focuses, are at risk of similar total or piecemeal destruction.

The project will preserve the information contained within these documents through a programme of digital photography. In addition the project will purchase archival storage boxes to improve the storage conditions of the records, even if they stay in their present location.

Through employment of local staff, the project aims to leave a legacy of digitisation- and heritage-related skills on Nevis. Engagement with government, schools, NHCS and the wider public is also seen as integral to encouraging the use, and appreciation of, this important resource.

Project Outcome