Creating a digital archive of ecclesiastical documents from Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo, Trinidad and Baracoa, Cuba (EAP843)

Aims and objectives

This pilot project will determine the extent and condition of what, potentially, are the oldest serialised documents in Cuba and among the oldest in the hemisphere. Sites in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa, Bayamo, and Trinidad will be visited, to create registers of these documents and to generate a detailed priority list of those most in need of digital preservation. A local sacristan will be equipped and trained to digitise the entire collection of an important colonial church in Old Havana.

Cuba is the largest Caribbean island and was among the oldest slave societies in the New World. It was an early centre of Spanish imperial expansion, a key trade hub, and an archetypal plantation society, using forced African labour to produce sugar, coffee, beef, tobacco and other commodities. These, in turn, fuelled the conquest and colonisation of the Americas and contributed to the Industrial Revolution in Europe and beyond. Cuba remained a European colony longer than almost any other society in Latin America (until 1898) and contains some of the most complete and oldest documents in the hemisphere.

Scholars in the last few decades have concentrated attention on the dynamics of the slave trade and its effects on global history. In the colonial era, the church served as the primary record keeper for a range of bio-statistical information, often separated into volumes by race, and detailing births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and other important data. It generated the largest set of serialised documents that detail the demographic, cultural, religious and economic histories of the many peoples and cultures forcibly brought together there.

The rupture between the Cuban state and the Catholic Church since 1959 has impeded the preservation of these important papers. The withholding of state funds, paired with bleak economic conditions in general, and especially since the early 1990s, has left these documentary collections in deplorable conditions. The worst economic circumstances in modern Cuban history have coincided with increased academic attention to the slave trade, adding further urgency to the preservation and dissemination of these sources. High humidity levels, natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, and general material scarcity compound the threats to these records. The collective work of historical research and writing on the slave trade will continue to generate ground-breaking revisions to our understanding of race, slavery, and global history; the loss of these documents would do irreparable damage to this important work.

The cities of Trinidad, Bayamo, Santiago, and Baracoa were four of the first seven “villas” founded in Cuba and each contains ecclesiastical collections that have not been digitised or accessed. At each site, surveys will be conducted in parish churches to create inventories and photograph representative volumes. This survey work will lead to a future major digitisation project and will be able to prioritise collections most in danger.

All of these cities have been continuously inhabited since the early sixteenth century and the probable date range of these collections spans over four hundred years. Their potential uses by researchers include work on demography, slavery, the history of medicine, migration, warfare and exile, abolition, and other topics.

The Catholic Church in Cuba has done the best it can to preserve these documents, given difficult economic and climatic conditions. The cost of digital technologies and the prioritisation of other works in these parishes have hindered any efforts to preserve or copy these volumes. Fortunately, projects such as this can efficiently and effectively do this important work. The Catholic Church has given its full support to the project.


The project digitised a small sample of Libros Sacramentales (Sacramental Books) from the 'Iglesia Espiritu Santo' (Espiritu Santo Church). The Espiritu Santo Church in the oldest standing Catholic Church in Cuba. It dates to 1638 and was originally a religious retreat dedicated to free people of African descent. It is located within the old city walls, in the area of Havana known as Old Havana. Sacramental books are divided by race between Spaniards and everyone else. The second designation pertains to Pardos y Morenos (blacks and browns). Sacramental Books contain information on Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths and Burials, Confirmations and other information on individuals who were parishioners or otherwise associated with the Catholic Church of Espiritu Santo.

The project team digitised a sample of 2887 pages from 9 Sacramental Books and also conducted a survey of other locations in Cuba. Survey report: PDF download (1280 KB)

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: