The Archives of Forgotten Places: The Turks and Caicos Islands (EAP914)

Aims and objectives

Although occupied for more than three hundred years the Turks and Caicos Islands have been historically governed from afar. This absence of direct governance has resulted in limited archival conservation measures, leaving tens of thousands of rare documents in peril. While the National Museum has made attempts to identify and stabilize these documents the absence of funding and conservation consultation has resulted in a digitisation of only one file. This project seeks to digitise the most vulnerable and essential documents in this collection. The digitisation and dissemination of these archives will provide researchers with new insight into these forgotten islands.

Often referred to as ‘outlying islands’ archival material from the Turks and Caicos Islands is scant, at best. The absence of a central government repository, natural disasters and neglect has resulted in the loss of thousands of rare documents. Many of these documents, such as personal correspondences, registers of births, baptisms, burials, land grants, etc., can provide scholars with insight into the lives of those who were marginalised and enslaved in this outpost of the Caribbean. The digitisation of these materials will allow academics to examine the lives of those who had little or no voice in the written historical narratives.

Archives of the Turks and Caicos Islands are limited in scope and availability and given the geographic, cultural and political isolation of this region, and have been and continue to be subject to rapid deterioration. Formal and informal documents related to this region are vital to our understanding of the daily lives of those who were marginalised, particularly those who lived in slavery. This collection is essential to our understanding of those individuals.

During the 17th through 18th Centuries these islands were occupied by French, Spanish and English settlers, with limited permanent settlements and virtually no direct governance. It wasn’t until the late 18th Century that British Loyalists, with substantial numbers of slaves began to arrive and establish settlements throughout the islands. Given the isolation of these islands and absence of a centralized government during this time, rapidly deteriorating archival materials are crucial to our understanding of this period in the colonial history of this region. A 1983 survey of colonial archives inventoried 2000 titles, representing thousands of records. Shortly after 1983 records were separated and placed in various buildings. The vast majority of those records are now damaged beyond recovery. Through the efforts of the Turks and Caicos National Museum, the only institution in the Turks and Caicos Islands with a mandate to collect and curate historical and cultural records, nearly 50 linear feet are protected (more than 50,000 documents). In 2011 an EAP Pilot Project surveyed and identified documents in the Turks and Caicos National Museum archive, other Government offices, churches, and private collections. Additional items were rescued from a structurally unsound building, treated with UV, vacuumed, stabilized, and catalogued into the Museum. Only one item was digitised under the pilot project, leaving the remaining originals vulnerable to loss though natural disaster or simple ongoing deterioration. Without a digital record, damage to or destruction of these documents would represent a major loss of the cultural history of the islands.

Initially, priority will be placed on the identification of specific archival materials to be included in the scope of this project. This initial process will result in the creation of a priority database spreadsheet to classify archival materials in accordance to the following: 1) Date of materials 2) Significance of materials 3) Condition of materials. This will be conducted at the Turks and Caicos National Museum. During this time, individuals in the Turks and Caicos will be identified to train and assist throughout this process. These individuals will be identified through the Turks and Caicos National Museum Board of Trustees, museum volunteers and Turks and Caicos Community College. Given the vulnerable condition of the majority of this collection it is vital that museum volunteers, staff and those involved with this collection be involved with the digitisation process to ensure that future endeavours are conducted with concern for the condition of these materials.

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