Creating a digital archive of ecclesiastical records in the original seven Villas of Cuba (EAP955)

Aims and objectives

Siete Villas of Cuba proposes to train university students and parishioners to digitize over 500,000 pages of unique documents that record the history of the African diaspora in the seven oldest cities of Cuba. This project builds on pilot EAP843, and on previous successful efforts in Brazil, Spanish Florida, and Colombia. Over 24 months, the grantees would visit these cities in two geographical blocks, those in central and western Cuba, followed by those in eastern Cuba. Digital copies will be remitted to the British Library and Vanderbilt University’s Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources in Slave Societies digital archive along with a final copy to remain on-site in Cuba. As identified in the pilot project, most of these documents are endangered due to climate, neglect, and natural disasters. Though the Catholic Church makes the best of difficult material circumstances, it lacks the resources and training to preserve or digitize. Water damage, insects, hurricanes, and earthquakes combine to imperil these records; many of which have already been destroyed or are damaged beyond legibility. Through digitising these documents and creating multiple copies, the project will freeze this process in place and stop the disappearance of this valuable patrimony.

These documents are perhaps the most important serial sources for any slave society in the Western Hemisphere. They record data on the major life events of millions of Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Indigenous people including baptisms, marriages, confirmations, deaths and burials, and a range of other information. The Roman Catholic Church served as the most important social institution in the colonial era and every member of society came under its purview. Scholars working on a broad range of historical, anthropological, and ethnic studies topics will find these documents essential, as will a popular audience engaged in genealogical research.

Archival material in each site follows patterns established by the Catholic Church throughout the colonial period in Cuba (sixteenth to nineteenth centuries). The bulk of these documents are collected in volumes with information on baptisms, confirmations, marriages, marriage petitions, deaths, and other data generated by the Church. A representative sample taken from the archives in Trinidad de Cuba shows that each volume contains an average of around three hundred and fifty pages of manuscript text. These sacramental documents represent the most complete serial information on every social class, from newly imported African slaves to transplanted Iberian nobles to Chinese contract labourers. Most importantly, these documents represent irreplaceable information about the African slave trade, labour, demographics, social networks, civic society, and other important historical topics. In addition to this serial information, church archives contain records outside the main purview of the Church. These include military, land, factory, and criminal files. The Archdiocese of Santiago, for example, includes over one hundred volumes of correspondence and administrative records unexamined by historians. Each archive visited during the pilot project included multiple unexpected records. For example, each site included collections transported from parishes that no longer exist, destroyed during periods of war or by natural disasters. Collectively, these documents are the single most important and endangered archive of a slave society in the Caribbean.