Academics race to save rare colonial documents in Cuba
Academics race to save rare colonial documents in Cuba
BY CHRIS GILLETTE
An American team of academics is racing to preserve millions of Cuban
historical documents before they are lost to the elements and poor
Many of the documents shed light on the slave trade, an integral part of
Cuba’s colonial history that was intertwined with that of the United States.
David Lafevor, a history professor at the University of Texas at
Arlington, and his brother Matthew, a geography professor at the
University of Alabama, have worked since 2005 to make computer copies of
millions of documents mouldering in damp storage spaces on the island.
Their latest project is a partnership between the British Library
Foundation and Vanderbilt University to capture almost 2 million
documents in digital form, a treasure trove stretching back to the
mid-16th century of documents about early island life and the slave trade.
David Lafevor said there is nothing like Cuba’s documents in the U.S.,
where slaves were considered possessions, not human beings.
Though no less ruthless when it came to slavery than the Anglos to the
north, the Spanish recognized the “personhood” of slaves once they were
baptized into the Catholic Church. Their births, marital status,
national origin and deaths were all duly recorded in the town records
and stored in church archives, leaving a historical record of blacks and
the lives they led unique in the Americas.
Churches became the repository of much of this history because of its
central role in island life and because church officials were
painstaking documentarians who often were the most educated in their
communities, David Lafevor said in an interview.
“The documents are not only pertinent to the Catholic Church because the
church was often the most substantial building in town, so other
documents were kept there as well,” he said.
For instance, while digitizing some documents in the town of Colon, a
slave trading post in colonial days that is about 175 kilometers (about
110 miles) east of Havana, Lafevor discovered the existence of a nearby
town founded by former American slaves who had fled the mainland from
what had been Spanish-ruled Florida.
The town, Ceiba Mocha, was once known as Ceiba Mocha de la Nueva St.
Augustine, a reference to the city that was the capital of Spanish
Florida in the 18th century. None of the town’s residents were aware of
Cuba’s Catholic Church has played a major role in the preservation
project, granting access to church archives around the island and
assisting in identifying important documents.
Church officials like Deacon Felix Knight of the colonial Santo Espirito
Church in Old Havana, tucked away in a warren of narrow lanes in the
city’s colonial heart, work with the academics to find and preserve old
“These books reflect life, aspects of the sacramental life of blacks,
obviously of whites also. That’s how these books where placed — books
for whites, books for blacks. The important thing is to preserve as many
of them as possible,” Knight said.
It is especially important to preserve the history of the Afro-Cuban
community, whose history has not been well documented in Cuba, he added.
Slavery wasn’t outlawed in Cuba until 1886, and American slavers had
used the island as a transshipment point for African slaves destined for
U.S. slave markets in the South.
“We are working for that, to maintain and recover that which is
irreplaceable, a legacy. It’s a patrimony, a way of seeing that is very
personal,” Knight said, holding a book from 1674 that contains records
of black births, marriages, deaths and civil status.
The process of digitizing the papers can be painstaking, consisting of
carefully removing the ancient volumes from storage, placing them on a
black cloth used for background, then opening each page slowly and
photographing it. An average book can contain hundreds of pages, all in
various conditions of decay, the writing faded from age and the elements.
The leather-bound volumes are remarkably resistant to decay, considering
many are stored in wooden cabinets in places with little climate
control. Knight says churches were built in the colonial era to maximize
air flow in the heavy tropical climate. High ceilings and thick walls
kept the interiors of the churches cool and dry, helping to preserve the
paper and leather-bound records.
Cheaper travel and more choices for accommodations have made the
recovery project easier, Lafevor said, referring to a normalization
process begun by the Obama administration two years ago. The
Tennessee-based team can now fly directly to the island from the U.S.,
avoiding expensive third-country travel. But even more important,
Lafevor said, the growth of “casa particulares,” the private homes that
rent rooms to visitors, gives them more and cheaper choices for places
to stay, allowing them to work for a month at a time.
Lafevor said no one knows how many millions of documents exist in
storage, nor how many have been lost to storms, pirate attacks, war and
civil unrest, but the project seeks to preserve as many as possible
before more are lost to history. He said the current project will run
until 2018 and hopes to digitize almost 2 million documents in four
cities around the island.
Still, he cautioned, the project is only a small step toward preserving
a vibrant historical record, with millions of more documents spanning
500 years left to preserve around the island.
Source: Academics race to save rare colonial documents in Cuba | Miami
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