What happened to the oldest surviving document in the Western hemisphere?
No one is certain where exactly it is now, but thanks to the NEH-funded historical preservation project entitled “Ecclesiastical Sources and Historical Research on the African Diaspora in Brazil and Cuba,” anyone in the world with internet access can look at the Cuban matrimonial record from 1584.
Or rather, digital photographs of it.
The original may still be in the basement of the Sagrado Cathedral de San Cristóbal in Havana, a place many researchers are unable to visit themselves. Even if they were, the church materials are not organized nor inventoried, and there is no staff to help an academic find the book among boxes of moldering prayer books and shelves of Ecclesiastical briefs from the last 400 years. There isn’t always electricity or running water.
The bulk of Latin America’s Ecclesiastical records are stored in such places under circumstances that an archivist would balk at. Jane Landers and Mariza Soares, however, have risen to the challenges faced in the preservation of documentary history that is degrading by the day. Using ordinary 5 megapixel digital cameras and the natural light that is abundant in Latin America, they race time (and mold, insects, lizards, fire & water damage, etc.) to secure these records for future generations. “This project cannot guarantee the preservation of the original documents, but the preservation of the information therein; it is a historical approach that is within our means,” says Soares, adding that it would take a significant amount of money to preserve the actual documents, versus the mere fraction it takes to photograph them.
Landers and Soares see in these endangered sources an opportunity to not only preserve and make available historical sources of Afro-Latinos, but to train a native community of scholars to continue with this preservation of primary sources.
Mariza Soares is proud that she is able to use the grant money to train her Brazilian students to preserve their own history. Many of Soares’ students come from impoverished slums in Rio de Janiero, and all it takes is an investment of time and a digital camera to teach them how to photograph the wealth of source material in their neighborhood churches. Along with the preservation, these students learn transferable academic skills using the sources that inform their own histories.
Jane Landers agrees. “This project empowers people to do their own history,” says Landers. She takes pride in what she calls the “democratization of research” this project achieves. On her preservation trips to Matanzas and Havana, she makes certain to involve her own graduate students, as well as those in Cuba and Soares’ students from Brazil. This international and intercultural exchange creates the vital links between the academic communities of Brazil, Cuba, and the USA that allow for virtually unlimited collaboration opportunities.
Aside from the many benefits of such a multi-national effort, this “Guerrilla Preservation” (a term coined by Andrew McMichael, one of Landers’ students) has its own rewards. Among the photographed materials, Landers and Soares found treasures like documents about the famous rebel leader of the 1812 Aponte Rebellion, an account of Cuba’s poet-cum-rebel Placido’s execution in Matanzas, a Baptism registry transcribed by the famous Yoruba ethnographer and Journalist Pierre Verger (found on a trip to Benin) and of course, the oldest known document of the Western Hemisphere.
Since its inception, this project has expanded beyond its original confines as scholars have stepped up to donate their time and their own photographs of endangered material from Latin America and Africa. Pablo Gomez, graduate student of Jane Landers and beneficiary of this project was inspired to apply for his own grant after learning of the state of historical records in his native Columbia. He currently follows in Landers’ and Soares’ footsteps, using money from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Program to train and fund graduates preserving documents in Quibdo, Choco.
Gomez, Landers and Soares will be speaking at the Harriet Tubman Institute’s 2010 Endangered Archives Workshop on Saturday, January 23.
Ecclesiastical Sources and Historical Research on the African Diaspora in Brazil and Cuba
Endangered Archives Workshop 2010
Endangered Archives Program, British Library
The National Endowment for the Humanities