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Project : Slave trade archives Français

Description of project

UNESCO launched the Slave Route project in 1994 and set up an International Scientific Committee for the project. This Committee’s mandate is to examine the whole question of the slave trade, its impact on the prevailing economic, social and political situation in a number of countries and its role as a means of promoting intercultural dialogue. The Committee has stressed the importance of archives as the basis for the study of the slave trade. In this context, in 1999 UNESCO set up the Slave trade archives project, funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). The aim of the project is to improve access to and safeguard original documents related to the transatlantic slave trade and slavery throughout the world.

The international slave trade is a part of human history that has had a deep impact on most nations over long periods of time; its memory should be preserved. The Slave trade archives project is not a study of slavery as such. Rather, it is an attempt to improve the conservation and accessibility of slave trade records. That trade removed human beings (by whatever means) from their place of origin and put them elsewhere, under the control of other people. The project deals with original documentary sources that bear witness to the trade, mainly in the form of written documents. Digitization of these sources, particularly those at risk from deterioration, will help to establish a collective memory of this part of history. This project aims to improve access to and use of documents related to the slave trade and its various forms, in order to highlight its impact and lasting consequences. An access strategy has been outlined with a view to establishing on-line access through the UNESCO website and other sites devoted to the slave trade, as well as publishing multimedia CD-ROMs on the slave trade, acts of resistance to slavery, etc. The website dedicated to slave trade archives[1] has been created with this in mind. Its aims are to trace the main aspects of history related to the transatlantic slave trade by classifying documents according to where they are preserved and compiling a database of images relating to the various collections of transatlantic slave trade archives.

The first phase of the project was limited to the transatlantic slave trade organized from Africa from the end of the fifteenth century. It was therefore agreed that sources related to the slave trade in the Indian Ocean, the Sahara desert, Europe and Asia should be excluded for the time being, although these elements were also considered worthy of study. As part of the UNESCO Memory of the World programme and in close co-operation with the International Council on Archives (ICA), a feasibility study was carried out to identify, in order of priority, national archives and related institutions in several African, Latin American and Caribbean countries, with a view to upgrading their facilities and services in order to ensure adequate preservation of original records, to obtain copies in appropriate formats of documents held elsewhere and to provide training for technical staff. The aim is to provide the broadest possible access to archives and other documents pertaining to the slave trade and slavery in general.

That feasibility study identified the direct beneficiaries of the project as well as all those who will gain from it an increased awareness of the history of slavery. The protection of Africa's endangered oral traditions will also be addressed and specific co-operation projects will be recommended with relevant institutions such as the CELHTO (Centre d'études linguistiques et historiques par tradition orale) in Niamey (Niger), which maintains large collections of oral recordings and acts as a coordinator of international research on oral traditions and the slave trade.

Sphere of activity

Original sources related to the transatlantic slave trade are kept in three regions of the world: Africa (countries of origin); the New World (reception countries) and Europe, where much of the trade was organized.

The written history of the slave trade between Africa and the American continent is primarily based on written and iconographical sources preserved in many Western countries, mainly those that were involved in the trade (England, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Denmark, Prussia), but also in countries of origin, principally in West Africa (Senegal, Benin, Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sao Tome and Principe, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Gabon, Nigeria, Angola). In addition, records are still kept in reception countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (particularly Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti), not forgetting the United States of America. The time periods covered by these sources range from the end of the fifteenth century in Portugal to the mid-nineteenth century in Brazil and the United States and even 1870 in Cuba.

The project therefore focuses on the countries whose archives are in danger of deterioration and often difficult for users to access. Moreover, these particular archives offer a different perspective from those in northern countries involved in the slave trade, where they have usually already been exploited and where, for the most part, there is no urgent need for help from an international project, i.e. Denmark, Spain, the United States, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Portugal.

The project therefore concerns a number of African countries classified as follows, in order of priority, as well as archival institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Group 1:
  • Angola
  • Benin
  • Cameroon
  • Cape Verde
  • Gambia
  • Ghana
  • Guinea
  • Mozambique
  • Nigeria
  • Senegal
  • Togo
Group 2:
  • Congo
  • Gabon
  • Mali
  • Sao Tomé
  • Equatorial Guinea
  • Burkina Faso
Group 3:
  • Mauritania
  • Niger
  • Chad
  • Namibia
  • Central African Republic
  • Côte d’Ivoire
  • Liberia
Waiting list:
  • Guinea Bissau
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Sierra Leone
Amérique latine et Caraïbe

  • Argentina
  • Barbados
  • Brasil
  • Colombia
  • Cuba
  • Haiti
  • Trinidad and Tobago
(The Slave trade archives project is already operational in all the highlighted countries)

Material to be preserved: location and typology

In the European countries from which the slave trade was organized, information about slavery is recorded in the state archives, particularly those of the navy and customs administrations, but also of the colonial and commercial administrative bodies. Chronologically, these slave trade documents date from the time when trading posts and colonies were established along the African coasts, when the trade was first organized in France and England, at the end of the seventeenth century.

In the African countries that were victims of the trade, archives are normally preserved in those which, at the time, had a colonial or commercial administration. In West African countries, administrative archives particularly tended to be set up at the time when the slave trade was abolished, when France installed a territorial administration and when a local population was established in the British colonies.

The extent to which these collections are spread throughout the world illustrates the size of the task. Whereas archives have already been more or less identified in European countries, those in developing countries (or nations ravaged by war such as Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone) still do not have search facilities in place. Several different types of document are likely to contain information on how the slave trade worked.

  • Large series of French navy registers and Naval Office "shipping lists" contain quantitative slave trade data without any precise details of the shipments themselves.
  • Descriptions of the shipments, disciplinary matters and the places where trading took place are set out in the logbooks of the ships that transported the slaves and in shipping regulations and contracts (Portuguese "regimento").
  • Official correspondence between the local colonial authorities (particularly in West Africa) and national governments describes certain incidents involving the various companies that organized the slave trade before it was abolished (England 1807, Denmark 1803, France 1815, Portugal 1839).
  • Memoirs and accounts of journeys, full of information about the slave routes and the practices and customs of populations that were victims of slavery.
  • Legal case files preserved in court archives (difficult to pinpoint without a precise search facility).
  • Private documents: contracts for the sale of slaves, promissory notes, etc.
  • Censuses of blacks in colonies, particularly in Haiti, Liberia and Sierra Leone for former slaves who were freed and stayed in the reception country. Sierra Leone’s famous Liberate African Registers contain family information concerning the slaves who were freed by the English navy and relocated to Africa.
  • The local colonial press, such as the Moniteur colonial in Santo Domingo at the start of the Revolution or the Saint-Louis newspaper in Senegal at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
  • Collections of contemporary oral archives, preserving knowledge handed down orally in accordance with African tradition, such as the Oral Traditions of Fanti States (University of Legon, Ghana, 1970-1975) or the Senegalese cultural archives collected from 1966 onwards and now kept apart from the national archives.
Slave trade archives are extremely diverse and rarely complete, apart from artificial collections. Since they are scattered so widely, compiling an overall picture is a hopeless task, although by creating a database in each state concerned, it will be possible to form a coherent network that is indispensable for researchers who will be able to participate in and benefit from local digitization projects.

Objectives and means

The Slave trade archives project is based on a desire to guarantee the protection and accessibility of documents with a universal value through digitization and subsequent dissemination by electronic means. However, it does not aim to restore and preserve original collections themselves, since this would require a completely different approach and further investment (particularly in tropical regions, for example).

Digitization means that, both for original documents and for search aids, copies can be made accessible via the Internet and stored as part of the Memory of the World programme so that, in the long term, they can be used in educational and academic circles. Therefore, each participating country will be given funds to purchase technical equipment which should, as far as possible, be bought locally so that it can subsequently be maintained. In addition to the acquisition of a minimum level of technical equipment,[2] the project enables participating countries to benefit from technical training and develop technical expertise[3] so that they can continue to work independently to develop their cultural heritage.

The purpose of the missions organized in the participating countries is, in consultation with the relevant national authorities and archive departments, to catalogue the documents (in accordance with international standards) and digitize the relevant search aids. After training seminars are held on archiving and computing techniques, the digitization process is carried out, with a view to creating a CD forming the basis of the "digitization and accessibility" element of the project. In the end, depending on the agreed procedure, one copy of the CD will be kept in the country where the archives are preserved, with further copies sent to UNESCO and to an agreed institution, such as the national library of the country concerned. A complete set will be given to each participating country. Finally, the documents and catalogues will be disseminated via the websites of the participating countries’ archive departments, to which links will be provided on the UNESCO website.

Ultimately, this project will therefore facilitate international access to documents (images, texts and catalogues) that are preserved through digitization, as well as international cooperation regarding the interpretation and utilization of sources, in order to improve people's understanding of the slave trade. At national level, the project will provide up to 15 participating countries with IT and communications equipment.

Assessment and prospects

The first phase of the programme was initially scheduled to last from 2000 to 2003. However, the project has now been extended until the end of 2004. Teams comprising two experts (one responsible for digitization and information and communication technologies and the other for archive management) have been appointed for each of the four years to carry out planned missions. Although the project activities generally follow the same pattern and structure, each country's situation is individually assessed in order to draw up a specific programme.

At present, the project is operating in eleven countries: Benin, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana and Senegal in Africa, plus Argentina, Brazil, Barbados, Colombia, Cuba and Haiti. An initial training session held in Cape Town (South Africa) in February 2001 was used as a model for regional and national sessions organized in the participating countries.

The Slave trade archives programme (2000-2003)

As part of the Slave trade archives project, various short-term missions were carried out by small teams of people with technical qualifications and experience in archive management, document digitization and the use of appropriate electronic systems. To that end, training sessions and seminars were held, mainly in African countries. Each session marked the launch of the project in the participating country concerned and led to the production of a database and CD-ROM or to the establishment of Internet connections and websites. The various seminars were organized in order to bring together all the participating countries. However, most were regional in nature, apart from the one in Gambia, which was national.

In the Latin American and Caribbean countries, the programme is primarily dependent on local resources. UNESCO funds[4] are used to pay researchers, purchase equipment and create the end products.

  • Cape Town regional seminar (26 February-3 March 2001) -
  • The first seminar on the protection of the African documentary heritage was held in Cape Town (South Africa) from 26 February to 3 March 2001. Attended by 21 experts from 15 African countries, it provided an opportunity to explain to the participants the objectives of the Memory of the World programme and the Slave trade archives project. This seminar confirmed the desire to preserve the African documentary heritage and the principles of conservation and digitization were discussed with a view to enhancing access to documentary resources.

  • Ghana (4-16 June 2001) -
  • A mission (4 to 10 June 2001) and a seminar (11 to 15 June 2001) were organized under the aegis of the International Council on Archives (ICA) at the Accra headquarters of the Public Records and Archives Administration Department (PRAAD) of the Government of Ghana. Mr Cletus Azangweo, PRAAD Director, organized the seminar and mission with the help of UNESCO experts. The mission involved selecting computer equipment, buying it locally and installing it for use in designing and creating a website describing Ghana’s documentary and archive resources. A project implementation plan and method were defined during this regional seminar, the aim of which was to enable the participating countries to improve the conservation of slave trade documents and to facilitate public access to them.

  • Senegal (7-11 January 2002) -
  • Modelled on the Accra mission, the Dakar mission (7 to 11 January 2002), which had more of a subregional dimension, was the second event organized by UNESCO as part of the Slave trade archives project. In particular, it brought together the national archive directors of Mali, Mauritania, Guinea-Conakry, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso. The training workshop was held at the headquarters of the National Archives of Senegal (DAS). Ms Ba Awa Cissé and Mr Sissoko Mbaye, two DAS archivists, helped to organize the workshop in cooperation with UNESCO consultant, Mr Ahmed Bachr. They had both attended the seminar in Accra and supervised the installation of computer hardware and software and the development of the DAS website.

  • Gambia (5-19 July 2002) -
  • The Banjul mission was the first to be organized at national level and was attended by 21 professional archivists from various public institutions. The training workshop was held at the headquarters of the National Records Service (NRS). Ms Penda Ba, NRS Director, who had also attended the Accra seminar, offered considerable assistance to the two UNESCO consultants (Ms Madge Dresser and Mr Bachr) in preparing and organizing this important event, which aimed to develop and improve the NRS document conservation system. The NRS, which has been preserving Gambia's national archives since 1814, is the focal point of this document protection and preservation programme based on transparency, efficiency and reliability.

  • Cape Verde (6-15 March 2003) -
  • The Praia regional seminar was attended by representatives of five Portuguese-speaking African countries: Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tomé and Principe. Ms Claudia Correia, Director of the Arquivo Historico Nacional (AHN) of Cape Verde helped UNESCO consultant, Mr Abdenbi El Farh, with the preparation and organization of the seminar. A total of 14 archive specialists from the five countries plus one from Brazil participated in the seminar, which involved setting up a computer system and digitization programme and creating an AHN website containing slave trade documents from the period 1836 to 1890.

  • Benin (7 April - 2 May 2003) -
  • Following the same pattern as previous events, a training session and seminar were held in Porto Novo in Benin between 7 April and 2 May 2003, with Ms Elise Paraïso, Director of the Benin National Archives, as organizer and Mr Bachr as consultant. The 20 participants were from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Mali and Niger. As a result of this event, a variety of letters and political reports concerning the slave trade were collated and digitized and a Benin National Archives website was created.

  • Barbados -
  • In the Caribbean, the aim of the project is to locate and evaluate (quantitatively and qualitatively) original documents related to the slave trade and slavery in general. To this end, a special form, approved by UNESCO, has been drawn up to help Caribbean archival institutions compile a register of the historical documents that make up the documentary heritage. A team of six professionals from the Barbados Museum and Historical Society has been appointed to plan, manage and implement the project.

    In addition, Ms Alissandra Cummins, Director of the aforementioned institution, has supervised the implementation of the project in Barbados where, so far, a model CD-ROM containing 500 digitized documents has been produced and a website for the Barbados Museum and Historical Society has been created.

  • Cuba -
  • With documents dating from the sixteenth century occupying more than 27 km of shelf space and divided into around 217 collections, the Cuban national archives particularly contain 38 collections from the colonial era which constitute a valuable source of information on the slave trade. The Slave trade archives project, in which researchers and technicians from the Cuban national archives have participated, aims to preserve and process these documents so that, through new technologies, they may be accessible to the rest of the academic community in Cuba and abroad. Cuba, along with Brazil, was one of the most active slave trade centres. Ms Berarda Salabarría Abraham, Director of the Cuban national archives, has led the project, which will culminate in the establishment of the Cuban national archives website and the creation of a database.

  • Brazil -
  • The National Library of Brazil houses Latin America’s largest documentary collection, with around 8.5 million volumes (books, periodicals, manuscripts, seals, maps, scores, records, photographs, etc.), many of which relate to the history of slavery in Brazil. The Slave trade archives project made provision for the purchase of computer equipment and the creation of a CD-ROM describing the documents, the content of which is to be published on a website hosted by the National Library. These activities are being supervised by bibliographers, archivists and historians, as well as data processing experts (web designer, CD producers, digitization operators, etc.).

  • Argentina -
  • The reconstruction of one of the darkest periods of history, the black slave trade of the Rio de La Plata: this is the purpose of the participation of the Argentinian National Archives (AGN) in the Slave trade archives project, which forms part of the UNESCO Memory of the World programme. More than 500 archived documents have thus been digitized by the AGN with the financial support of UNESCO.

    Thanks to funding from the organization, archive specialists set up a project entitled "The Slave Route" (La Ruta de la Esclavitud). They examined 5,000 slavery-related documents preserved by the AGN in order to digitize a selection of 500. Consequently, Miguel Unamuno, AGN Director, announced that all that information would be accessible on the AGN website from July 2003.

  • Colombia -
  • One of the most remarkable aspects of American history is the presence of the black population originating from the African continent. Under the regime of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (present-day Colombia), this ethnic group played a vital role in the production process, and the contribution of black slaves to the national economy increased as the native population disappeared and the borders of exploited territories were pushed back. The documentary collection known as "blacks and slaves" recounts this important part of history and its accessibility is paramount for national and international research. By strengthening the computer infrastructure of the Colombian national archives (Archivo General de la Nación de Colombia) and making the "blacks and slaves" collection accessible via the Internet, the Slave trade archives project constitutes a huge step forward in terms of technological development. In order to preserve and disseminate this documentary heritage, UNESCO is supporting coordination activities in the archiving field and fostering integration and cooperation mechanisms in the area of research.

  • Haiti -
  • Slavery was practised for more than three centuries in Haiti, one of the few countries in which the fight against slavery led not only to its abolition but also to the country’s independence. This exceptional feat meant that Haiti played a key role in the tremendous changes that shaped the history of the whole Caribbean and Latin American region during the nineteenth century. The Haitian Library of the Holy Ghost Fathers, the National Archives and the National Haitian Committee on the Slave Route (sugar plantations) presented to UNESCO a plan to restore, preserve, archive and disseminate the documentary collections of these three Haitian institutions, many of which dated back to the eighteenth century and constituted a unique record of the history of slavery and the sugar plantations in Santo Domingo.

    As part of the Slave trade archives project, work on a joint electronic catalogue, to be disseminated via the Internet, will be carried out between November 2003 and July 2004. This unprecedented collection of archives from Haiti’s main documentary institutions will help to promote awareness of this part of history. Through this project, UNESCO and the Memory of the World programme will contribute to the 2004 celebrations of the bicentenary of the Haitian revolution and the declaration of the country’s independence.

Finally, we anticipate that the various international meetings at which the reports will be presented will recommend that the project be continued and enlarged beyond 2004. The ultimate objective would be the compilation of a database, accessible via the Internet, covering all primary documentary sources (including oral sources) related to the slave trade throughout the world.

Abdelaziz Abid
Information Society Division

[2] This equipment comprises: a computer with sufficient hard disk capacity; a scanner with minimum resolution of 600 dpi; a CD-writer; a stabilizing device or other means of controlling the electricity supply; a modem and Internet connection; and the appropriate software.

[3] Expertise in the installation, management and use of computers, focusing particularly on digitization programs, Internet connection, email systems, website management and the creation and use of CDs, as well as in the principles of physical conservation.

[4] Generally a sum of US $50,000.