Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies

A Conversation with Jane Landers

panorama of rio de janeiro

Jane Landers, professor of history at Vanderbilt University, talks with Choice about Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies, a database that digitally preserves over 600,000 endangered ecclesiastical and secular documents related to Africans and Afro-descended peoples in the Americas—specifically in Spanish Florida, Cuba, Brazil, and Colombia—from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

Jane Landers is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of History at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and the US representative to UNESCO’s International Scientific Committee for the Slave Route Project. She is Director of the Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies Database, which preserves the oldest serial records for Africans and their descendants in the Americas. Landers’s award-winning monographs include Black Society in Spanish Florida [1999] and Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions [2011]. She is also the coauthor or editor of five other books and author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles.

Her research has been supported by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the British Library Endangered Archives Programme. Landers serves as a historical consultant on archaeological investigations, museum exhibits, and documentary films, including most recently the PBS documentary “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” winner of the 2014 George Foster Peabody Award and 2014 Emmy, Outstanding Historical Program.

How would you describe the project to a perfect stranger?

The ESSSS project digitally preserves endangered ecclesiastical and secular documents related to the history of Africans and Afro-descended peoples in the Americas. Europeans, Chinese, and diverse Indigenous peoples are also represented. The archive now hosts over 600,000 unique images from Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, and Spanish Florida, documenting the history of between 4 and 6 million individuals. While most of the records date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the archive also holds sixteenth-century documents from Cuba and Spanish Florida, which are the oldest for our nation.

The project’s introduction states that many priests “are unaware of the historic significance of the documents they manage.” Tell me more about that historical significance.

Until recently, much of the scholarship on slavery relied on secular records of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from European and U.S. archives. Due to the often difficult locations and general inaccessibility of the ESSSS records, as well as the challenges of reading early modern Spanish and Portuguese paleography, few scholars have consulted them. Our records demonstrate that Africans were not simply laborers on plantations, but rather active participants in building the Atlantic world. Further, because slaves in the Iberian world were not simply chattel but enjoyed legal personality and voice, they had multiple avenues to freedom and became members of various religious, military, and occupational corporations. They left rich records that allow scholars to appreciate the complexity of early modern societies in the Americas.

How did ESSSS come to be? Was there one overarching question or goal that catalyzed its creation?

As a graduate student at the University of Florida, I first worked in Cuban church archives during the “Special Period” of the 1990s, when the U.S. embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had supported Cuba’s economy, made everyday life a struggle. I realized that many of these records were in jeopardy and that their preservation was (understandably) not a priority. As a faculty member at Vanderbilt University, I obtained a grant from the Latin American Microform Project (LAMP) to microfilm select Cuban records and subsequently received a Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that launched the ESSSS Project in 2003. Working with partners Paul Lovejoy of York University (Toronto, Canada), Mariza de Carvalho Soares of the Universidade Federal Fluminense (Niterόi, Brazil), and a team of graduate students from Vanderbilt University, I began digitizing endangered church materials in Havana and Matanzas, Cuba, and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Since the project’s inception, our prime directive has been to target and preserve the most endangered records that we can find and make them accessible to all.

Father Bendito, parish priest of the Santísima Trinidad church, next to part of the archive.

What was the process of acquiring and selecting materials like? Did you encounter any surprises along the way?

Securing permission from the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control for work in Cuba was a tedious and difficult process, as was shepherding an international team through Cuba and the many restrictions of that political system. Our ESSSS teams usually began with the oldest churches and records available, and worked initially in standard serial records such as baptismal, marriage, and burial records. When they were available we also digitized religious brotherhood records, confirmations, and other assorted records, such as expedientes (Spanish) and banhos (Portuguese), in which enslaved persons reported their birthplace, parentage, religious and marital status, race, occupation, owners, and other interesting biographical data. Realizing that we had to set some temporal limits, we decided to digitize as many records as we could until the abolition of slavery—1886 in Cuba and 1888 in Brazil. Although our initial focus was on religious records, we also began to digitize notarial records from provincial archives in Brazil, Cuba, and Colombia. We are now incorporating materials from African archives in Angola and Cabo Verde.The variety of archives in which we have worked have yielded a number of surprises. One of our most exciting finds was found in the Catholic Church records for Spanish Florida. This was a fragment of a document dated 1509 from Salvatierra la Sabana in what is today southwestern Haiti. It documented the baptisms of Indigenous Taínos for whom Spanish military men served as sponsors. Though Spanish Florida was not established until 1565, the document had been swept into the St. Augustine collection when it was temporarily held in Havana and was only returned to Florida in the 20th century.

The present condition of eighteenth-century manuscripts in Baracoa.

Describe some of the collaborations that made this project possible.

Monsignor Ramón Suárez Polcari, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Havana, wrote letters of introduction for our ESSSS team that gained us admittance into the colonial churches of Cuba. Professor Mariza Carvalho de Soares had similar contacts in the Catholic Church in Rio de Janeiro, where we followed the same basic model of locating the oldest churches and digitizing the oldest records first. Our subsequent projects in Colombia and in St. Augustine, Florida, followed the same work plan, and in all of these locales we depended heavily on the support of church and provincial archivists, university students, and volunteers who were devoted to saving their endangered history. We developed and administered workshops for all of the ESSSS in-country teams to learn digital photography and international standards for digitization and metadata curation. Many of the international students who participated in our projects went on to use the digitized materials in their graduate studies and continue to collaborate with ESSSS.

The archive comprises an immense number of documents from Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, and Spanish Florida. In what ways is the website organized in a manner that is conducive to research? How might one might navigate the site?

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we are in the process of enhancing the digital archive to make it easier for scholars and the general public to consult. Visitors to the website can access collections by country via tabs on the landing page ( Those skilled in sixteenth–nineteenth century Spanish and Portuguese paleography can consult the records directly, but we are in the process of adding transcriptions for those who cannot read manuscripts. In addition, visitors will find media galleries, links to related digital resources, church histories, teaching tools, and scholarship produced with ESSSS documents.

How has this collection played a role in the increasing influence of religion for scholars studying the history of slavery in the Americas?

While much of our collection derives from religious archives, we want to emphasize that their utility extends beyond the study of religion. Due to the corporate nature of Iberian society, Catholic Church records provide a window into not only the religious life of African and African-descended communities in the Americas, but also their social and political networks. Baptismal, marriage, confraternity, and burial records documented individuals’ racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups more frequently than contemporaneous secular documents. The serial nature of these religious records enables researchers to track individuals and families over time as well as shifting patterns in the Atlantic slave trade.

Felix Knights inside the Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, Havana, Cuba.

What is the intended audience of ESSSS? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

Our digital archive was initially designed, as other special collections are, to preserve endangered materials for posterity. Our site receives an average of 10,000 unique visitors a month, and our sources have been used by scholars, genealogists, and local historians in a number of countries. Our records have also contributed to the production of dissertations, articles, and monographs. As more transcriptions are uploaded to the site, we envision reaching new users, including undergraduates able to read Spanish and Portuguese.

Visit the Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies database to learn more:

This interview was conducted by Anna Denton. She is a student at Wesleyan University and an editorial intern at Choice.