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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
[email protected]

[1] URL:

[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.