Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Strategies of Survival: Resistance to Enslavement in the Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA)

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Strategies of Survival: Resistance to Enslavement in the Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA)

Article excerpt

In the field of Latin American history and those adjacent to it, it is impossible to discuss marronage and slave resistance without talking about sources. Few enslaved and free Africans and their descendants in the Americas left behind written documentation of their experiences and perspectives. Faced with a dearth of sources that capture the experiences of the enslaved in their own voices, scholars have had to read documents against the grain. The Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA) provides a unique window into reconstructing the life strategies and modes of resistance of the enslaved, as some of the best sources for resistance are often found in the most unusual collections. In this article, I will outline one such underutilized digital archive and discuss the various collections within it, and how the scholars who first identified and digitized these documents discovered records of marronage and other evidence of slave survival and resistance. In order to collect the widest range of samples regarding this topic, I spoke with several of these experts, and will cite their comments in the body of this article, which is organized by geographical region for ease of use.

The Slave Societies Digital Archive contains the oldest serial records of enslaved and free Africans in the Americas, dating from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. These include records from various distinct locations in Angola, Benin, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Cuba, and colonial Spanish Florida. Records from Florida comprise the oldest European sources for what is today the US. They are from the diocese of St. Augustine, and begin in the 1590s, a period from which very little research on Africans and their descendants has been produced. In total, the archive contains nearly three million records that provide details on the lives of six to eight million enslaved Africans.

SSDA documents largely consist of records from churches and notaries, two institutions that had regular, recorded contact with Africans and their descendants in black-majority areas of the Americas. Serial baptism, marriage and burial information in the Catholic Church records detail family and social networks over time, including baptismal and marriage sponsors, and for the enslaved, the names of their owners. These entries often trace unbroken lineage throughout hundreds of years, and show how enslaved and free people of color utilized religious sacraments to create enduring family and kinship ties that strategically transcended racial lines or status of enslavement. Catholic priests recorded not only the ceremonial and religious aspects of the lives of the enslaved, but also their social, political, and economic networks.

Testamentary records of free Africans also add information on economic networks and property holdings. The records of religious brotherhoods (called cabildos, cofradías, or irmandades) for both free and enslaved Africans include member lists, names of the brotherhood's officers, and also record the devotion, dues, and religious obligations of the brothers, such as to bury their members and provide charity to widows and orphans. All of this can be used to trace finances and the ways in which enslaved and free blacks pooled and leveraged wealth in mutually advantageous ways. As these brotherhoods tended to be organized along ethnic lines, these records regularly include the "nation" of the Africans in them. This type of ethnic designation is often lost to history when it comes to Africans who were enslaved and forcibly brought to the Americas. These records illuminate vital connections between Africa and the Americas

These records are available for the first time, sometimes in centuries, thanks to the efforts of a growing international team of dedicated students, researchers, archivists, librarians, clergy, and funding bodies who work together in identifying collections of endangered material in need of digitization, and bringing digital images of these materials to the public. …

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