Slave Trade Archives Project
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 archives1 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: Group 2:
Cape Verde Sao Tomé
Gambia Equatorial Guinea
Ghana Burkina Faso
Mozambique Group 3:
Central African Republic
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Latin America and the Caribbean
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
- 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
- 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
- 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 expertise3 so that they can continue to work independently to develop their
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
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.
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.
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
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 funds4 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.
Generally a sum of US $50,000.
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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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.
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.
Information Society Division
1 rue Miollis 75732 PARIS
Web : http://www.unesco.org/webworld/mdm