The Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA), now collaborating in the Enslaved Hub, is the largest digital collection of records for Africans in the Atlantic World. It holds approximately 600,000 images from Brazil, Cuba, Colombia and Spanish Florida that date from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. These records document the lives of approximately six million free and enslaved Africans, their descendants, and the indigenous, European, and Asian people with whom they interacted.
SSDA was launched in 2003 with a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant to partners Jane Landers of Vanderbilt University, Mariza de Carvalho Soares of the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Brazil, and Paul E. Lovejoy of York University in Canada. With this grant, SSDA teams preserved 150,000 records in Brazil and Cuba. Subsequent grants from the British Library Endangered Archives Programme, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Diocese of St. Augustine, and the Historic St. Augustine Research Institute allowed SSDA teams to expand to new sites in Brazil, Cuba, Colombia and Spanish Florida. The latter are the oldest for our country.
The Catholic Church mandated the baptism of African slaves in the fifteenth century and later extended this requirement to the Iberian New World. Baptismal records preserved in SSDA are the oldest and most uniform serial data available for the history of Africans in the Atlantic World, offering the most extensive information regarding their ethnic origins. Once baptized, Africans and their descendants were eligible for the sacraments of Christian marriage and burial. Through membership in the Catholic Church, families also generated a host of other religious documentation such as confirmations, petitions to wed, wills, and even annulments. In addition, Africans and their descendants joined church brotherhoods organized along ethnic lines, through which they recorded not only ceremonial and religious aspects of their lives but also their social, political, and economic networks.
Africans and their descendants also left a documentary trail in municipal and provincial archives across the Atlantic World. SSDA is now preserving secular records that include petitions by free and enslaved Africans, property registries and disputes, dowries, letters of manumission, and bills of sale, among many other types of records. Unfortunately, many of these historical documents are at risk from tropical humidity, hurricanes, political instability, and neglect. Some materials preserved earlier by SSDA teams have suffered significant damage; others no longer exist except in digital form. SSDA teams race against time to preserve as many of these unique documents as possible and make them freely available to the world so that current and future generations can continue to learn about the history of Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic World. SSDA is currently managing three projects in Brazil and another in Cuba and we have proposals pending to launch new projects in Brazil and the Dominican Republic. We are excited to collaborate with so many wonderful and related projects through the Enslaved Hub and to link our data to the important and diverse data each of our partners holds.