About the Archive

The Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA), directed by Jane Landers and hosted at Vanderbilt University, is dedicated to identifying, cataloging, and digitally preserving endangered archival materials documenting the history of Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic World.

The SSDA’s largest and oldest collections were generated by the Catholic Church, which mandated the baptism of African slaves in the fifteenth century and later extended this requirement to the Iberian New World. The baptismal records preserved in Slave Societies are the oldest and most uniform serial data available for the history of Africans in the Atlantic World and offer the most extensive information regarding their ethnic origins. Once baptized, Africans and their descendants were eligible for the sacraments of Christian marriage and burial, adding to their historical record. 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 their social, political, and economic networks as well.

Africans and their descendants also left a documentary trail in municipal and provincial archives across the Atlantic World. These secular records, which Slave Societies is now preserving too, include bills of sale, property registries and disputes, dowries, and letters of manumission, among many other types of records.

Unfortunately, many of these historical documents are at risk. Some materials preserved by SSDA teams have suffered significant damage; others no longer exist except in digital form. The goal of Slave Societies is 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.