Endangered Archives – Digitising Grenada’s Heritage

Grenada’s Endangered Archives


The British Library’s “Endangered Archives Programme” (EAP) aims to contribute to the preservation of archival material that is in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration world-wide. They achieve this principally through the award of grants in an annual competition. These grants provide funding to enable successful applicants to locate relevant endangered archival collections, to arrange their transfer to a suitable local archival home where possible, to create digital copies of the material and to deposit the copies with local institutions and the British Library.

Thankfully, back in 2009, Grenada was awarded a research grant of £39,297 (about US$60,000 or XCD$162,000) for 21 months by EAP’s International Advisory Panel of academic specialists and archivists: Anthea Case, Nada Itani, Paul Lihoma, Linda Newson, and Branka Prpa (on behalf of the sponsor Arcadia).

A word of caution – this wonderful project has not ‘saved’ the heritage assets of the Grenadian people or its National Archives. Far from it. The EAP has merely conserved, in digital format alone, a small proportion of this heritage. We are grateful for that much but the very documents themselves are still in tremendous danger of being completely lost to all for all time because of the continuing conditions they are under and what is not being done to restore, conserve, preserve and protect them.

Project Overview

Lead by Dr Laurence Brown from the University of Manchester, this project seeks to digitise the unique historical archives of Grenada which record the island’s significance at the intersection of the British and French Empires during the second half of the eighteenth century, and provide a rare vision of how the Windward Islands experienced the transition from slavery to emancipation during the mid-nineteenth century.

The project focuses on attempting to digitising 132 volumes of deed records and local government correspondence which provide a crucial source for understanding the major political, social and economic transformations of the Southern Caribbean. These rare sources can also be used to reconstruct the experiences of the everyday and subaltern lives.

The material vital and rare and provides a micro-vision of how Grenada was transformed in the late eighteenth century by imperial conflicts, the expansion of plantation slavery and revolutionary politics. The Supreme Court records reveal the multi-racial alliances and conflicts that marked slave society while Government House correspondence expresses the local negotiations and conflicts that shaped the prolonged transition to a free society during the mid nineteenth century. The French Records are held in a storeroom of the registry and have suffered considerably from heat, humidity, fading and corrosion. The papers are extremely brittle, the text is beginning to discolour, and the bindings are in danger of damage due to cramped storage conditions.

Government House correspondence was displaced by Hurricane Ivan which resulted in significant loss, and the disruption of its original listing order. The Public Library lost parts of its roof in 2004 which have yet to be fully repaired. Its fragmented newspaper holdings are extremely rare.

The French Deed Records provide a unique vision of the social complexity of Grenadian society as it was being transformed into a plantation colony during the late eighteenth century. They provide a valuable source for tracing the personal trajectories of migrants from Africa, Europe and elsewhere in the Caribbean and for understanding how the social and economic relationships between Grenada’s white, black and large mixed race population were being transformed during this period. The Letter Books of Grenada’s Colonial Secretary offer a detailed narrative of local events which is particularly significant given the limited and fragmented collections of local newspapers held by Grenada’s Public Library and the British Library. These papers provide a revealing counterpoint of local debates to the official correspondence of the Governor held in the National Archives at Kew. The inter-island correspondence of the Governor in Chief of the Windward Islands during the transition of emancipation is a crucial source for social, political and economic history of the Southern Caribbean, which has remained unused by historians despite the excellent scholarship of Woodville Marshall and Bridget Brereton on the region.

Digitising these records would enable public and scholarly access to these materials not only in Grenada and Britain, but also elsewhere in the Southern Caribbean, where these records would be of considerable interest in St Vincent, St Lucia, Martinique and Trinidad.

The project begins with the newspaper collection of the Grenada Public Library as this allows for a small discrete collection through which project members can be trained in best practice for digitisation and the management of meta-data. During the second third of the project the French Deeds will be digitised while the archival researcher re-orders the Government House correspondence in preparation for later digitisation.

Digital copies of the rare deed records, local government correspendence and local newspapers will be deposited with the National Archives of Grenada and the British Library; the Government House correspondence and Registry records will be ordered and preserved in archival boxes; a digital photographer and archival researcher will be trained in current best practice; and two training sessions on best practice in digitisation and digital records management will be open to relevant professionals within and outside Grenada – it is hoped these would attract public sector personnel from across the Eastern Caribbean.

The project has the full support of the University of the West Indies and the Grenada National Archives, with Dr Curtis Jacobs and Ms Lillian Sylvester project co-applicants from these respective institutions. The Grenada National Archives Committee intends that within the life of this project the Grenadian government will have authorised the construction of a new National Archive building which would be the repository for the originals and digital copies generated by this project.

For the current status check-out our page at Grenada’s Endangered Archives.

Dr Laurence Brown’s Profile

Lawrence Brown (29-02-2012)_smLaurence Brown is Lecturer in Migration History. His main research interests are the Caribbean diaspora (1760-present), labour migration in the remaking of nineteenth century colonialism, and the impact of migration on contemporary Western Europe.

After completing a doctorate in comparative history at the University of York in 1999, he was a lecturer at the University of the West Indies (Barbados) and at the American University of Paris. In 2004-2005 he held a research fellowship at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University that focused on exploring the connections between colonial migration networks in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans during the nineteenth century.

The Project Begins

In November 2010 James W Robinson, the University of Manchester senior photographer, flew to Grenada to assist and advise on a digitisation project. Before the digitisation project began, we were advised on the right equipment to purchase, and given some basic tips for digitising the archives.

The British Library wrote:

The project seeks to digitise the unique historical archives of Grenada which record the island’s significance at the intersection of the British and French Empires during the second half of the eighteenth century, and provide a rare vision of how the Windward Islands experienced the transition from slavery to emancipation during the mid-nineteenth century.”

James says:

“The digitisation of the Grenada archives is an extremely important project, both to protect the very fragile and ‘endangered’ material, and to open up access to some incredible information and history.

“The project focuses on digitising 132 volumes of deed records and local government correspondence which provide a crucial source for understanding the major political, social and economic transformations of the Southern Caribbean. These rare sources can also be used to reconstruct the experiences of the everyday and subaltern lives.”

Camillo Stewart is Grenada Archive’s project photographer, and Dr. Curtis Jacobs, the project leader. Camillo showed James some of the work that has already been carried out, and the set up which we are using. Currently, the project is using a Nikon D700 to capture the images.

On 15 November James presented to the team, and some invited guests from the Grenadian Government, on the importance of digitisation, and what they do back in the UK. Hopefully, Dr. Jacobs and the team will be able to expand our work, and digitsise a whole host of other material, that is in desperate need of attention.

Laurence Brown joined me, and held a workshop on best practice for digitisation. Hopefully, we will also be teleconferencing with other islands in the area, advising them on similar digitsation bids.

Presentation at the Univeristy of the West Indies
On the 16th James gave his presentation at the University of the West Indies, to the team and invited guests from the public library and government. He says:

“It’s a whole different ball game setting up and working over here. Storage of items is a major issue, there just isn’t the space to move archives into suitable conditions. Luckily, thanks to this project, many positive changes have already taken place, re packaging and organising much of the material.”

Miss Patsy Baptiste, and Miss Roxanne Edwards have been working in the office of the Governor General and the Supreme Court Registry respectively, cleaning, organising and repackaging the material to digitise.

The office of the Governor General holds Government correspondence, letters and records, dating back to the 18th century. The Supreme Court Registry holds many records relating to slavery, criminal records, land deeds, execution records and other historical documents. The space the archives are held is actually the next room along to where the executions used to take place!

We looked at some material in extremely poor condition. These documents are some of the worst affected by hurricane Ivan in 2004. There are some very worrying signs of mould throughout the manuscripts, and some even still feel damp, which means mould spores could still be active. As some of the pages have dried, they have became very brittle, and it is difficult to even turn a page without damaging it. The advice was to leave well alone! Perhaps future funding bids could be applied for which could pay for conservation of these incredibly important items.

Damaged Manuscript

One of the worst damaged manuscripts

On the 17th we took a look at some very fragile documents, and working out the best way to photograph them.

Laurence Brown also presented his paper at the University about migration of the Grenadian people during the 18th and 19th century. It was a very interesting look at some of the social history that has been gleamed from some of the material we have been looking at during my visit.

James ends saying:

It has been a pleasure staying here for the week, I have had such a fantastic trip, and met so many incredible people. Hopefully, other similar projects will get funding all over the Caribbean, and our team will be involved on a much greater level. There is so much valuable material that is in danger of being lost forever.

Remember to check out the latest by joining our Facebook Group at Grenada’s Endangered Archives
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