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May 20, 2016

Introducing BARDSS

May 20, 2016 | By | No Comments

logoIntroducing BARDSS is a website developed as part of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative, to explains and promote another digital project called BARDSS, the Baptismal Records Database for Slave Societies. BARDSS is intended to be a user-friendly and searchable online database that will make accessible detailed data from the baptismal records of thousands of African and African-descended individuals across the Americas. Because BARDSS is still a work in progress, we created this site to update about its progress and to discuss some of their features.

Our goal with this website is to socialize and receive feedback for the construction of this project before we launch the software. We discuss our decisions in relation to the structure of the fields, the selection of the data, and how we visualize future search tools. This democratic process of creating knowledge, we believe, is one of the main achievements of our nascent digital age. The site is divided in six sections including the landing page. We cover the majority of the key issues we faced while creating BARDSS. The pages explains, the records we used and what that type of information their contain. The Fields section detailed how we group the content of the baptismal records into categories. The Search section shows ho we envision the tools that users will have available to conduct different type of crossed search. Finally, the section called Visualization is a projection of what type of questions BARDSS can answer through its visualization tool.  We hope that BARDSS will be not only be public as a finished digital tool, but that its creation will also be a public endeavor and that this website could help to achieve this goal



April 14, 2016

BARDSS and the Study of Slavery and the Slave Trade

April 14, 2016 | By | No Comments

         BARDSS will allow scholars of Atlantic slavery to access data on hundreds of thousands of individual African slaves and their descendants who lived and died in Latin American slave societies.  The quantity of data in BARDSS means that historians and social scientists will be able to use baptismal records as a kind of census, opening many possible avenues for research. One exciting possibility for historians of the slave trade is to employ BARDSS data to fill gaps in our existing knowledge of Atlantic slave trade patterns. One cannot understate the impact of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database on our understanding of the Atlantic slave trade.  However, due to the fragmented nature of the sources, the data is often quite incomplete.  For example, out of the 910 transatlantic slave voyages that arrived in Cuba from 1789 to 1820, during the era of the legal slave trade, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database  can only tell us the African region of embarkation for 239 (Fig.3).  Thus, the African origin for nearly three-quarters of the Cuban transatlantic slave trade is a puzzle.  However, by examining the contents of BARDSS’ Origin attribute, we can begin to assemble the missing pieces and complete our picture of African forced migration to Cuba.


          Churches usually baptized African slaves soon after their arrival in the Americas, and, as noted above, the vast majority of these slaves were identified as belonging to an African nation.  While these nations may not have corresponded to contemporary African polities or ethnic groups, they correlated closely with the different African coasts where slave ships embarked their captives.  For the year of 1808, for example, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database contains information on seven slave ships landing captives in Cuba.  Of these seven, one arrived from the Bight of Biafra, one from the coast of present-day Sierra Leone, and the other four were of unknown origin.  By looking at the baptisms performed in just one church in Havana, Espiritu Santo, during 1808, we can begin to make educated guesses about the unknown embarkation regions of the remaining two ships.  Surprisingly, a plurality of the African slaves baptized in the Church of Espiritu Santu were identified as Congo, a national origin corresponding to a sprawling region of West Central Africa (see figure 4).  We can be fairly certain, then, that at least one of the two ships took on slaves along the coast of present-day Angola and Gabon.



             BARDSS’ ability to tell us about the African origins of slaves in the Americas is even more crucial for the era of the illegal slave trade, which continued on a large scale in nineteenth-century Brazil and Cuba.  Smugglers of slaves, hoping to cover their tracks, rarely left behind detailed itineraries of their illicit voyages.  In many cases, details about illegal slaving voyages are only known thanks to the interdiction of mainly-British naval vessels tasked with hunting down slave ships.  In 1830, Matanzas was a thriving center of Cuban coffee and sugar production–industries dependent on the labor of enslaved Africans. For historians interested in learning about the African origins of the slaves working Matanzas’ cafetals and ingenios, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is a poor source.  It contains information on only one ship, the schooner Santa Rosa, which in 1830 unloaded slaves of unknown origin in Matanzas. What little Slave Voyages can tell us about this ship comes from the records of British officials tasked with the slave trade in Cuba.  However, the baptismal records of the San Carlos Cathedral in Matanzas tell a different story.  In 1830, 284 adult African slaves were baptized at San Carlos.  They belonged to more than seven different nations corresponding to every major slave trading region on the Atlantic coast of Africa (see figure 4).  Clearly these individuals could not have all arrived on the Santa Rosa. Instead, the Matanzas slave trade appears to have been wide-ranging, with slave ships bringing captives from Upper Guinea and Sierra Leone (Mandinga and Ganga), the Bights of Benin and Biafra (Arara, Carabali, Lucumi, and Mina), and from the coast of Central Africa (Congo) (Fig. 5).



              BARDSS’ utility is not limited to studies of the Atlantic slave trade itself.  After all, African slaves baptized as older children or adults comprise only a portion of the entities included in the database.  In many circumstances, the majority of baptized individuals were newborn infants, whose parents’ names (often including ethnonyms) and birthdates were recorded by the priest performing the baptism ceremony.  This allows historians a glimpse into the intimate lives of enslaved people.  For example, the archives of San Carlos in Matanzas record 368 infants born in the year 1830–a frequency of 1.01 per day.  By month, the number of births ranged from a low of 22 in August to a high of 38 in October.  Adjusting for the length of each month, the frequency of births ranged from 0.71 per day in August to 1.23 in September–an increase of 73 percent (see figure 5).  What might account for the steep decline in Matanzas births during the summer of 1830 and the dramatic rise in autumn?  With BARDSS, a inquiring researcher would be able to compare birth rates from one year to the next and across geographical locations in order to determine whether and where this pattern was repeated.  If so, he/she might begin to identify environmental, social, or economic explanations for this pattern (Fig. 6).


            Needless to say, we cannot give a full accounting here of the possibilities BARDSS offers for historians, social scientists, and genealogists.  As with any source, the informativeness of baptismal records depends on the questions researchers ask of them.  BARDSS can tell us about much more than baptisms. It contains data on locations, dates, children, parents, priests, slaves, slaveholders, free people of color, the African slave trade, and more.  As described above, BARDSS data can be used alongside those of other online databases to fill gaps in our knowledge of the past and answer important historical questions.  



March 22, 2016

BARDSS: The Administrator and the User Interface

March 22, 2016 | By | No Comments

This post explores the structure of BARDSS and, in particular, how we envision the user interface which might be launched by the end of April, 2016. BARDSS is divided into two main domains: the data entry/administrator interface and the user, search, and visualization interface. The data entry is only accessible for those working in the project. It is used by the team in charge of extracting the data from the documents and migrating it to the software. The user interface has a main landing web-page with diverse sections. The most important tool in the user interface is the search tool. This is where users can do crossed search based on the fields already listed and that we already introduced to the readers in the last post.

This is how we migrate data from the documents to the data entry form or administrator interface (Fig. 1): In order to make everything faster, we divide the screen into two windows, one for the database entry section, and the other for the digitized copy of the baptismal records. It looks more difficult than it actually is. There are many predetermined field that we just need to click on to add the data. For example, if we click on gender, legal status or filiation , a tab open with the limited options for those fields. We just need to select one of them. Once a field is added, we can reuse it without needing to write it again. For example, in the field “African origin,” every time we find a new “African nation” we click on the icon (+) and add the new nation. This feature works in the same way for owner, priest, church, and location. Once added, everything is faster. Fields are reusable. If the conditions are favorable, the images are clear, and the calligraphy is not extremely complicated, we usually spend around three minutes to add a single baptismal record to the database. We can access to the list of every record we have added and we can edit them whenever we want (Fig. 2).

addbaptismFig 1: Screenshot of the data entry section or administrator interface

dataentryFig. 2: Screenshot of a record list from the administrator interface

The user Interface: a work in progress

This is how we envision the user interface (Fig.3). The landing page will contain the basic information of BARDSS, but most important, the search tool. The section Using the Database offer to the users some instruction of how to navigate the site. This section will also contain the description of the fields. In particular, we want to highlight that some fields need to be approached carefully such as “African Nation” and “Race.” This section will also contain a glossary of historical terms that are usually used in the documents. Map and Images will contain some significative images related to slavery in places represented on BARDSS such as Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, and Florida. An interactive map will show the location of those parishes that show up on the site. About the Project is dedicated to acknowledging those institutions and individual contributors that have helped to make this project possible. It will also have some links to related projects such as the ESSS or the “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database”. Finally, the Contribute will make possible for users working with baptismal records on slave societies to collaborate with our project. We have not decided yet what would be the best way to make possible this collaboration through an interactive method between collaborators and administrators.

userinterface                                                            Fig. 3: BARDSS landing page

The most important section in BARDSS is the search tool, this is the core of this project. The goal is that users can make different types of crossed search based on the fields contained in the database. There are two main ways to search in the database, by data categories or by text. Data categories are those fixed fields we used to move the information from the document to the database. The great majority of the fields from BARDSS could be considered “data categories.” Some examples are gender, origin, filiation, legal status, age category, etc. The text category refers to those fields that are mainly plain text, such as names of the owners, baptized individual, mother, father, etc. The left side of the side in the search section will contain a list of the data and the users just need to choose/filter to obtain the results. After the search, the results will show up in a table expandable columns containing the fields selected during the search. Based on the successful project, the “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database,” BARDSS will make possible to the users to visualize their search. The results can be manipulated in the form of graphs, pie charts, and bar charts. Next section will show some of this features and some samples of the type of visualization users can expect from BARDSS.

serchtool                                            Fig. 4: The search tool, a work in progress



February 10, 2016

Structuring the Fields

February 10, 2016 | By | No Comments

     It is time to show the fields we are using in our database on Baptismal Records for Slave Societies (BARDSS). In previous posts, we pointed out that this database was possible thanks to a project hosted at Vanderbilt University and led by professor Jane Landers. Landers and her team have been travelling to different places in the Americas to digitized endangered parish records. They have uploaded to the web these records for public and free access. Although we are using only baptismal records from Africans and African descendants, the Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slaves Societies contain burial, marriage, and many other type of civil records. All these documents have a particularity that makes them a perfect candidate for a digital database project. Regarding period of time, place of origin or language, these records are quite homogeneous. The explanation lies in the centralized nature of the Catholic church. Thus, we are not facing the disparity of information that has faced other similar digital projects. 

This is an example of a baptismal record from the parish of “San Carlos” in Matanzas, Cuba.

baptismal record

These are some of the fields from this particular baptismal record:

  1.  Date of baptism: Sunday, May 30, 1830
  2.  Priest: D. Manuel Francisco Garcia
  3. Age Category: “Parbulo” (Infant)
  4. Date of birth: May 2nd, 1830
  5. Filiation: legitimate (born from married parents)
  6. Father’s name: Francisco (it is also Criollo)
  7. Mother’s name: Maria de la O
  8. Nation: Ganga (African denomination used in Cuba)
  9. Legal status: Slave
  10. Owner: D. Francisco Hernandez Fiallo
  11. Name of the baptized individual: Felipe
  12. Godmother’s name: Ceferina
  13. Godmother’s African “nation”: Mina            

Baptismal records are fairly homogeneous regarding period of time or location:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 1.04.18 PM

Finally, after some discussions and after comparing different baptismal records from diverse regions and period of time, we created this relational diagram. The following diagram show all the fields from BARDSS and the hierarchical relation among them:






February 9, 2016

The Importance of Fields in Database Projects

February 9, 2016 | By | No Comments


       We discussed in previous posts about the importance of selecting representative fields when we are creating a database based on historical records. It is critical to go back again to this point due to the importance it has while designing a functional digital database. We all know that historical sources contain disparate universes of data. Historians, in general, extract from the documents what they need for they own research. This selectiveness inherently to the historiographical craft makes sources manageable for us. We simplify, mutilate, and make documents “legible” in order to answer our own questions. We ignore or overlook elements that we consider are not significative for our research. For instance, if we are working on different type of sources such as  inquisitorial and plantation records, and we are looking at religious practices of Africans in the Americas, we are going to privilege the testimonies of slaves on the legal trial or their ethnicities recorded in some plantation papers. Probably, we will overlook the sugarmills machinery because it is not significative to make our point. However, if we are creating a database of plantation records from Louisiana, and that database aims to be comprehensive, we probably would like to include as many fields as possible such as sugar mills machinery. For doing a historical digital database, it is crucial to think about it on the most broader possible way. A database is not just an individual enterprise tributing to our particular research. It is a repository for potential multiples types of historical inquiries.  

        However, like it is the case for a conventional monograph, we need a central theme for a database. It is essential that we are clear about what is our subject because the fields need to be connected among them around the main topic. For instance, slaves themselves are the main protagonists of a database on runaway slaves. In a relational diagram of fields, the slaves are at the center while owners, physical marks, date of capture, and “nation” are subfields tributing to the slave or main entity. Take now the example of the most successful digital project on the slave trade: the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (TSTSB). The main subject is the slave ship. Every field in the database is centered around those vessels transporting forced human cargoes from Africa to the Americas. Variables such as flags, date of departure, captain, owners, number of slaves or mutiny on board are instances related to a particular ship. The TSTDB resulted from the diverse type of documents located around the globe. These disparate records were written in different languages, with diverse purposes, over more than three centuries, and by disparate historical actors. Many of this documents had been used before by historians to write their classic monographs and some of these historians collaborated later to enlarge the TSTDB. Therefore, the question to ask is how was possible to translate such diverse historical sources into a single and coherent project without losing sight of comprehensiveness.

      First of all, the authors of the project are renowned specialists not only on the topic of the slave trade but also on quantitative studies. They simplified to standardize. I think this the key to create a manageable digital database when the universe of documents we are using is extremely heterogeneous. After a careful study, and based on their years of experience, the authors of the TSTDB determined those fields that were likely to show up on documents related to the Atlantic slave trade. For instance, documents usually mention information such as the ship name, the captain, number of captives, date of departure/arrival or nationality of the vessel. The fact that sometimes the name of the vessel is not mentioned does not make any difference about the importance of including that field. In the same way, that sometimes the color of the vessel is mentioned in some documents is not a reason to include that information as an individual field. Why? because the aesthetic of the ship is not something that appears regularly in the sources. As a consequence, that feature does not deserve a particular field. If we create a field for every detail from the documents in order to create a database, the result would be an oddly high number of empty fields. The database would not be functional.

The other element we have to take into account is that we will deal during the process with software developers and their programming language. They need a clear project based on coherent and interrelated fields. Programmers in general, in particular, those accustomed to create databases based on contemporary data, do not understand completely our initial intention of putting together a database based on fragmentary data. Take the example of a programmer that have done digital platforms for credit card companies. He/she has been databasing customers. He/she is used to a coherent and complete set of data. Unlike the aforementioned case, historians have to deal usually with fragmentary data. Thus, programmers have to create relationships between fields that could be or not entirely populated. Second, It happens often that historians resist simplifying their information when it come to formulate their digital projects. This attitude is based on epistemological principles that make sense while writing monographs, but that are not completely functional while creating a digital database. This is not a matter of gathering all the data we think  are or could be significative information for potential research. We have to choose fields that regularly appears in the documents in order to standardize them which mean, make a functional digital database. Our solution for exceptional or not usual data is an empty box where we write complementary information that did not make it as a separate field because its lack of representativeness. Fortunately, we did not face that issue while creating BARDSS. Our database is based on an extremely coherent set of information regarding time and space. After all, baptismal records were from the beginning, intended to be a sort of legible and coherent collection of data on population. Next post we will show some documents and how we extracted the information from them and transformed into a relational diagram




February 7, 2016

Databasing Historical Records: Some of the Challenges

February 7, 2016 | By | No Comments

       Structuring a database is not an easy task. During this year of work, we have faced many challenges that have required from us great intellectual efforts and reflection. Nevertheless, I have heard from “digital humanists” and programmers that because we have a software developer, we are not making the database, that someone is doing it for us. The underlying argument is that we need knowledge on basic principle of programming such as HTML and CSS to claim authorship in the making-process. Having that programming skills today is helpful. However, that our participation on programming is limited does not mean we are not the main creators of the database. This blog shows some of the main challenges that make us -the historians- crucial for this type of project and it is, in part, an answer to technocratic point of views on the relationship historians and software developers.

First, the concept of the project –databasing baptismal records–, is ours. This project is not something that anyone could have imagined without the proper historical training. You need to know about sources, their internal logic, the institutions that produced them, paleography, and other language skills. It is important to decide the fields that can be extracted from the sources without violating the integrity of the documents. We have to respect historical concepts and to know that their meanings changed over time. We decided how to organize the fields in a coherent and hierarchical way. We need to translate our needs to programmers without historical training. We, historians, are the most important actor. Thus, HTML and CSS play a minor role to conceive the idea. The developing part is crucial, but should not be confused with the first step. This assertion is true for those cases where social scientists rely on programmers to materialize their projects.

      We had important elements in our advantage when we started this project. First, the digitized copies of the original documents are available online. The project “Ecclesiastical & Secular Sources for Slaves Societies” (ESSSS) has digitized and posted online the parish records from Colombia, Brazil, Cuba, and Florida. Without this amazing repository, our database would have been impossible. These baptismal records are geographically, linguistically, and temporally diverse but, due to the centralized nature of the Catholic church, they are also homogeneous sources, regardless of language, period, and region. This circumstance makes them the perfect candidate to build a transnational standardized database. It makes also doable to move the data from the digitized documents to an accessible, searchable, malleable, and “cleaner” digital format. It sounds easier than it is though.

      Defining the categories or fields that will be in the search tool is definitely challenging. Even when the documents are homogeneous, there is often new information showing up we need to decide if it deserves an individual field or not. Databases must have a limited universe of regular fields to make them functional.  We restricted our variables to those that regularly appear in the documents and those which do not show up frequently are included in the field “Miscellaneous.” Deciding the fields is not the only challenge. Naming the fields is another difficult step. Take the example of race and ethnicity. Categories, language, and meanings of race differ over time and by region. For instance, the are sometime equatable categories of race from the Portuguese and from the Spanish-speaking world. Anglo-speaking regions have had different definition of race. In both cases, race categories are subjected to change over time. We do not want to violate the documents, thus, we kept race as it appears in the sources, including the original language. Something similar happens with African ethnic designations in the Americas. Across different regions, African origins are defined in every document as nations. We keep the term “nation” as it appears in the document, although sometimes these categories do not represent and ethnic identity that carried meaning in an African context. These decisions resulted after long discussions and after reading the most important historiography on the topic. There is always a great space for disagreement. The next post will discuss some elements we took in account while structuring our fields. 




February 2, 2016

AHA presentation and discussion of BARDSS

February 2, 2016 | By | No Comments

       In January, we presented our project, the Baptismal Record Database for Slaves Societies, at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association.  This was the second time we showed our project in public. The first time we did it was during a workshop organized by Vanderbilt University, by professor Jane Landers in November 2015. On that occasion, we presented BARDSS in front of renowned scholars working in several digital projects related to African slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade. It was an exciting opportunity to discuss many topics of great concern for digital humanists working on databases today such as how to standardise fields, how to put together different databases about similar but not the same topic, or how to define conflicting concepts such as race and nation which usually change dramatically along the Americas. After two intense days of discussion, the only implicit agreement was that there is a need to link diverse but related digital projects on slavery. In that direction, professor Walter Hawthorne coordinated a group of panels for the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association.

      Our presentation at the AHA had little to add to what we already have done three months before at Vanderbilt. At that point, we had already agreed with our programmer to work on the visualization/search interface. Thus, we presented how we envisioned this interface. Most important, we showed the different search tools that users will have available and the charts and graphics that the system will create after this search. We discussed again some of the challenges we faced while drafting BARDSS. Some of them, already pointed out, were, for instance, to choose what fields from the documents deserved to be in the main search tool and not in the miscellaneous section or how we would treat different languages across the Americas. We were not sure at the beginning of this enterprise if we had to translate definition of races, even if this would be possible. We kept race definitions it in their original languages, and the reasons we took these decision will be another blog content. Rather, I would like to focus on one of the main issues that we discussed at the AHA: Is it possible to merge different databases in a single database?

The question raised because some of the similarities of the projects presented at that panel. In particular, because professor Patrick Manning presented his interesting project of creating a meta-database of human population. The questions were addressed mainly to him because the ambitious character of his project. There are basic fields, all we agreed, that can be compared or subsumed into a single project, such as sex, age, height, professions. There are other databases related to specific universe of documents that make little sense out of their documentary logic. A database on runaway slaves had particularities that does not exist for other type of databases like, for instance, date of capture. The same applies to projects on liberated Africans that contains non-replicable data such as the capture of the ships where the slaves were transported to the Americas. The main challenge is –this is still the issue- to create a dialog among different projects; Is it possible to create at least a sort of soft linkability. This is a discussion still opened to more points of view.




December 4, 2015

BARDSS – “Baptism Record Database for Slave Societies”

December 4, 2015 | By | No Comments

BARDSS   Hi everyone, I would like to introduce the project I am developing now at Michigan State University. I am currently working collaboratively with Andrew Barsom, a fellow doctoral student in the Department of History at MSU, on the Baptismal Record Database for Slave Societies (BARDSS) project. This online database, which is part of MSU’s Slave Biographies network, will contain information on hundreds of thousands of slaves and free people of color, their owners, and their families in places such as colonial Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, Florida, and Louisiana. The BARDSS data is drawn from the baptismal records that have been digitized and made available online thanks to the Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies (ESSSS) project at Vanderbilt University ( Because to the uniformity of Catholic baptismal entries over the centuries and across national boundaries,BARDSS is inherently an expandable project designed to encourage collaborative contributions from scholars of geographically and chronologically diverse settings around the Atlantic World. BARDSS has the potential to transform the study of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade, by allowing scholars to easily access and manipulate large demographic datasets containing information on individual enslaved persons and their relationships with other slaves, free people of color, and slave owners. For each baptismal entry included in the database, BARDSS includes information on the geographical location, name, age, gender, race, national identity, parentage, god-parentage, legal status, and ownership of the baptized individual. The broad scope of this information will allow historians the flexibility to answer a wide range of historical and sociological research questions using a variety of analytical methods. Furthermore, BARDSS will be a potentially valuable genealogical resource for individuals in the wider public who trace their origins to the colonial Americas.



September 30, 2015

CHI Fellow Introduction: Jorge Felipe Gonzalez

September 30, 2015 | By | No Comments

image (1)

I am a second year PhD student in the Department of History at MSU. I received my undergraduate degree in History at the University of Havana in 2007. During a couple of years after graduation, I taught different courses at my Alma Mater. After a research stay as a fellow at the Iberoamerican Institute in Berlin, I started working as a researcher at the Fernando Ortiz Foundation in Cuba. The first digital project I was involved was a digital database about the liberated Africans community in Cuba during the 19th century. I coordinated a team of scholars working in Cuban archives, collecting, processing, and adding data to a software created for this project. Currently, I am developing with a colleague another digital database (hosted at MATRIX at MSU) based on baptism records from the black population from Cuba, Brazil, and the US. This project will gather substantial new information about slaves and their descendants in different regions in the Americas. This fellowship is a great opportunity to enrich my knowledge about digital tools that historians can apply for processing, preserving, and sharing data. CHI is undoubtedly related to my research interests.

My PhD dissertation focuses on the Atlantic connections among slave traders from Upper Guinea, Cuba and the Southern States in the US in order to explain the origins of the Spanish slave trade at the end of the 18th century and the emergence of the region of Galinhas in Africa as an important port of embarkation during the 19th century.  My fields of specialization are Atlantic History, Caribbean/Cuban History. I am currently pursuing a degree as Africanist at MSU. I am also codirecting a project at the  Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center about the connections between Cuba and the US in the Atlantic slave trade.