Spotlight on Memory of the World heritage: Slavery in the Caribbean and Latin America

Un Anglais de la Barbade (Enslaved Peoples of the Caribbean)

UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register includes archival collections relating to slavery in Spanish and British colonies in the Caribbean and Latin America that document the suffering and maltreatment of slaves, and the unraveling of Britain’s transatlantic slave trade.

On 22 August 1791, slaves on the French colony of Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti) inspired by the French Revolution, took up arms against their masters. The rebellion occurred as opposition to slavery was growing in Britain, Europe and parts of the United States and would ultimately lead to the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the emancipation of slaves in the Americas. This is also why 23 August is celebrated as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. During the Slave Trade, Africans on arrival had endured months in cramped and unhygienic quarters and as they were usually in a very poor state of health, they were often held for a while before sale to fatten them up, to increase their sales price. Three important collections inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme not only paint a picture of this time, but also help understand the lasting impact of slavery on society today.

Documentary Heritage of Enslaved Peoples of the Caribbean (Barbados)

© Barbados Museum & Historical Society/Nègres au travail (Enslaved

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2003
  • Year of inscription: 2003
  • Country: Barbados
  • Heritage item: Link

The importance of Barbados’ Documentary Heritage of Enslaved Peoples of the Caribbean, inscribed in 2003, extends beyond the boundaries of the island itself.

The collection, held at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, includes legal documents, plantation ledgers, shipping inventories, rare books, original prints and paintings, and spans the period of the 17th to 19th centuries. Its global significance lies in the British slave system in Barbados being widely used as the model for the development of the plantation economies of the Caribbean and North America.

Deeds and wills in the collection depict the extent to which slaves were seen as a commodity rather than as fellow human beings, being sold to settle a debt or given away as a gift.

As the island shifted to a black majority, plantation owners became increasingly intimidated by the number of slaves and the potential for rebellion, and imposed regulations controlling their behaviour in what was a very repressive political and economic system. Under these rules, slaves needed special permission to leave their plantation, could not beat drums or play loud instruments and suffered many other restrictions.

Registry of Slaves of the British Caribbean 1817-1834

© National Archives, St. Kitts/Original Register of Slaves, St. Christopher

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2008
  • Year of inscription: 2009
  • Country: Bahamas, Belize, Dominica, Jamaica, St Kitts, Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom
  • Heritage item: Link

Following the Haitian slave revolt, Britain faced increasing pressure from anti-slavery lobbyists and in 1807 passed an Act abolishing the Slave Trade in the British Empire. The Slavery Abolition Act finally came into force in 1834, but enslaved men, women and children were required to stay in apprenticeship to their former masters for a period of 4 years.

To monitor the slave population and prevent the illegal trade in slaves, the British government ordered the creation of slave registers throughout the Caribbean. Most were compiled between 1816 and 1817, with the last region to comply being the Honduras in 1834. The British government also established a central registry in London which was intended to record all sales, inheritance, transfer, or inter-colonial movement of slaves.

The records, owned by the governments of the Bahamas, Belize, Dominica, Jamaica, St Kitts, Trinidad and Tobago and the United Kingdom, known collectively as the Registry of Slaves of the British Caribbean 1817-1834, were included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme in 2009.

The registers were the first official documentation of people who had previously been thought of simply as property, and were forced to live, work and die without an identity. Because of their comprehensive scope, they provide an invaluable historical insight into the world’s biggest slavery system.

Negros y Esclavos

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2005
  • Year of inscription: 2005
  • Country: Colombia
  • Heritage item: Link

The collection, Negros y Esclavos, held by Colombia’s National Archive, was included in 2005 and documents the arrival of Africans in Spain’s colonies in Nueva Granada or modern day Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama.

Because of the prominence of the Catholic Church in the Spanish colonies and its penchant for keeping records, information can be found on the maltreatment of slaves, their protests, how they were marketed and sold, the work they did, and even records of marriages between slaves.

The Colombian collection is of great significance because little is left of the documents produced in Cartagena between the 16th and 18th centuries. The National Archives in Bogota, together with the Archive of the Indies in Seville, preserve the only remaining documents.

In Colombia, the collection has been digitized to make it more accessible to researchers and also to preserve the originals. However, in some of the islands, the tropical climate together with neglect and disasters, both natural and manmade, has caused losses in the collection or left them in poor condition. Efforts to conserve these valuable documents are limited by available funding and some are no longer on public display because of their fragility.

It is hoped that listing on the Memory of the World Register will generate interest and help with the conservation of documentary heritage. To date some 193 items, from folk music recordings to films and old documents, have been included in the Register.

Memory of the World Register

Listing of items such as these on the Memory of the World Register is intended to generate interest and help with the conservation of documentary heritage which helps us to understand our society in all its complexities.

However war, social upheaval, looting, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate conservation and lack of funding have all had a disastrous effect on the conservation of our documentary heritage.

A growing awareness of this, together with UNESCO’s belief that the world's documentary heritage belongs to all and should be preserved and protected, led to the establishment of its Memory of the World programme in 1992.

The programme works to identify and facilitate the preservation of valuable archive holdings and library collections worldwide, and assists with their dissemination. Inscription of a collection in the Memory of the World register, created in 1995, is part of the process.

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