The Project

One year ago, we approached Dr. Walter Hawthorne , the chair of the History Department at Michigan State University and a scholar of African history, to discuss the development of a digital tool that would be able to process, visualize, and standardize the large amount of data on African slaves and their descendants contained in Catholic baptismal records across the Americas. Dr. Hawthorne was enthusiastic about the idea! With the support of Dr. Hawthorne and MSU's history department, we hired Frank Gutierrez, a software designer with experience working on historical databases, to create a platform able to store this data and make it accessible, searchable, and manipulatable to the public. Gutierrez and co-author Jorge Felipe Gonzalez had previously worked together in Havana under the supervision of Maria del Carmen Barcia to develop a digital database to store data on liberated Africans, or emancipados, in Cuba. This previous experience facilitated the process. Over a short period of time, we developed clear definitions of the fields, their classification, and the relational structure of the data. This work was completed in two main steps. First, we developed a data-entry interface for administrators. Second, we designed and implemented a search interface for users to access and examine the data. The first part is currently deployed on MATRIX servers at Michigan State University. In the summer of 2016, the user interface will go live.

This website explains and promote 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. Our goal with this website is to socialize and receive feedback for the construction of this project and to create a digital space where potential users of our database can offer feedback before we launch the software. In particular, we will 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. 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.


This project was possible thanks to the efforts of archivists and historians who have digitized thousands of baptismal records across the Americas. Needless to say, it would have been an extremely slow and expensive process for us to visit dozens of different churches and cathedrals, consult delicate and often badly-degraded records, and enter their contents baptism-by-baptism into the BARDSS system. In 2003, Vanderbilt University launched The Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slaves Societies project with a Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The director of the project, Dr. Jane Landers , coordinated an international team of scholars and graduate students to digitize more than 400,000 records. The whole collection represents around 6 millions individuals. Since the beginning of the project, they focused mainly on Africans and their descendants. Currently, the records include baptisms, marriages, burial, books of confirmations, and religious brotherhood records from Cuba , Colombia , Brazil , and Spanish Florida. The ESSSS project has preserved, and will continue to preserve, evidence of lives that might have been lost forever.

We consider BARDSS as a derivative branch of the ESSSS project. Our main goal is to translate these digitized baptismal records into a clean, accessible, and searchable tool. The original documents are difficult to read, the calligraphy is complicated, the documents are in different languages, and sometimes, the state of preservation is not optimal. ESSSS users need paleographical skills and time to access these sources. With BARDSS, everyone would be able to access this information not only in a linear way (e.g. locating a particular baptismal record) but also interactively, by creating charts and other graphics based on cross search.

One of BARDSS’ greatest assets is its capacity to absorb Catholic baptismal records from around the world. Currently, we are entering data from Cuban documents digitized by the ESSSS team at Vanderbilt. However, the ESSSS collection also contains documents from Spanish Florida, Colombia, and Brazil. Other digitized baptismal records are available online through the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the National Archive of the Dominican Republic . Indeed, we expect that, thanks to the ubiquity and uniformity of Catholic baptismal documents, BARDSS will be able to ingest data from anywhere in the Iberian-Atlantic world—including African church archives in Angola, São Tome, and Cabo Verde. Furthermore, while our research interests have pushed the BARDSS project toward a focus on African slaves and their descendants in the Americas, there is no reason why, with a few modifications, the BARDSS platform could not include baptized individuals of European, Asian, and native American descents. Needless to say, there is much work to be done. Entering data from thousands of baptismal records is a time and labor-intensive process, but a fruitful one: We believe that BARDSS will prove to be an immensely valuable contribution to the growing body of digital scholarship on slavery, the slave trade, and the African diaspora.