“Taking Graduate Students to the Archives”: Historical Research and Dissemination of Knowledge

The number of students working on Luso-African topics in the Graduate Program in History at York University has grown over the last couple of years. There are currently six students affiliated with the Harriet Tubman Institute doing PhD dissertations on areas as São Tomé, Mozambique and Angola. As a result of this growth, an important initiative has emerged to provide the students in question with training in the archives of relevance to their research.  "Taking Graduate Students to the Archives" is a research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and designed to introduce students in the Graduate Program in History and associated with the Harriet Tubman Institute to archives in Portugal and Angola. The project was designed and coordinated by Professor José C. Curto, Department of History and member of the Tubman Institute, himself a researcher of the Angolan past.

York team in Lisbon, summer 2011.

York team in Lisbon, summer 2011.

The project was divided into two phases which included archival research and workshops overseas involving a number of institutions and collaborators from Angola, Brazil, Portugal, the USA, and France. In the summer of 2011, a group of York/Tubman PhD candidates made up of Rafaela Jobbit, Vanessa S. Oliveira, Augustin d’Almeida, Abubacar Fofana and Tracy Lopes worked as a team in archives in Lisbon under the supervision of Prof. Curto and Prof. Frank Luce (York University) - both researchers with great deal of archival experience. The targeted archives included: Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, Biblioteca da Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa, and Arquivo Histórico Militar, all of which hold rich collections on nineteenthcentury Portuguese-speaking Africa. Beyond archival research, the group also presented papers at a two-day workshop, held at the Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical (IICT) in Lisbon. The result of this initial effort was the digitization of important collections of documents that illuminate a time period characterized by the transition from slave trading and slavery to other forms of coerced labour, a period that remains comparatively understudied in the case of Lusophone Africa.

Benguela, Angola, December 2012.

The second phase took place in the fall of 2012 in Angola, where a York/Tubman group composed of Prof. Curto, Prof. Luce and York graduate students Tracy Lopes, Vanessa S. Oliveira, and Faustino Kusaka were joined by Prof. Estevam Thompson (Universidade de Brasilia, Brasil), Prof. Catarina Madeira Santos (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, France) and Kara Schultz (PhD candidate, Vanderbilt University, USA). For three weeks, the students were introduced to local archives, presented papers in workshops and directed training sessions on the digitization of historical documents in both Luanda and Benguela. A group of twelve local individuals, including students and archivists, were trained on how to use high-definition digital cameras along with software that enables faster and easier digitization of historical documents. By the end of the training sessions, four complete sets of equipment (each comprising one Canon Digital Camera with 38 to 55 mm lenses, one tripod, and a Toshiba laptop with the required digitization software) were donated to the institutions that participated in the project: the Arquivo Histórico Nacional de Angola, Museu Nacional da Escravatura, Museu Nacional de Arqueologia and Universidade Katyavala Bwila. This equipment will enable local researchers and archivists to carry with the digitization of historical documentation.

Besides digitizing documents and giving graduate students a chance to develop their skills as researchers, one of the main goals of the project was to facilitate the exchange of knowledge between members of the group, local professors, and their students in Luanda and Benguela. The project laid the seeds for future cooperation amongst scholars and students working on the Angolan past from institutions in three different continents.

The collections digitized in the archives in Lisbon, Luanda and Benguela will be shared among the individuals and institutions that collaborated with the project in Portugal, Brazil and Angola, thus democratizing access to this particular body of documentation and preserving it for future generations of historians.

Submitted by Vanessa Oliveira, PhD candidate in History