In 1977, the Centre for African Studies at the University of Edinburgh devoted its annual seminar to African historical demography. The co-convenors at the time, Christopher Fyfe and David McMaster, outlined the scale of the challenge to scholars working on African history:
Historians of Africa are continually thwarted by the lack of reliable statistics about African populations in the past. No authoritative estimates are available. Most are guesswork (Fyfe and McMaster, 1977).
Forty years have passed since that meeting and yet similar statements still feature in the introductions of research papers on African demography. Even so, significant progress has undoubtedly been made in this field. The Edinburgh meetings stimulated much research during the 1980s, that took advantage of colonial censuses, hospital records as well as an array of oral sources (Cordell et al, 2016).
A range of historical population records are available to historical demographers. Perhaps the most relied upon for a reasonable sample of a population, especially in European historical demography, has been parish registers. These registers, often archived in hidden corners of churches throughout Christendom, offer insights into the demography of communities – historic and contemporary - otherwise unrecorded by modern methods of data collection. Parish registers exist in several forms depending on location and time period, however they are generally records of baptisms, marriages and burials made by the church. They each contain valuable information of – amongst other things – birth and death dates which can be used to estimate the length of lives and give a real sense of the prevailing health conditions of the period.
For the most part, hidden corners of churches are where many parish registers remain to this day. Undigitised and often unloved, perhaps the only record of some populations can be found in books falling apart at the seams. My own doctoral fieldwork recently took me to Navrongo in Northern Ghana, where I took up the task of photographing the entire archive of parish records held by the Catholic Cathedral in Navrongo. This parish is of interest because it was the site of the first catholic mission in Ghana, founded in 1906 by three members of the White Fathers missionary group. Being an active parish to this day, the records represent a 111-year period of recent history and holds great promise in being able to describe contemporary population patterns of the area.
Make no mistake, there is something deeply masochistic about this kind of research. A six-week trip from late February to early April of this year saw nearly 22,000 photos being taken. With each photo – with varying degrees of success – photographed in accordance with the British Library’s endangered archives guidelines. This work was done during the peak of Northern Ghana’s dry season, which saw mid-afternoon temperatures regularly reach 43°C. In this regard, data collection felt like a real test of endurance, in both the physical and academic sense.
Given this project has - in one form or another - been in the planning for a couple of years, it was a huge relief to find a huge archive of records upon arrival in Navrongo. The parish held 16,312 parish cards, 32 books of marriage certificates, 28 baptism registers, 13 confirmation registers, 4 marriage registers, 3 death registers, a first holy communion register and a cemetery register. Inevitably, it is now the task to digitise and clean all this data. At this point any willing volunteers to help will be gratefully received!
Given the relative ease to which I was granted permission to access the archives, my only other concern for the project was the condition the records were in. Happily, for the most part, records were generally legible, even those dating back to the earliest years of the parish. Some books however, were in a very sorry state, often crumbling in my hands as I manoeuvred them towards my tripod. Being respectful to the source material became one of the greatest challenges I faced as a field researcher.
Beyond the digitisation and description of this data, my next step will be to link this data with the contiguous health and demographic surveillance site conducted and managed at the nearby Navrongo Health Research Centre to assess the quality of parish register data. At the time of writing however, this will be a job for next year. Until then I look forward to another productive trip in the future, just not during the dry season.
Cordell, D., Omoluabi, E., & Stiegler, N. (2016). Historical Demography on Sub-Saharan Africa (1975-2010). In A Global History of Historical Demography. Half a Century of Interdisciplinarity. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.3726/978-3-0352-0331-8
Fyfe, C and McMaster, D (eds). (1977). African Historical Demography. Proceedings of a seminar held in the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, 29th and 30th April 1977, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.