BLOG: The Archivo Histórico del Atlántico in Barranquilla, Colombia and Its Notarial Records, Part II: Using Notarial Records by Laura Carolina De Moya-Guerra

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I am pleased to continue the “Teaching with H-Latam’s Research Corner Blog” series. In the first post, Tatiana Seijas and Gretchen Pierce described how they created an assignment using the blog to introduce graduate students at Rutgers to the process of archival research. Today’s post is the second of around twelve entries written by Seijas’s students. Later in the year, the series will continue with a pedagogical post about how to use Research Corner with undergraduates, and another by one of those students. If you would like to contribute to the pedagogical series, write a post discussing your own research process, or describe materials available at an archive or library where you work, please fill out this Google Form or contact Gretchen Pierce at:

Laura Carolina De Moya-Guerra is a History PhD student at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She received an MA in history and and BA in political science from the Universidad del Norte (Barranquilla, Colombia). Her research and topics of interest cover migrations and diasporas in Colombia in the 20th century. Her first project studied the Arab migration to Barranquilla in the first half of the last century. Her current research explores the Chinese diaspora in Colombia. Her current project explores the Chinese diaspora in Colombia.

The Archivo Histórico del Atlántico in Barranquilla, Colombia and Its Notarial Records, Part II: Using Notarial Records

In the previous post I narrated my first encounter with the notarial records of the Archivo Histórico del Atlántico. The initial task given by my advisor was to familiarize myself with this type of primary source. The next task was “look for Arabic surnames.” My thesis was about the business of Arab immigrants in Barranquilla in the first half of the 20th century. Thus, it was logical to use notarial records, which are legal documents about purchases, sales, mortgages, and constitutions of commercial companies, among others. These documents serve to reconstruct and understand the commercial trajectory of a particular subject or group. After I had an idea of ​​what a notarial record looked like, I gave myself the task of identifying documents related to my historical subjects.

The notarial records usually indicate at the beginning the type of transaction and the people involved. So, I would go through manually page by page just paying attention to the first and last names. If I found an Arab one I would take a photo of it and write it down in my notebook. After repeating this activity for the whole volume, I realized that there was an index after the last record in December 1930. How much time might I have saved if I had known this from the beginning! I reviewed the index in less than 5 minutes. From then on, I would first look for the index; if the record did not have one then I did the manual work of going page by page. Tip #2, check for the indexes first!

Initially, I reviewed the 1930, 1935, 1940, and 1945 records. I don't remember exactly how long it took me but I know it was several months. After this first review, I finished with an Excel spreadsheet that described notary, year, record number, and transaction. I also left space for a note. Although I found more than 100 last names, I ended up only focusing on four subjects and their families. I remember saying to my advisor, “Why did I take so many pictures?” He told me: “You needed to learn to navigate the documents.” At that moment I did not believe him, but looking at so many documents did allow me to see a clear pattern. The selection criteria of the four subjects was simple and responded to the logic of the families that had left the most records.

Perfect, I already have the records and the families that I am going to study, now what? As the idea was to reconstruct the commercial trajectory of these subjects, I initially thought to focus on purchase, sale, and mortgage records. However, as I read more I realized that the protestas de letra, poderes generales, poderes especiales, and testamentos described valuable information that I could use to rebuild the commercial networks and also familiar aspects of these subjects. For example, the protestas de letra are documents presented by a supplier or his representative before a notary to indicate the non-payment of a product (see Figure 1). There, the type of merchandise, the place of origin, and the value of the merchandise are generally described. This data then allowed me to track that Arab immigrants imported textiles from Manchester, coolers from Pennsylvania, and car tires from Ohio, among others. 

Figure 1: Protesta de letra, Banco de Colombia a cargo de Elias Jassir Hnos. Escritura pública 98, January 14, 1930, First notary, AHA. Photo taken by the author.

Another type of notarial records that caught my attention were the poderes generales and poderes especiales (see Figure 2). These documents basically authorize one or more subjects to represent the person issuing the document. That is, the apoderado represents the apoderante. Empowering another person is an act of trust, so the apoderados in general were family members in other cities or countries, lawyers, and legal representatives. With this information it was then possible for me to understand two things: first, that the family was a central element for the constitution of commercial companies and second, that although these immigrants settled in Barranquilla, their business networks spread throughout Colombia and to other countries.

Figure 2: Poder Especial, Issa Abdallah to Ibraham Yasu. Escritura pública 30, January 6, 1930, Second notary, AHA. Photo taken by the author.

The least common type of notarial record that I encountered were testamentos, or wills. These were really helpful in understanding gaps that other protocols left. The testamento is a quick way to understand the subject being studied, as it describes in the first person data such as their place and date of birth, parents, partner, and children, among others. As I was studying men belonging to the economic elite, the distribution of their assets was particularly interesting and relevant to my work. Generally, the wills list the assets of the subject and how they will be distributed after his death. As a result, the will becomes an inventory of properties, assets, and businesses. On the other hand, they also serve to explore family issues and the management of businesses, as most of the goods passed to the oldest male child, not to the wife.

The time I invested working with the notarial records of the Archivo Histórico del Atlántico resulted in my master's thesis and the publication of my first academic article. What I have described here can also apply to the study of other migratory communities in Barranquilla and the region and in a more extended sense to any economic history study. The Archivo Histórico del Atlántico is full of records left by immigrants who settled in the city - Italians, Germans, French, Jews, Americans, etc. Thus, this blog is an invitation to visit and use notarial records as primary sources for the study of migrations and diasporas. In fact, I can't wait to go back to “do buttocks hours,” this time to track down Chinese surnames, which is my current project.




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