Long-Lost Letters.

Bryn Stole writes for the NY Times (archived) about a treasure trove of old mail:

In a love letter from 1745 decorated with a doodle of a heart shot through with arrows, María Clara de Aialde wrote to her husband, Sebastian, a Spanish sailor working in the colonial trade with Venezuela, that she could “no longer wait” to be with him.

Later that same year, an amorous French seaman who signed his name M. Lefevre wrote from a French warship to a certain Marie-Anne Hoteé back in Brest: “Like a gunner sets fire to his cannon, I want to set fire to your powder.”

Fifty years later, a missionary in Suriname named Lene Wied, in a lonely letter back to Germany, complained that war on the high seas had choked off any news from home: “Two ships which have been taken by the French probably carried letters addressed to me.”

None of those lines ever reached their intended recipients. British warships instead snatched those letters, and scores more, from aboard merchant ships during wars from the 1650s to the early 19th century.

While the ships’ cargoes — sugar from the Caribbean, tobacco from Virginia, ivory from Guinea, enslaved people bound for the Americas — became war plunder, the papers were bundled off to so called “prize courts” in London as potential legal proof that the seizures were legitimate spoils of war. […]

Poorly sorted and only vaguely cataloged, the Prize Papers, as they became known, have now begun revealing lost treasures. Archivists at Britain’s National Archives and a research team at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg in Germany are working on a joint project to sort, catalog and digitize the collection, which gives a nuanced portrait of private lives, international commerce and state power in an age of rising empires.

The project, expected to last two decades, aims to make the collection of more than 160,000 letters and hundreds of thousands of other documents, written in at least 19 languages, freely available and easily searchable online. […]

“You find so many individual voices by men, women — children, even — who speak, not as a colonial administrator, but as a person abroad,” said Dagmar Freist, a historian at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg who directs the Prize Papers Project. “They would describe their social interactions with other religious groups, with enslaved people, with rituals and traditions,” she added. “It allows you insights into everyday life.”

The paperwork of colonial commerce makes up much of collection: invoices for goods, contracts, bills of lading. Reports from the managers of colonial slave plantations, dispatched to owners and investors in Europe, also turn up frequently.

But some are poignant and personal. A German sailor on a merchant ship captured in the 18th century copied out a poem for his daughter’s baptism. One letter mailed back to Europe requesting a new pair of shoes includes the traced outline of the writer’s foot to match the size. […]

Archivists and a team of volunteers have begun sorting the documents — some still coated in soot and grease, and smelling of the filthy 1800s London air — in some cases matching paper creases or other marks to bring together scattered pages.

Conservators at the National Archives clean and preserve the collection, while two photographers, hired by the project through the German Historical Institute London, meticulously document the intricate work. “This is like a wild archive,” said Amanda Bevan, who leads the National Archives team. “All the work I’ve done the rest of my career has been on documents which were already in good order, identified, numbered.”

Prying the lid off an archival box recently, Bevan pulled out a mailbag from the Zenobia, a merchant ship captured while sailing from France to New York during the War of 1812. Inside were dozens of letters — still sealed with wax — bearing addresses all across the East Coast: Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, New York, Philadelphia. […]

“The immense number of letters include those written by ordinary working men and women for whom we have virtually no letters surviving,” said Julie Hardwick, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. Hardwick said she was “astonished” that a collection — scantly used by previous historians because of the “disarray” in which the Prize Papers long sat — contained such “incredible richness in terms of variety as well as sheer scale.” […]

Unlike many letters stored in archives, which have been pressed flat or bound into books for safe storage, many of the documents in the Prize Papers collection remain folded into envelopes or bundled together by British notaries and court officials centuries ago.

“What amazed me was how much the letters — even the ones which have been opened at some point, but they’re still folded up — retain a ‘paper memory,’” Bevan said. “They’re folded in quite intricate patterns.”

Sometimes, cascading inserts and enclosures fold out from inside a single stuffed envelope, with additional letters meant to be passed on to other relatives or friends. Those packages unfold like matryoshka dolls, with letters for elderly parents wrapped around letters for siblings and spouses, enclosing short notes for children, or hiding small gifts like rings, or, in one instance, a single coffee bean.

So far, the team has gone through documents seized during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) in close detail but have taken only cursory looks at files from other wars.

The materials are astonishing to think about, and the images at the link give you a good idea of what they’re like. Thanks, Bonnie!


  1. I hope they make some of the transcription and translation a public project. What a gold mine!

    Still while the historian-linguist-genealogist side of me dreams of data locked away, I can hardly begin to imagine the sadness that these unreceived letters also represent.

  2. Yes indeed, on both counts.

  3. While the ship’s papers were being captured, I presume those on board would generally be taken prisoner rather than, say, shot or left to drown? When your loved one was away for three years instead of three months it was sad, but sadder things happened.

  4. A corpus of 1000 Dutch letters (out of a total of 40000) from British archives (perhaps from different sources than the Prize Papers) was made available and searchable online in the Letters as Loot project in 2013.

    Intricate letter folding was also used for letterlocking, a practice in which letters were folded and sealed in such a way that no one could open the letter undamaged.
    Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography

  5. David Marjanović says

    Piracy is one thing, but I can’t imagine the sociopathy necessary to just not deliver a letter. How long did they have to be kept to function as prize papers!?!

  6. John Cowan says

    While the ship’s papers were being captured, I presume those on board would generally be taken prisoner rather than, say, shot or left to drown?

    When practicable, certainly. Even pirates would generally rather try to assimilate the crew rather than simply executing them. The hard case is when a larger crew had surrendered to what turned out to be a smaller one: the captors might well fear that the tables would be turned, but even then marooning was generally preferred to outright slaughter.

    I can’t imagine the sociopathy necessary to just not deliver a letter.

    I imagine the trouble was that the letters were mixed in with the other stuff, and were most likely being carried by private inviduals, not by national postal services, which hardly existed then.


    But anyway, what the devil does Stole [insert nominative-deterministic snicker here] mean by “so called ‘prize courts'”? Those were regular courts of admiralty law, which was partly international in nature, in at least the UK, the U.S., and the Netherlands; courts tended to be created ad hoc in France and Spain, but still followed a regular procedure with judges sworn to do impartial justice as between captor and captured. It was far from unheard-of for the ship’s captains and/or owners to prove the ship’s or the goods’ neutrality, at which time the ship or goods would be released and compensation paid.

    As recently as 1916, words were exchanged between the UK and the U.S. because the former claimed the right to unilaterally change the acceptability of evidence other than ship’s papers, which the U.S. claimed was contrary to international law. The British argument was that if it had ever been possible to rely solely on the ship’s papers, because if they were incorrect the consignments could not be correctly dealt with at journey’s end and therefore there was no incentive to lie, that day had passed; the U.S. agreed in principle but said the unilateral change contravened existing treaty arrangements. I don’t know how the matter was resolved.

    Since 1956, prize jurisdiction in the U.S. has rested with the Federal District Court (sitting in admiralty) of the port to which the ship is brought, though there have been no prize cases tried since then.

  7. Kate Bunting says

    John Cowan – Perhaps he simply means it in the sense ‘that’s what they were called’ rather than implying that there was anything unofficial about them.

  8. That’s how I read it.

  9. When refereeing papers, I frequently advise nonnative English speakers to avoid using “so-called,” since it is likely to be misunderstood as pejorative—implying that the thing being referenced is not really worthy of the name.

  10. “advise nonnative English speakers to avoid using “so-called,” since it is likely to be misunderstood as pejorative”

    Their mistake stems from the fact that the equivalents of “so-called” in other languages are not pejorative, such as German sogenannt ~ so genannt and Polish tak zwany.

    Offer them non-pejorative equivalents they can use instead, such as “known as” and “as it is called.”

  11. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    FWIW, såkaldt in Danish can be used to introduce a term with no other implication than that the writer thinks it needs introduction (koens første mave, den såkaldte vom), but it’s often used to indicate that the writer thinks the term is double talk or worse: Putins såkaldte militæroperation. (I don’t know if that’s pejorative or something else). In short, the same caveats as in English apply.

  12. Trond Engen says

    Såkalt can have pejorative implications in Norwegian too, and it’s easy to pick up those before the lexical meaning. Kids (e.g my youngest brother at about the age of five) may well use såkalt as a pejorative intensifier: Din såkalte dust “You so-called fool”.

  13. @Trond Engen. In its pejorative use, English “so-called” means ‘falsely or improperly so named’, as in “A so-called friend deceived them.” Thus, the purpose of “so-called” here is to note that the friend was in fact NOT a friend.

    By contrast, if I rightly understand your description of såkalt used pejoratively, the word implies that the speaker or the writer agrees that the person termed a ‘fool’ is indeed a fool.

  14. By contrast, if I rightly understand your description of såkalt used pejoratively, the word implies that the speaker or the writer agrees that the person termed a ‘fool’ is indeed a fool.

    You’re talking about a five-year-old. Logic and lexicography are out of place here. The speaker was using a word he did not understand to add force to an insult, as is common at that age (and, to be fair, often much later)

  15. David Marjanović says

    The German version has all the meanings you’ve accumulated here, except “pejorative intensifier”.

  16. During WWII, C. S. Lewis reported hearing someone refer to “those so-called Germans.”

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