Love letters, cries of despair and shoe orders, centuries late

Researchers sort through cache of undelivered mail that brings the past to life

By Bryn Stole

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Published: Fri 17 Mar 2023, 12:01 AM

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.

For centuries since, the bulging boxes of those undelivered letters, seized from around 35,000 ships, sat neglected in British government storage, a kind of half-forgotten dead letter office for intercepted mail.

Poorly sorted and only vaguely catalogued, 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, catalogue and digitise 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.

Many of the papers haven’t been read in centuries, and many letters remain sealed and unopened.

“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.

An intercepted cache of letters to Spanish prisoners of war from their wives and children on Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, includes complaints about the hardship of scratching out a living alone during wartime, and details the outbreak of an epidemic on the island: “Distemper begun with Pains in the head, Stitches, lowness of Spirits and a loathing of the Stomach.”

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.

Freist, the project director, first heard about the collection from historians in the Netherlands who digitized a selection of the Dutch-language documents. A Dutch television programme called “Letters Over Water” that aired from 2011 to 2013 tracked down some letter writers’ descendants to deliver the centuries old intercepted mail.

On early visits to the National Archives, in Kew, South London, Freist and her team selected archival boxes at random and marvelled over the contents. Freist said she was “electrified” when archivists opened several letters and found jottings on chalkboard tablets that had only survived unerased because of their sudden seizure.

“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.

“We haven’t looked at everything yet, so we’re bound to find more stuff,” Bevan said. “We open each box and we’re not quite sure what we’re going to find.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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