In the News | ‘Prize Papers’ in UK’s National Archives

Posted in resources, the 18th century in the news by Editor on March 13, 2023

Photograph from The Prize Papers Project.

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From The NY Times (and Art Daily) . . .

Bryn Stole, “Long-Lost Letters Bring Word, at Last,” The New York Times (9 March 2023). Researchers are sorting through a centuries old cache of undelivered mail that gives a vivid picture of private lives and international trade in an age of rising empires.

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. . . .

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. . . .

The full article is available here»

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From The Prize Papers Project:

The objects in the Prize Papers Collection were impounded by the High Court of Admiralty of the English and later British Royal Navy between 1652 and 1817, and they are now held by The National Archives of the UK.

The Prize Papers were collected a result of the early modern naval practice of prize-taking: capturing ships belonging to hostile powers, dealing severe blows to their military, political and economic capabilities. This practice had its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries, and so the collection proves a fascinating insight into the formative period of European colonial expansion. . . .

The practice of prize-taking resulted in a vast, extraordinary and partly accidental archive of the early modern world, contains documents from more than 35,000 captured ships, held in around 4088 boxes and 71 printed volumes. The Prize Papers Collection includes at least 160,000 undelivered letters intercepted on their way across the seas, many of which remain unopened to this day. These are accompanied by books and papers on all manner of legal, commercial, maritime, colonial, and administrative matters, often embellished with notes and doodles. Documents in at least 19 different languages have been identified so far, and more languages are likely to be discovered as the project progresses. Alongside this written material is a variety of small miscellaneous artifacts, including jewelry, textiles, playing cards, and keys.

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In June 2022, the project published the first of the Prize Papers from the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48), with papers from ten French ships.

The project has a YouTube site with a handful of video presentations, including a fascinating session on letterlocking.

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