After sitting in a British archive for 256 years, a historian has now opened and read letters written to French sailors in 1758 for the first time. The letters come from the wives, parents or siblings of sailors captured by the British in the Seven Years' War, who never received these messages. The letters were instead confiscated by the British Navy and ended up in the archives unopened. Its content now provides a unique insight into relationships and everyday life during wartime.
During the Seven Years' War from 1756 to 1763, the major powers of what was then Europe fought for dominance on the continent and in the colonies. It was about political power, trade advantages and control of the important sea routes overseas. On the one hand, Prussia and Great Britain faced an alliance of France, Spain and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy. In addition to land battles in Europe, the New World and South Asia, the warring parties also fought their battles at sea.
Mail for France's sailors
France and Great Britain in particular fought naval battles in the English Channel and along the Atlantic coast. The French fleet at the time had some of the best warships in Europe, but lacked experienced sailors. Great Britain took advantage of this by deliberately hijacking as many French ships and taking the ships' crews prisoner as they could. In 1758 alone, around a third of French sailors were held captive by the British, and during the seven years of the war the total number of prisoners was a good 64,000 sailors and officers.
For the relatives of these prisoners of war, this usually means uncertainty and loss of contact: Even in normal times, it was difficult to reach sailors by letter. Usually letters were sent to various ports on suspicion or were given to shipmates of the son, brother or husband serving at sea. When ships were captured and sailors were captured, these letters were often confiscated along with other personal belongings. In the case of captured ships, letters from French ports were often forwarded to England in the hope that they would reach the prisoners.
Unopened for 256 years
This was also the case with 102 letters sent by relatives to the sailors on board the French ship Galatée. After the ship was intercepted by the British Navy on its way from Bordeaux to Quebec in Canada in 1758 and brought to England, the letters were forwarded to England. But British Admiralty officials confiscated the letters and stored them unopened. Only now - 256 years later - has Renaud Morieux from the University of Cambridge rediscovered these historical letters and opened and read them for the first time.
“I actually ordered this box from the archive just out of curiosity,” reports Morieux. “There were three stacks of letters tied together with ribbons.” Seals showed that these stacks of letters had apparently never been examined in detail since they were archived during the Seven Years’ War. “It was then that I realized that I was the first person to read these very personal messages since they were written,” says the historian. “Because the addressees had no chance at the time.” When they were opened, it became clear that these letters often came from the sailors’ wives and fiancés, but also from parents or siblings.
Messages to loved ones
The contents of the letters provide moving and often very emotional insights into the lives and family ties of the sailors. “These letters reflect universal human experiences – they are by no means unique to 18th-century France,” emphasizes Morieux. Instead, some love letters seem surprisingly modern and daring for the time: “I can't wait to own you,” writes Anne Le Cerf, for example, to her husband, an officer on the Galatée. However, Anne Le Cerf never saw her husband again; she died before he was released from captivity, as the historian has determined. In another letter, the wife of a lieutenant on the Galatée writes: “I could sit here all night and write to you... I will remain your faithful wife forever. Goodnight, my dear friend.” Marie Dubosc’s husband never received her love letter either.
“When we are separated from our loved ones by events such as wars or pandemics, we look for ways to stay connected, we care about these people and try to keep passion alive,” says Morieux. “Today we have Zoom and WhatsApp – in the 18th century people only had letters, but what they wrote feels very familiar.” Other letters provide deep insights into the everyday lives of the women and families who stayed behind. “These letters challenge the old-fashioned assumption that war is a man’s job,” explains Morieux. As in many other wars, women took on many traditional men's tasks - from running a farm or business to running the household. "She
important economic and political decisions were made.”
Source: University of Cambridge; Specialist article: Annales Histoire Sciences Sociales, doi: 10.1017/ahss.2023.75