In 1758, the Seven Years’ War was raging between the French and British empires. From the homefront, lovers, mothers and friends wrote to the men serving in the far-flung colonies of the Americas, in Africa, or in India. And in one case, those letters waited 265 years to be opened.
A trove of letters has recently been published by Cambridge professor Renaud Morieux. The academic found them by accident in the archives, and requested to open them out of curiosity. What he found has left him – and the world – amazed.
Written in idiosyncratic 18th-century French, the letters were addressed to various members of the crew of the Galatée, a French warship that was captured en route to Quebec in 1758. Sent by the crew members’ lovers, family and friends back home, the letters had skipped from port to port, never reaching the ship before it sailed on. When the Galatée was captured, and the ship and all its 181 crew members were escorted under arms to Portsmouth, England, the French postal authorities forwarded the bundle of letters on to England, hoping they would reach the captive crew. In vain.
Rather than being delivered to the imprisoned crew, the letters were confiscated by the British Royal Admiralty. According to Professor Morieux, it’s likely that two of the letters were opened and skimmed, found not to contain any useful military intelligence, and then just dumped in a box. Where they would wait 265 years before being brought to light.
As many of the letters are from women from working class or poorer families, Professor Morieux believes that many of the letters were actually penned by scribes, mostly likely literate acquaintances who could put on paper – in sometimes wildly unorthodox spelling and punctuation – the wishes, worries and news dictated by the crew members’ loved ones.
And their feelings are all too familiar: Say something nice about your father! says one mother. You never write! complains another to her son. Write to your mother! urges that same crew member’s fiancée, who was no doubt getting served a heavy dose of guilt from her future mother-in-law. I cannot wait to possess you! writes a woman named Anne to her husband, before signing off as “your obedient wife Nanette”.
Despite conveying what we think of as very private thoughts, the letters reveal the extent to which writing is a public act, a community event. There were scribes for the unlettered, meaning people would have said aloud their private feelings, and had them read back. Each letter was covered in text, with messages from other family members, sometimes to other crew members, crammed into the margins. It reminds us how precious writing is to communicate thoughts across time and space, and how our ability to do so depends so much on family, school and society to continue to teach each generation to write.
These handwritten letters are also a precious testament to the lives of some who never survived the war. While most of the captured sailors outlasted the war – Professor Morieux tracked down each crew member’s name, occupation, and constructed genealogies for his article in the academic publication Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales – at least one, Lieutenant Louis Chambrelan, returned to find his wife had died during the years of his imprisonment. And yet Marie Dubosc will live forever, thanks to the words she put on paper.