In 1758, as the Seven Years’ War raged, the French ship Galatée was captured by the British and its 181 crew members imprisoned.
A box of letters intended for the crew, written by their friends, fiancés and families in France, was sent to the British Admiralty, where it was put into storage and never reached the sailors.
And there it has sat, for 265 years, until now. A researcher at the University of Cambridge, UK, has uncovered the box of 102 letters and opened them.
“I only ordered the box out of curiosity,” says Professor Renaud Morieux, a historian at Cambridge.
“There were three piles of letters held together by ribbon. The letters were very small and were sealed so I asked the archivist if they could be opened and he did.
“I realised I was the first person to read these very personal messages since they were written. Their intended recipients didn’t get that chance. It was very emotional.”
One letter comes from Marie Dubosc to her husband Louis Chambrelan, first lieutenant on the ship.
“I could spend the night writing to you … I am your forever faithful wife. Good night, my dear friend. It is midnight. I think it is time for me to rest,” Dubosc wrote. She would die in 1759, before her husband was released from capture. He returned to France in 1761 and remarried.
Morieux says many of the letters express “universal human experiences”.
“When we are separated from loved ones by events beyond our control like the pandemic or wars, we have to work out how to stay in touch, how to reassure, care for people and keep the passion alive. Today we have Zoom and WhatsApp. In the 18th century, people only had letters but what they wrote about feels very familiar.”
Other letters are more forward, like Anne le Cerf’s comment to her husband: “I cannot wait to possess you.”
“These letters show people dealing with challenges collectively. Today we would find it very uncomfortable to write a letter to a fiancée knowing that mothers, sisters, uncles, neighbours would read it before it was sent, and many others would read it upon receipt,” says Morieux.
“It’s hard to tell someone what you really think about them with people peering over your shoulder. There was far less of a divide between intimate and collective.”
In 1758, about 19,632 of France’s 60,137 sailors were detained in Britain. This was a deliberate strategy by the British to exploit France’s lack of experienced sailors.
“These letters shatter the old-fashioned notion that war is all about men,” says Morieux.
“While their men were gone, women ran the household economy and took crucial economic and political decisions.”
Many of the letters talk about familial love, but some also convey arguments. Marguerite Quesnel, the 61-year-old mother of Nicolas, was frustrated that her son did not write to her more often.
“On the first day of the year [i.e. January 1st] you have written to your fiancée […]. I think more about you than you about me. […] In any case I wish you a happy new year filled with blessings of the Lord. I think I am for the tomb, I have been ill for three weeks. Give my compliments to Varin [a shipmate], it is only his wife who gives me your news,” she complained.
Nicolas’ fiancé Marianne also had a letter in the case that touches on the same topic: “the black cloud has gone, a letter that your mother has received from you, lightens the atmosphere”, she wrote.
Morieux thinks it’s almost certain that Marguerite was illiterate, and had used a scribe to write the letters for her. This challenges our modern definition of illiteracy, he says.
“You can take part in a writing culture without knowing how to write nor read,” he says.
“Most of the people sending these letters were telling a scribe what they wanted to say, and relied on others to read their letters aloud. This was someone they knew who could write, not a professional. Staying in touch was a community effort.”
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