Love and war in unopened letters


A cache of letters, unopened since the 1750s, has been unearthed by Prof Renaud Morieux in the UK National Archives. The letters were sent by the relatives of French sailors, captured by the British in 1758 during the Seven Year’s War, and were never delivered by the British authorities. Having opened  three letters for security review, the rest were shelved by the Admiralty and ended up untouched in the archive. Reading the letters posed some transcription problems given their eighteenth century character, with writing crammed into every available space on the paper, and with many lacking grammar and punctuation.  Some seem to have been dictated by illiterate family members to a scribe. Some had messages from several families to different crewmates, desperate to achieve communication at the uncertain time of war. Of the 75 letters, the majority were sent by women and contain a rare glimpse of how ordinary families dealt with the pressures of war and separation.

Their contents shed light on the geopolitical dynamics of war, as Britain and France competed for naval superiority and colonial resources. But Prof Morieux also notes their universal resonance, showing mothers’ fears, wives’ loneliness and the complex dynamics of emotions in families divided by great distances. Many of the writers and intended recipients, whose biographies were traced by Prof Morieux, were never reunited. British authorities sought to deprive the French of experienced sailors, and held the crew of the Galatée, captured while en route to Quebec, along with around 65,000 other French sailors during the war.

Prof Morieux’s findings are published this week in the journal Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, and have been reported widely across UK and international media including the BBC and the Guardian.


Photograph copyright Renaud Morieux and the National Archive