'Today we have Zoom and WhatsApp. In the 18th century, people only had letters but what they wrote about feels very familiar,' said Professor Renaud Morieux.
Letters written to French sailors believed to be more than 250 years old have finally been opened and studied. These unread letters, written by wives, siblings and parents, were meant for the crew on a French warship during an 18th-century war between Britain and France. Britain's Royal Navy confiscated these personal letters 265 years ago and never opened them until now. They share a rare insight into the lives of sailors and their families in the 1700s.
Renaud Morieux, professor of European history and fellow at Pembroke College at Cambridge University, United Kingdom, read the letters' contents and his research on them has been published in the journal Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales. "These letters are about universal human experiences, they're not unique to France or the 18th century," Morieux said in a statement per CNN.
"18th Century POW love letters opened at last by Cambridge professor".— Dr Elizabeth McDonald (@DrPastonsRUs) November 7, 2023
The headline might be a bit OTT but this discovery by Renaud Morieux, is very exciting! 104 letters written to captured French sailors, many by the women left "holding the fort". https://t.co/hxzgrBLfp3 pic.twitter.com/GAXqPNyjDF
"They reveal how we all cope with major life challenges. 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," Morieux added.
How I would love to read these! Tragic they never got to the sailors 😢. Wonderful handwriting too 🙏❤️— Nick’s Books 📕🌎🐻🇺🇦 (@GlowstoneKatie) November 7, 2023
Love letters to French sailors confiscated by British 265 years ago finally opened for first time https://t.co/gFhbTi82ki
Most of the letters were written by women, at least 59 percent were signed by them. "These letters shatter the old-fashioned notion that war is all about men," Morieux said. "While their men were gone, women ran the household economy and took crucial economic and political decisions." He admitted that unsealing the letters was "like finding a treasure box." According to the professor, the British opened two letters to see if they gave away any military plans. Once they realized it was only "family stuff," they decided to store it away.
"There were three piles of letters held together by ribbon," he said, according to Sky News. "The letters were very small and were sealed so I asked the archivist if they could be opened and he did. I realized I was the first person to read these very personal messages since they were written. Their intended recipients didn't get that chance." Professor Morieux admitted that the contents were "very emotional."
One letter was written by Marie Dubosc to her husband, Louis Chamberlain, the first lieutenant of a French warship in 1758. "I could spend the night writing to you... I am your forever faithful wife," she said, "Good night, my dear friend. It is midnight. I think it is time for me to rest." Dubosc died the following year in Le Havre and the two never saw each other again. In another letter, Anne Le Cerf wrote to her husband, Jean Topsent, a non-commissioned officer, "I cannot wait to possess you."
Why are these findings important? Morieux explained to CNN that the discoveries are incredibly rare as these "documents that were written in the first person by people below a certain social class—at least before the twentieth century when more and more people could read and write," he said. "Getting access to the writings of women, especially sailors' wives, is exceptional. This allows us to glimpse at their emotions, fear, anxiety, anger, jealousy, as well as their faith or the key role they played in the running of the household while their husband, son or brother was absent."