Tuesday, May 21, 2024

18th-century love letters to French sailors found unopened in British archive

“I could spend the night writing to you. I would not find space to sign. I am your forever faithful wife. Good night, my dear friend. It is midnight. I think it is time for me to rest.”

These words of 32-year-old Marie Dubosc were written to her husband, Louis Chambrelan, the first lieutenant of the French warship Galetée in 1758, during the Seven Years’ War. He never received the letter, which is one of over 100 sent to the crew and now read for the first time after they were discovered by a historian in Britain’s National Archives.

Galatée, a frigate of 200 tons, was escorting troop ships from Bordeaux to Quebec when it was captured by the British ship Essex in the Bay of Biscay on April 8, 1758, and sent to Portsmouth. Marie and Louis, who had a young daughter, would not meet again. Marie died the following year in Le Havre, before her husband’s release. In 1761, safely back in France, he remarried.

The journey of the letters to storage in Kew, southwest London, was circuitous. After they were penned, the French postal administration attempted to deliver them to Galatée, sending them to multiple ports in France where they always arrived too late. Once the ship was reported captured, the letters were sent to England, where they were handed to the Admiralty and apparently forgotten.

“It’s agonising how close they got,” said Professor Renaud Morieux, from Cambridge University’s history faculty and Pembroke College, who discovered the box of 104 letters. He believes officials opened two letters to see if they contained anything of military value and intended to check others before sending them on to the prisoners. “In my opinion they were waiting for an opportunity to open more, but they didn’t take the time or just forgot.”

A detail from Louis Nicolas van Blarenberghe’s 1773 painting of the Outer Harbour of Brest. Galetée was in port in Brest in early 1758 when typhus swept through the city. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The letters were eventually transferred to the National Archives, where there was nothing in the catalogue entry to suggest that most were still unopened and sealed with wax. Morieux said: “I only ordered the box out of curiosity. 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 my most emotional experience as a historian to this day.

“What was amazing was there was lots of personal stuff. I’ve looked at a lot of correspondence involving the state or officials. That has been my work as a historian — trying to show that people are clever and are able to get something from the authorities. Here it’s not mediated . . . it’s a much more spontaneous mode of communication, so that was really thrilling. I knew immediately I was onto something hot.”

‘I can assure you that days last entire months’

Gillette Garnier

For his study, published in the journal Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, Morieux spent months analysing the messages which filled every inch of the paper they were written on. His task was complicated by their erratic spelling and lack of punctuation and capitalisation. Nevertheless, he found that the messages offered extremely rare and moving insights into the lives and loves of a cross section of French society.

Unsurprisingly, the trials of long separation are a recurring them. One Gillette Garnier wrote to her husband Jean from Saint-Brieuc to lament “the boredom and impatience caused by not being able to enjoy your kind presence because I can assure you that days last entire months and months count for years . . . “

Meanwhile, Nanette Le Cerf complained to her husband, the officer Jean-Baptiste Topsent, of her boredom and yearning and declared: “I cannot wait to possess you.” Morieux said this could have meant to “embrace”, or “to make love”.

Letter from Anne ‘Nanette’ Le Cerf to her husband, the officer Jean-Baptiste Topsent. Photo: The National Archives / Renaud Morieux

He feels that such expressions of love were, mostly, sincere and heartfelt. “My natural, and I think healthy, temptation as a historian is to be dubious and to think, ‘Okay, is this formulaic? Are they following a script?’ And some of them didn’t write the letters themselves, so how honest and authentic are the feelings expressed in the page? But the first thing is that no two letters are saying the same thing.”

In any case, the correspondents’ tender sentiments weren’t always reciprocated. Barbe Yvon wrote to her husband, the sailor François Foulon, saying he was never out of her thoughts and God had put them together. Yet it is evident from her words that he continually reproached her and had said he wished his voyage would last 20 years.

Unlike in England’s Royal Navy, the French navy manned warships by requiring most men living near the coast to serve for fixed periods. Crews included groups of sailors whose families lived in the same neighbourhoods or even the same multi-storey houses. Morieux observed that within these close-knit maritime communities, correspondence was a collective endeavour. Large sections of letters were filled with greetings from numerous friends and relatives — not only to the named recipient but other crew members too.

Furthermore, many letters were written up by informal scribes who acted for numerous families. “If you look at aristocratic correspondence from this period, the scribe is a professional who follows writing manuals,” he said. “Here the scribe might be the girl next door who happens to know how to write and she says, ‘I’m the scribe, but I don’t know how to spell,’ and apologises.”

So much for privacy, then, with neighbours, friends and relatives all reading sailors’ letters before they were sent and expecting them to be passed around or read aloud after receipt. Morieux said: “There was no contradiction between expressing private feelings and knowing that all those people would read it. It was very different from our understanding of the private and public spheres . . . Perhaps there was some self-censorship, but this was the only way to communicate with your loved one who you felt that you might never see them again.”

It was an exception when the father of the pilot Pierre Delacroix suggested that he let him know the name of someone he disliked by spelling it in reverse, or writing it in spoiled milk as a crude invisible ink.

Interestingly, the collaborative effort of communication could transcend barriers of class and rank. Morieux said: “There’s an interesting reliance on the help of others, even from different classes. So the lieutenant can convey news from neighbours even though they are clearly not his friends, just basic acquaintances. Or he’s in charge of a pilotin, which is a very low level younger kid, so he also sends news from him to his parents.”

The letters provide compelling, albeit rather voyeuristic, insights into family tensions and quarrels. Some of the most remarkable were sent to a young sailor from Normandy, Nicolas Quesnel. On January 27, 1758, his illiterate 61-year-old mother, Marguerite, sent a message written by an unknown scribe to complain: “On the first day of the year you have written to your fiancée. I think it’s the least you can do for me to have the slightest preference in writing to me. I think more about you than you about me.”

Letter from Marguerite to Nicolas Quesnel in which she says she is ‘for the tomb’. Photo: The National Archives / Renaud Morieux

Then, piling on the guilt, she added: “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.”

A few weeks later, Nicolas’ fiancée, Marianne, wrote asking him to write to his mother and stop putting her in an awkward situation. It appears that Marguerite had blamed Marianne for Nicolas’ silence. Marianne subsequently wrote: “The black cloud has gone, a letter that your mother has received from you lightens the atmosphere.”

However, on March 7, Marguerite was once again displeased, writing: “In your letters you never mention your father. This hurts me greatly. Next time you write to me, please do not forget your father.”

Morieux, who did genealogical research on all the crew, discovered that this man was actually Nicolas’ stepfather. “Here is a son who clearly doesn’t like or acknowledge this man as his father,” he said. “But at this time, if your mother remarried, her new husband automatically became your father. Without explicitly saying it, Marguerite is reminding her son to respect this by sharing news about ‘your father’. These are complex but very familiar family tensions.”

In fact, many of the letters’ themes will resonate with modern readers. Morieux said: “These letters are about universal human experiences, they’re not unique to France or the 18th century. 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.”

While some of the letters’ contents is exceptionally powerful and emotive, much appears humdrum. Morieux argues that many correspondents were less interested in the texts than in their material existence as confirmation that the sender was alive. They often berated their loved ones for not writing sooner. And, at a time when diseases such as typhus swept through port cities and rates of mortality at sea were terrifying, enquiries about health were commonplace.

So were expressions of religious faith, such as when Françoise, wife of the sailor Henry Artur, wrote: “I pray that you always take good care of yourself. Pray to the Lord that He preserves you on your journey and always have great confidence in the Holy Virgin that she may protect you from danger. As for me, I will always pray to God every fifteen days for you.”

‘Pray to the Lord that He preserves you on your journey’

Françoise Hamelin

During the Seven Years’ War — a global conflict in which France was greatly weakened — the French possessed some of the world’s finest ships but lacked experienced sailors. In 1758, out of 60,137 French sailors, a third (19,632) were detained as prisoners in Britain. About 1,900, or 10 per cent, died in captivity that same year. However, many survived and returned to France after their release. For example, Morieux found that Nicolas Quesnel joined the crew of a transatlantic slave trade ship in the 1760s.

Significantly, over half of the letters (59 per cent) were sent by women, and Morieux said they illustrated the importance and complexity of women’s roles.

The French fleet faced British warships such as those depicted by Charles Brooking in this painting at the Yale Center for British Art. Photo: Yale Center for British Art, under licence CC0 1.0 Universal

“These families lived for half the year without the presence of husbands or sons or fathers. So they were used to dealing with that challenge, and what happened in wartime was just more extreme but on the same continuum. The letters tell us a lot about the household economy and about women as partners exercising autonomy and running family businesses, making investments, paying taxes and rents or organising repairs . . . They were given a role that is well-known for some other categories, such as merchant’s wives, or widows. But here you see that women were always at the centre of the family economy.”

As for follow-up research, Morieux is working on other projects but contemplating writing a book on the Galetée correspondence in the future. “There is a lot more in these letters that could really be interesting,” he said.

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