French love letters to sailors from 265 years ago have been opened for the first time after the British confiscated them.
Over 100 letters sent to French sailors by fiancées, wives, parents and siblings were never delivered.
Their words offer “extremely rare” insight into love, disruption and family quarrels in wartime – from the perspectives of elderly peasants to wealthy officer’s wives.
The University of Cambridge has opened them for the first time since they were written between 1757 and 1758, when Britain was ruled by King George II and the nation was battling France in the Seven Years’ War.
France had some of the world’s finest warships but few experienced sailors, which Britain exploited by imprisoning as many French naval men as possible.
Their post was nicked in the process.
Two and a half centuries later, a University of Cambridge professor ordered a box of letters “out of curiosity” and made the “emotional” discovery that all but two were unopened.
He spent two months decoding terrible spelling, messy handwriting and words that packed the pages.
In 1758 Marie Dubosc writes to her husband, first Lieutenant of French warship the Galatée: “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.”
She was unaware the British had captured the Galatée ship and sent it to Portsmouth, imprisoning the crew including her husband Lieutenant Louis Chambrelan.
The high ranking seaman did not receive his wife’s letter and the pair never met again – Mrs Dubosc died the next year in Le Havre.
Her death would “almost certainly” have been before Mr Chambrelan was released, the researchers said. In 1761 Mr Chambrelan remarried safely in France.
The wife of non-commissioned officer Jean Topsent on the same ship, wrote of similar longing.
Anne Le Cerf said: “I cannot wait to possess you.”
University of Cambridge point out she meant “embrace” or “to make love to you,” adding the woman signed the page with her affectionate nickname “Your obedient wife Nanette.”
But the officer was imprisoned somewhere in England, and would never receive her letter.
The natures of family love, tensions, and quarrels during war were also revealed, including the impact of being apart for years.
Young Normandy sailor Nicolas Quesnel received some of the most remarkable letters, the researchers said.
On January 27 1758 his 61-year-old mother, Marguerite, who was almost certainly illiterate, sent a letter via an unknown scribe.
She complained: “On the first day of the year 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.”
Days later, Quesnel’s fiancée, Marianne, sent a letter imploring him to write to his mother and stop putting her in a difficult position – the mother appeared to blame her for Quesnel’s silence.
Marianne wrote: “The black cloud has gone, a letter that your mother has received from you, lightens the atmosphere.”
But the relief was short-lived – on March 7 1758, mom Marguerite wrote again frustratedly to Nicolas: “In your letters you never mention your father.
“This hurts me greatly. Next time you write to me, please do not forget your father.”
Professor Renaud Morieux, from Cambridge University’s History Faculty, who analyzed the letters, said: “Here is a son who clearly doesn’t like or acknowledge this man as his father.
“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.”
Quesnel survived British prison and joined the crew of a transatlantic slave trade ship in the 1760s.
Women signed over half the letters sent to the sailors, shedding light on female literacy, social networks, and experiences in wartime.
During the war, the French navy manned its warships by forcing most men living near the coast to serve for one year every three or four years.
The system was hugely unpopular, and many fled once in port or applied to be released with an injury.
The sister of Nicolas Godefroy, a trainee pilot, wrote: “What would bring me more pain is if you leave for the islands.”
She was referring to the Caribbean, where thousands of European sailors died from disease.
Despite their worries, Godefroy’s sister and mother both refused to apply for his release from the navy.
They feared doing so may backfire and force him to stay at sea “even longer”
Professor Morieux spent months decoding 104 letters written with wild spelling, no punctuation or capital letters and filling every inch of the expensive paper they appear on.
He 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 realized 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.
“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.
“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, neighbors would read it before it was sent, and many others would read it upon receipt.
“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.”
Sending letters from France to a ship was “incredibly difficult and unreliable” in the 18th century.
Sometimes people dispatched multiple copies to different ports hoping to reach a seaman.
Other tactics became apparent, with the French doubling-up to send to multiple crew mates in one envelope.
Relatives would ask other families to let them add an extra note for another loved one, hoping it would be passed across the boat.
Prof Morieux found extensive evidence of the French bunking letters which never reached the intended recipients.
The French postal administration tried to deliver the letters to the ship, sending them to multiple French ports.
However, they always arrived slightly too late.
On hearing the Galatée had been captured by the British ship the Essex, the British forwarded the letters to England where they were handed to the Admiralty in London.
Prof Morieux said: “It’s agonizing how close they got.”
He believes officials opened and read two letters but realized they only contained “family stuff”, and put them in storage as a result.
For the research, Prof Morieux identified every member of the 181 crew aboard the Galatée, ranging from sailors to carpenters to superior officers.
Letters were addressed to a quarter of them.
The prof then carried out genealogical research into the shipmates and their correspondents to get beyond the contents of the letters.
During the Seven Years’ War a total of 64,373 French sailors were imprisoned in Britain.
In 1758 alone, third of the 60,137 French sailors were detained in Britain, totally 19,632.
Some died of disease and malnutrition, others were released.
Writing in Annales Histoire Sciences Sociales, Prof Morieux added the research aids contemporary attitudes to literacy.
He said: “You can take part in a writing culture without knowing how to write nor read.
“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.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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