They never reached their recipients: letters written in the 18th century to French sailors during the Seven Years' War between France and Great Britain were finally opened, providing testimonies that were both intimate and historical.
A letter from the wife of an officer, another from a mother reproaching her son for not writing to her more often... These letters had been seized by the Royal Navy during the war which notably opposed the British and the French between 1756 and 1763 around their colonial possessions.
“I would very well spend the night writing to you (...), your faithful wife for life. Good evening my dear friend. It's midnight. I think it is time to rest,” wrote for example Marie Dubosc in 1758 to her husband Louis Chambrelan, first lieutenant of the French frigate Galatea, captured by the British. Louis never received the letter from his wife, who died the following year, probably in captivity.
In another letter dated January 27, 1758, Marguerite Lemoyne, the mother of sailor Nicolas Quesnel, originally from Normandy, regrets not receiving more news from her son. “I think more of you than you of me (...) finally, I wish you a happy year filled with the blessings of the Lord,” she told him in a letter undoubtedly dictated to a scribe.
But the Galatea, which left Bordeaux for Quebec, was captured in the Atlantic and taken to Plymouth, on the south coast of England, then finally to Portsmouth. The letters followed the ship from port to port until its capture, before also arriving in England.
Initially considered documents of military interest, these 104 letters were finally transferred to the British National Archives, where they were forgotten in a box, until they attracted the attention of Renaud Morieux, professor of history. at the University of Cambridge. “I simply asked to see this box out of curiosity,” says the researcher, whose conclusions were published Tuesday in the journal Les Annales. History, Social Sciences.
“I realized I was the first person to read these very personal messages,” grouped into three piles and held together by ribbons. “Their recipients were not so lucky and it was very moving,” he says, adding that these letters contain “universal human experiences.”
Written mainly by women, they bear witness to the experience of these wives, mothers and fiancées in times of war, forced to run the household alone and make decisions in the absence of men. Renaud Morieux identified each of the 181 members of the frigate Galatea, a quarter of whom had been recipients of these letters, and also conducted genealogical research on the sailors and the authors of the letters.
In 1758, a third of around 60,000 French sailors were imprisoned in Britain. And over the entire period of the Seven Years' War, won by the alliance led by Great Britain and Prussia, 65,000 were detained by the British. Some died of disease and malnutrition, while others were eventually released.
During this time, letters were the only way their families tried to contact them. “Today we have Zoom or WhatsApp. In the 18th century, people only had letters, but what they wrote resonates today in a very familiar way,” says the researcher.