“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,” wrote Marie Dubosc to her husband, the first Lieutenant of the Galatée, a French warship, in 1758. She didn’t know that the ship had been captured and that her husband wouldn’t get the letter.
Researchers from Cambridge University spent months decoding more than 100 letters written to French sailors during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), the last big conflict before the French Revolution that involved most of the European great powers. The letters were sadly never delivered as the ship was captured and the sailors imprisoned.
The letters, written by fiancees, wives, parents and siblings to the sailors of the Galatée, had been stored at the UK National Archives. Professor Renaud Morieux said he asked to see the letters just out of curiosity. “I realized I was the first person to read these very personal messages since they were written,” he said in a news release.
Table of contents
Captured and out of luck
During the Seven Years’ War, France had some of the world’s best ships but lacked experienced sailors. The UK took advantage of this by imprisoning as many French sailors as it could. Over 64,000 are estimated to have been captured during the war. Some of these men died from disease and malnutrition but others were released.
In the meantime, their families waited and tried to contact them. “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, neighbours would read it before it was sent, and many others would read it upon receipt,” Morieux said.
Sending letters from France to a ship that was constantly moving was very difficult and unreliable. People used to send many copies of letters to different ports hoping to reach a sailor. Relatives also would ask people writing to their loved ones’ crewmates to insert messages to the other person in the crewmate’s letters. Morieux found evidence of this in the Galatee letters.
The ship was sailing from Bordeaux to Quebec when, in 1758, it was captured by the British ship, the Essex, and sent to Portsmouth. The crew was imprisoned and the ship was sold. The French postal office unsuccessfully tried to deliver the letters to the ship. When they found it had been captured, they forwarded the letters to England.
“It’s agonising how close they got,” Morieux said. He believes that officials opened a couple of letters to see if they had any military value but put them into storage when they realized they only had “family stuff.” Morieux identified all the members of the ship from sailors to carpenters to officers, with letters addressed to a quarter of them.
Quarrels and tensions
The letters convey a blend of romantic love and, more frequently, family love, while also providing unique perspectives on the familial conflicts and disputes that arose during a period of war and prolonged separation. Some of the most remarkable letters were sent to a young sailor on the Galatée, Nicolas Quesnel, from Normandy.
On 27 January 1758, his 61-year-old mother, Marguerite sent a message to complain: “On the first day of the year [i.e. January 1st] 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.”
A few weeks later, Nicolas’ fiancée, Marianne, sent a letter asking him to write to his mother and stop putting her in an awkward situation. Marianne wrote: “The black cloud has gone, a letter that your mother has received from you, lightens the atmosphere.” However, this didn’t do the trick, as Margarite complained again.
“In your letters you never mention your father. This hurts me greatly,” Margarite wrote. Moreiux found that Nicolas step-father had died and that his mother remarried. “Here is a son who clearly doesn’t like or acknowledge this man as his father,” Morieux said. The researchers also found that Nicolas survived the custody and later joined a crew.
Women in wartime
Over half of the letters were signed by women, providing perspective on female literacy, social networks and experiences in wartime. “These letters shatter the old-fashioned notion that war is all about men. While their men were gone, women ran the household economy and took crucial economic and political decisions,” Morieux said.
During this period, the French navy relied on a practice where they compelled most men residing near the coastline to serve for a duration of one year, occurring every three or four years. This system was as unpopular as the press-ganging method in Britain, leading to many French sailors fleeing or asking to be released due to injury.
The sister of Nicolas Godefroy, a trainee pilot, wrote: “What would bring me more pain is if you leave for the islands”. She referred the Caribbean, where many European sailors died from disease. However, Nicolas’ sister and mother didn’t apply for his release from the navy, afraid the strategy could backfire and force him to stay longer.
For Morieux, the letters are not unique to France or to the 18th century. Instead, they are universal human experiences that reveal how we 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,” Moriuex said.
The researcher also called for a more inclusive definition of literacy. Most of the people sending the letters told a scribe what they wanted to say and relied on others to read their letters outloud. “This was someone they knew who could write, not a professional. Staying in touch was a community effort,” Moreiux said.
The study was published in the journal Annales Histoire Sciences Sociales.