Mariner Letters. 1600–1800

Mariner Letters. 1600–1800

Prize Papers Project and Marine Lives Project, Lucas Haasis and Colin Greenstreet
Universität Oldenburg
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
14.07.2022 - 15.07.2022
Annika Eileen de Freitas, Institut für Geschichte, Universität Oldenburg

The world turned into a small village – even in the early modern period. The numerous personal and commercial letters sent and received in this era, not only by high-ranking officers but by the entire crew of merchant and naval ships, proves that this statement is true. These mariner letters are characterized by a particular form and language, and often by a particular material. The surviving written documents shed light on life on board, seafarers’ experiences, hierarchies and patriarchy on board, but also on larger trade networks, world events, labor markets, and colonial contexts. Sailors’ letters offer enormous research potential. In stark contrast, research on this special type of letter is still scarce.

The two-day workshop aimed to pave the way for more intensive research on mariner letters in an international setting. Invited by the organizers Lucas Haasis and Colin Greenstreet, international researchers and archivists of early modern maritime history, renowned and early-career scholars came together in an online workshop on the 14th and 15th of July 2022. In a total of nine short lectures they presented their research and current works on mariner letters from the 17th to 18th centuries. Subsequent discussions gave the researchers, as well as an interested audience, the opportunity to exchange about questions, comments or further ideas.

COLIN GREENSTREET (London) argued that wherever English mariners sailed, they where likely to have sent and received letters. This is the foundation of the quantitative research of the MarineLives Project presented by Colin Greenstreet. The aim is to map the mariner letters in the context of the early modern commercial information system through metadata collection. When looking at how to research this topic “From where were letters sent?”, “Who sent letters?” and “How many letters were sent?” are the leading questions to be looked at. In a first research result, Greenstreet states that, assuming a literacy rate of 20–40 per cent on a commercial ship, around 10 million mariners’ letters could have been sent by English seamen only in the period between 1600 and 1699. For the future data collection, Greenstreet emphasizes not only the importance of archival cooperation but also the establishment of an international research network.

LUCAS HAASIS (Oldenburg) and RANDOLPH COCK (London) argued that an highly effective trade war strategy in the early modern period consisted of privateering, which however, entailed a great deal of juristic effort. Each capture had to be examined by the Admiralty Court for its legality. For the purpose of giving evidence, ship' cargoes, all ship’s papers and all mail-in-transit were confiscated and archived together with the court documents after the process. These documents are now stored in 4088 boxes at The National Archives, UK, in London and are currently being digitized and sorted by the Prize Papers project ( Among the 100 and more document types in 19 different languages are numerous mariner letters, which in the past were used to cultivate relationships over long distances. A few of such letters were presented by Lucas Haasis and Randolph Cock in their lecture. These examples were used to emphasize the value of mariner letters for historical research, which consists not only in the uniqueness of each story, but also in the possibility of drawing inferences about the lives of the seafarers or their social status. In addition, the quantity of letters, which indicate the highly active correspondence of the time, makes it possible to explore the common postal routes and the postal organization of the early modern era.

During the Revolutionary Wars, the popular mutinies of Spithead and Nore occurred on Royal Navy ships, in which the sailors demanded fairer working and payment conditions, as HELEN WATT (Cheshire) presented. But was this the only intention behind the mutinies? This is a question that Helen Watt, in collaboration with Anne Hawkins, examines in her work from 2016, on which her lecture is based. A collection of intercepted mariner letters from the mutiny at the Nore in the National Archives in London shows that the sailors also wanted to overturn the social order on board the navy ships. In this, Watt recognizes the influence of the contemporary republican movement of the United Irishman, which nationalist and democratic ideologies were opposed to British authority. Beyond that, this collection of mariner letters shows a high emotional value, as they represented the connection to home for the sailors. In this context, Watt went on to raise the question of the literacy of the sailors at the time of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Following David Ellison's 1984 study, that identified a literacy rate of 55 per cent of seamen by distinguishing between signatures and setting markings on documents from the beginning of the 19th century, Watt found a literacy rate of 62 per cent among seafarers using the same method. According to this result, the ability to read and write that time was significantly higher than previously assumed.

MYRIAM BERGERON-MAGUIRE (Paris) and CLAIRE DE MARESCHAL (Paris) provided a linguistic insight into vernacular features in French mariner letters. The joint research of the two linguists is founded on 21 letters addressed to the sail-maker Pierre Bourdron, written between December 1777 and September 1778 by semi-literate women from his relatives. From region-dependent ambiguity of words, lexical peculiarities as well as regional differences in pronunciation and grammar found in the letters can be inferred to a mutual influence of language development by western France and its former colonies. In contrast to other written sources, such as printed texts, those letters offer a unique insight into regional and social language variations, which makes them enormously valuable for linguistics.

In her keynote, SARA CAPUTO (Cambridge) came closer to her aim of giving a voice to three young Scottish sailors through their surviving writings from 1791 to 1818: William Macleod, William Rennie und Robert Ritchie. The three collections of letters and Ritchie's journal cover the early days of the teenage sailors in the Royal Navy and their process of growing up. The great potential of these collections cannot only be found in the captured moment of writing, but also in the fact that the documents were written by sailors who had not achieved great careers in the navy. This is precisely what makes their experiences even more representative and valuable for historical research. Caputo's own research interest in the material is to examine the social and cultural integration of Scots aboard the British navy ships. Overriding this, she strives to trace the process of “Britanisation” that becomes clearly apparent in the Royal Navy as a “melting point” of British nationalities. Furthermore, the rare research and literature on the subject prompted Caputo to publish the three mentioned collections as transcriptions in a forthcoming two-volume work. In doing so, Caputo also aimed to illustrate the materiality and form of the writing, which is why she describes transcribing visual aspects such as symbols, marginal notes or the change in handwriting over the years as important, albeit challenging.

THIAGO KRAUSE (Rio de Janeiro) argued that while letters written by Portuguese nobility, royal officers, diplomats or merchants are easier to find, those of ordinary Portuguese sailors are rare. Krause considers one reason for the lack of writings to be the low literacy rate in Portugal in the 19th century compared to the rest of Europe. Nevertheless, Krause experienced a small success in his search for Portuguese mariner letters in the collection of the P.S. Post Scriptum project (, which showed, among other things, how difficult it was to send letters from the former colonies back to Portugal. In this context, Colin Greenstreet pointed out in an interesting comment that the organization on ships and the distribution of responsibilities could have had an influence on the sending of letters and therefore to the rare sources of Portuguese mariner letters today. However, a small glimmer of hope was kindled by Prize Papers Record Specialist Randolph Cock, who noticed that, at least in the Prize Papers Collection, Portuguese letters are indeed present, but may often have been wrongly catalogued as Spanish, due to the greater linguistic similarity in the early modern era.

A micro-historical research was presented by MARILIA ARANTES SILVA MOREIRA (London/Paris) with a case study on personal files of the French sailor Antoine René Larcher. In his quite ambiguous career as a temporary officer in the French Navy he took part in several missions through which he experienced several events of great political importance. One example is the revolutionary movement “Bahian Conspiracy” of 1798, aiming at the liberation of enslaved people with the help of the abolitionist positioned France. But during his career, Larcher was accused of numerous offences, for which he was to be forced into retirement by a court process beginning in 1799. In the Prize Papers Collection, Arantes Silva Moreira found a correspondence of 46 letters from Larcher documenting the end of his career. In 25 letters to navy officers and decision makers, Larcher begged for payments of a two months' salary for a service he performed in 1798 – Arantes Silva Moreira traced this request back to his time in Brazil during the Bahian uprisings. What becomes clear from the tone in letters is Lancher's increasing desperation, which leads Arantes Silva Moreira to ask what else the man's story hides. She is continuing her research.

The question of what can be learned about mariners and their lives from the Scandinavian prize papers of so-called “flag crews” from the late 18th century was explored by GUSTAV ÄNGEBY (Stockholm). Since the neutral maritime power of the Netherlands had gradually disintegrated in the mid-1800s, it had been the neutral Swedish and Danish ships in particular that merchants from enemy nations used to transport their goods during the Anglo-French wars. In addition, “flag crews” were used as a trading strategy in which Scandinavian officers or sailors were deliberately taken on board ships to pass them off as Scandinavian and thus neutral. In his search Ängeby found letters of 10 Scandinavian “flag crew” ships, from which he concluded two core thesis: firstly, the documents would open a window into the risky lives of the mostly young Scandinavian seamen on such ships and secondly, the “flag crews” would prove ethnicity as a resource for gaining commercial advantage in the war trade of mercantilist nations. The latter result could be certainly interesting to consider with regard to the question of the understanding of identity in the early modern period.

A Swedish Global history from below through mariner letters, was published in JOACHIM ÖSTLUND's (Lund) book Saltets pris: svenska slavar i Nordafrika och handeln i Medelhavet 1650–1770 (2014), which was the subject of the last presentation in this workshop. His work focuses on ordinary sailors, their families and the challenges associated with the captures and enslavements by Barbary corsairs during the Swedish salt imports from southern Europe. The sources that Östlund found were mostly copies of mariner letters from the period between 1662 and 1733. In these letters, some of which show a high awareness of literature, the captured sailors not only describe their most ardent desire to return home, but also plead with the state authorities to pay ransoms – with a success rate of about 50 percent, as Östlund estimated. With his research, he attempted to show that these mariner letters shaped world views of the early modern Mediterranean, Barbary corsairs, the lives and fears of sailors, but also produced a “security culture” as the state authority reacted to the letters. One major difficulty Östlund described was the process of finding these Swedish mariner letters. However, local archives, private collections, diplomatic collections and consular archives would promise the greatest success. This again underlined that cooperation in a research network would be desirable.

The nine contributions not only covered different research methods, taking both macro- and micro-historical perspectives into account, but were also characterized by thematic diversity. General questions on the availability of records in archives worldwide, the finding process and the publication of mariner letters were discussed as well as their possibilities for linguistic analyses and case studies were illustrated. Moreover, questions and impulses for further research were provided, which underline that research on mariner letters is just beginning and can be expanded in the future. In addition, questions and impulses for further research were provided, getting at the great potential of the mariner letters for history. As another important result, which can also be seen as a fulfilled aim of the workshop, the presentations and the subsequent discussions identified points of connection that form the prerequisite for the formation of a cooperative international research network.

Conference overview:

Chairs: Lucas Haasis (Oldenburg) and Colin Greenstreet (London)

Colin Greenstreet (London): Writing about letters: The use of metadata to characterise C17th English mariners' correspondence

Lucas Haasis (Oldenburg) and Randolph Cock (London): Mariner Letters in the Prize Papers Collection

Helen Watt (Cheshire): Letters of Seamen in the Wars with France, 1793–1815

Myriam Bergeron-Maguire (Paris) and Claire de Mareschal (Paris): Eighteenth century letters intended to Pierre Bourdron, sail-maker, from semi-literate women: a selection of French vernacular features

Sara Caputo (Cambridge): Navy and clan: Scottish young gentlemen writing Home, 1791–1818 (Keynote)

Thiago Krause (Rio de Janeiro): A history of absence? Mariner letters in the Portuguese Atlantic and where to search for them

Marilia Arantes Silva Moreira (London/Paris): Antoine René Larcher's desperate letters (1798–1801). The forced retirement of a French seaman

Gustav Ängeby (Stockholm): The commodification of seafarers: Letters concerning 'Flag crews' in the Scandinavian Prize Papers, c. 1794–1803

Joachim Östlund (Lund): Letters from Swedish seafarers in the early modern Mediterranean: where to find them and the stories they tell