Thousands of undelivered letters from 1652-1815 to be digitized


The UK National Archives in London have a collection of over 4000 boxes containing over 160,000 undelivered letters, taken from ships that were captured by the British during the naval wars of the 17th-19th centuries.

The mail was sent between 1652-1815, and contains songs, notebooks, packages, and personal correspondence from all over the world, written in 19 different languages. Some are still in the original mail bags, others sealed with wax and never opened.

The Prized Papers project in Germany plans to sort, digitize, and archive the mail online, in partnership with the Germain Historical Institute London and the UK National Archives, with funding from the Union of the German Academics of Sciences and Humanities. The project is expected to take 20 years and cost 9.3 million Euros (over 10 million USD).


“The documents shed new light on world history, with detailed ship logs of climate conditions, cartography, trade ledgers and correspondence about major events, including colonialism and the American and French Revolutionary wars. There are records from the slave trade, listing the names of enslaved people, their costs, and what slave owners paid for them. But what fascinates Freist [a historian at Prized Papers] the most are the personal letters between ordinary folks — a part of history she says is often overshadowed in favour of stories about powerful people.
A series of four letters from a Madam Dupont in Quebec between 1702 and 1703 show a woman frantically trying to reach her husband, who is away on business in France, and growing increasingly despondent by his lack of response.
‘She feels utterly neglected and resented and finally decides not to write anymore. In the letter she says: You can’t love me anymore if you don’t answer. I will now stop writing. I give up. But then she writes again and she implores her husband once again to come back.’
Freist said people understood that letters could become lost at sea, and would often make contingency plans. ‘They commented again and again on their letters: In case you don’t receive this, I will send another one in two weeks time. Or they sent off four letters of the same kind on four different ships,’ she said.”

A thought I had while reading this: Do you think the sealed, unopened letters should be opened?

Source: CBC News – As It Happens (includes audio clip of the original radio segment)

– Nathalie Delean (653-01)

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by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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