The latest exciting news for early modernists concerns the upcoming Prize Papers Database, a collection of hundreds of thousands of juridical documents, ‘trading and maritime papers, doodles, books and notebooks, keys, playing cards, colonial administration papers and around 160,000 undelivered letters’ seized from ships captured by the British navy and privateers (with such ships referred to in maritime parlance as ‘prizes’, as students in the EMSP course The Pirate & Piracy well know) between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. These items thus constitute booty from Britain’s many naval conflicts, including the Napoleonic wars (as depicted in one of Turner’s paintings of the Battle of Trafalgar, above). The Prize Papers Database project, based at the University of Oldenburg in Germany and the UK National Archives, awkwardly describes itself as ‘Archiving an Early Modern Unarchived Archive’–as if one were to characterise the unearthing of Richard III’s corpse from a Leicester car park in 2012 as ‘discovering a medieval undiscovered discovery’. An alternative slogan, though rather more mercantile, would be, ‘Look at All the Cache We Saved!’ Or in relation to the origins and legacies of these maritime items about to be digitised, ‘The Prize Papers Will Be Making Waves!’
For those of you who wish to be ap-prized of the story and contents of the Prize Papers, this article explains that the letters in particular were kept as evidence at the Prize Court of the High Admiralty in London, and then moved to the Tower of London until 1850 and finally to the Public Record Office in uncatalogued boxes. The Prize Papers, which provide valuable insight into early modern trans-Atlantic trade, colonialism, and slavery, are often deeply personal in nature. Letters are accompanied with items never received such as sheet music, drawings, poems, and (rather seedily) ‘a packet of 200-year-old seeds from South Africa’. The article mentions a priest from Lima sending a ribbon from his ordination ceremony to his mother–though this may have been meant as an inside (letter) joke, as he was ‘ribbon’ her. A 1756 letter sent by Elizabeth Sprigs, an indentured (because of her bad teeth?) servant in Maryland, relates to her father that ‘What we unfortunate English people suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to conceive. Let it suffice that I one of the unhappy number, am toiling almost day and night, and very often in the horses druggery’, with ‘scarce anything but Indian corn and salt to eat.’ It would be unfair to characterise this complaint as a humble-brag, as if she were tooting her own corn. Another colourful letter was composed by a ‘ship’s master, from the German merchant ship Concordia, [who] writes to his wife in English about running into English privateers who “rab mee from all mee fouls, and drunk all ouer wyn and Beer”.’ Surely this gentleman was justified in ‘wining’ about these drunken privateers, whose seizure of his goods was ‘foul play’. These and many, many other treasures will be available for public access, and one hopes for free; it would be far too tempting to sell them online, thus sparking a craze for ‘booty-que’ shopping.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Studies of Unstudied Studies Program