“Virtually untouched for 250 years, most of the letters were unopened and in pristine condition”
The National Archives has launched a 20-year project to study around 160,000 undelivered letters that were seized by British ships between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner (left), who is studying the project’s Arabic letters, shares what she has discovered so far
Where have these letters come from? Known as the Prize Papers, these letters were taken from ships captured by British vessels during naval warfare in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The missives were analysed by the High Court of Admiralty to prove that wares confiscated did indeed belong to enemy merchants. They are mostly written in Dutch, Spanish and French, enemy nations of the British empire during the period, but one of the boxes in the collection contained business letters in Arabic and Hebrew script. These were seized from a Tuscan ship bound for Alexandria, in 1759. Virtually untouched for 250 years, most of the letters were unopened when I was given them, and are in the same pristine condition as when they were archived in the 18th century. What is significant about the letters you have studied? The correspondence I’ve been studying consists of letters and registers composed by Middle Eastern merchants living in Italy, and by Middle Eastern clergy in Rome, who sent their missives via their compatriot merchants to Egypt and the Levant. Very little comparative material in Arabic script from that period is known, and virtually nothing has been edited and published on the topic. What do the letters say? As most of the letters were not written for an audience but meant for private consumption, we have access to raw, unedited social history. We hear one of the writers complain about his nephew’s lack of respect, which he blames on the influence of European morals. Comments are made about the inferiority of Egyptians as opposed to Syrians. The longing for one’s Middle Eastern homeland while living in Italy, especially when family life there goes on, is also described in sorrowful tone. We read about interpersonal relationships within the mercantile and clergical networks, power dynamics, knowledge transfer, etc. Some of the traders’ names mentioned can even be connected to mercantile families that feature prominently in other collections of letters, held elsewhere in the world. What can we learn about interfaith relations from the correspondence? The letters give us an insight into Europe on the cusp of nationalist movements, before ideas of homogeneous states of one religion/ one language emerged and permeated European thinking. No conflicts between members of the different Abrahamic religions are mentioned. Most of the letters are composed by Christian merchants and clergy, but they write to and about dealings with Muslim and Jewish partners. In fact, connections between Jewish and Christian merchants seem rather tight, held together by the common Middle Eastern origin. Interestingly, the Christian letter-writers use much more colloquial language among themselves, as was typical for particular social groups, but write much more formally to Muslim business partners.
According to Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner, the business letters of the Prize Papers offer “raw, unedited social history”
An Ottoman ship shown in a detail from a painting of a nautical festival held by Sultan Ahmed III