“Vir­tu­ally un­touched for 250 years, most of the let­ters were un­opened and in pris­tine con­di­tion”

BBC History Magazine - - History Now / News - Dr Es­ther-Miriam Wag­ner is di­rec­tor of re­search at the Woolf In­sti­tute, Cam­bridge. She is con­duct­ing re­search on the Ara­bic Prize Paper pro­ject with post­doc­toral re­search fel­low Dr Mo­hamed Ahmed. woolf.cam.ac.uk/re­search

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

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