“I could spend the night writing to you … I am your forever faithful wife. Good night, my dear friend. It is midnight. I think it is time for me to rest,” Marie Dubosc wrote lovingly to her husband, Louis Chambrelan, in 1758.
Dubosc didn’t know the British had captured Chambrelan, the first lieutenant on the Galatée, a French warship. Her letter never reached him, and Dubosc died the following year, most likely while Chambrelan was still imprisoned. No one read her words for more than two centuries—until Renaud Morieux, a historian at Cambridge University, discovered a trove of sealed letters at the United Kingdom’s National Archives.
Written between 1757 and 1758, most of the letters came from the lovers, family and friends of those serving on the Galatée during the Seven Years’ War. Like Dubosc’s message, they never reached their intended recipients. After the ship was taken, French authorities forwarded the letters to the British, who put them in storage, likely after realizing they contained no valuable military information.
Morieux spent months decoding the stack of more than 100 letters, which were written with variable spellings, no punctuation or capitalization and text that completely covered the paper. This week, he published an analysis of his findings in the journal Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales.
“I realized I was the first person to read these very personal messages since they were written,” says Morieux in a statement. “Their intended recipients didn't get that chance. It was very emotional.”
The notes offer a window into the lives of everyday people during wartime, Morieux tells NPR’s Kai McNamee. “These letters tell us about how people from the lower classes dealt with the challenges of war and the absence of their kin and loved ones, and how they managed to overcome distance and the fear of uncertainty.”
Historians don’t often find first-person historical texts written by those below a certain social class—“at least before the 20th century, when more and more people could read and write,” says Morieux to CNN’s Ashley Strickland. Additionally, more than half of the letters in the trove came from women, offering insight into their lives during the war as they made important decisions in the absence of men.
“Getting access to the writings of women, especially sailors’ wives, is exceptional,” Morieux tells CNN. “This allows us to glimpse at their emotions, fear, anxiety, anger, jealousy, as well as their faith or the key role they played in the running of the household while their husband, son or brother was absent.”
In many cases, however, those who couldn’t read or write were still able to participate in letter writing. Some senders would dictate their letters to a scribe and rely on others to read letters aloud. Reaching the ships by mail was challenging, so families would sometimes send copies of the letter to multiple ports or ask relatives of crewmates to put messages to loved ones in their letters. “Staying in touch was a community effort,” says Morieux in the statement.
Because of the community required to write and receive letters, notions of privacy were very different, he tells CNN. People could talk about love or even physical desire in letters dictated to someone else and read by others.
The writings also reveal certain dynamics that haven’t changed between then and now. One notable set of letters chronicles a mother complaining that her son only writes to his fiancée. These grievances prompt the fiancée to write to him as well, urging him to write to his mother, who blamed the fiancée for his silence. In another letter, the mother reminds her son to acknowledge his stepfather.
In this way, the letters aren’t unique to their time; they are a record of universal human experiences, says Morieux in the statement.
“When we are separated from loved ones by events beyond our control, like the pandemic or wars, we have to work out how to stay in touch, how to reassure, care for people and keep the passion alive,” he says. “Today, we have Zoom and WhatsApp. In the 18th century, people only had letters, but what they wrote about feels very familiar.”