Prize Papers Online 1: American Revolutionary War and Fourth Anglo-Dutch War
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Prize Papers Interrogation Reports at
The National Archives of the UK
The scale of the collection of “Prize Papers” (intercepted paperwork from enemy shipping, covering the period 1592 to 1855) is vast. Most of them date from 1655 to 1817, and they are kept among the papers of the High Court of the Admiralty (“HCA”). The collection consists of 65 series (or fonds), and the Prize Papers Collection is (or was before we made them more comfortable in even more boxes) made up of 1849 boxes and bundles. They record ships of at least 15 nationalities and are written in at least as many languages.
They are the records seized from ships during an intense period of maritime warfare, fought largely by merchant ships and privateers, over trade and colonial competition, and among the court papers and actual documents (mostly bills and cargo dockets and international correspondence in transit), are a systematic set of completed, uniform questionnaires. These “interrogation reports” record the answers to a set sequence of formal questions put to captured crewmen, mainly interviewed in dock-side pubs in England, in a thorough investigation of ships’ movements and cargos aimed at establishing whether or not a ship had been lawfully captured, and its contents legally claimed as “prize”.
The court originally sat in Doctors’ Commons near St Paul’s cathedral in the city of London, and issued Letters of Marque to British privateers and merchants which allowed them to capture and seize enemy shipping in British waters during times of conflict.
The survival of every piece of paper found on board these ships depended on the HCA’s belief that the letters would give away military or strategic secrets – and the formal interviews give us, as a happy historical by-product of the legal process, a remarkably thorough and regular record of sea trade over much of the globe and over almost 200 years.
Had it not been for the misfortune of war which steered everyday post and ordinary sailors into the path of history, it’s fair to assume that letters would have reached their addressee, been read, acted on, turned over and used as scrap, burned, binned or otherwise lost. It is a happy accident that they have continued to be kept, listed, housed, described and provided to any reader who is curious because the British designated Public Records. And like many of the quirkier items in the collection at Kew, the reasons they were selected and the reasons we now value and appreciate them are worlds apart.
One of the most popular legal records we hold today is from an early modern murder trial – that of a servant girl tried for killing her illegitimate baby. The case fascinates today’s historians for shedding light on the lot of women in a patriarchal society, but the reason it was selected for preservation while thousands were discarded is because it was the first case in British legal history in which evidence submitted in translation was admitted in court. The unfortunate servant girl was French and gave her statements in French. This legal nicety strikes us now as possibly the least significant aspect of the case, but reasons and values shift and change over time.
The Prize Papers are not alone then, in having survived for reasons which are now obsolete and strike us as bizarre. We don’t know the detailed audit trail of their journey from Doctors’ Commons to their first repository – the Tower of London – but we do know that this is where they were first sorted and stored. Until 1856, when privateering was banned at the end of the Crimean War, Prize Courts were a live, active court, their papers building up a mass of evidence just as today’s court records do, so the papers they generated were kept as office files rather than as historic records.
The Prize Papers did however fill up space in the courts themselves, and when pressure on storage became unsustainable, they were transferred in batches to the Tower in 1811, 1824, 25 and 26, where they were stored in the Wardrobe.
By 1826, concern was growing about risks to the unique state records from their unsuitable storage conditions – a committee for the inspection of records was set up as early as 1703, but was not noted for drive or energy. The aim of the committee was to gather all the country’s key documents together under the control of the Master of the Rolls (a post still very much part of our lives), but the Public Records Act didn’t come into law until 135 years later in 1838.
The tale is told to every school-age visitor to Kew of Henry Cole, heroic saviour of old parchment, who brandished the mummified corpse of a rat before the Commissioners in 1836 claiming that if urgent action wasn’t taken to house the records properly, then Mr Rat and his family would eat our entire written history. The mummified rat is still proudly displayed in our museum to this day.
The Prize Papers thank goodness, escaped the dampest and most rat-infested parts of the Tower, moved from the Wardrobe to the White Tower, and thence, between 1856 and 57, to the newly purpose-build Public Record Office in Chancery Lane.
This wonderful neo-gothic building now serves as Kings’ College London’s library, but was the home of the Prize Papers right through until the end of the Second World War.
The building itself has a certain grandeur. The shelves were made of slate as a fire-prevention method, some of which now forms the floor of our atrium in Kew. Throughout the life of the PRO, Prize Papers continued to trickle through to join the collection, the last recorded arrival was the result of a spring clean by the Lord Chancellor in 1981, but the vast majority of the collection was safely boxed and housed when R.G. Marsden wrote a paper about them in the Royal Historical Society Journal in 1902. He describes them at that point, as “in a good state of preservation” but still “in a state of confusion”. So, from the living court, the Prize Papers were sporadically boxed and bundled off to storage at Chancery Lane.
Many British record series were lost to bombing and subsequent fires during World War II – we lost about 60% of the soldiers’ service records from World War One, and the whole of the 1931 census – but someone was looking after the Prize Papers, which survived unscathed, and at the end of the war, when Chancery Lane in turn ran out of storage space, they were transferred to storage out of town at Ashridge House, about 30 miles north of London in rolling park and woodland.
The house today is used as a management college, but during the war, 57 temporary single-story buildings occupied the grounds and were used as overspill for the emergency wards of Charing Cross Hospital. When the wards were no longer needed at the end of the war, the PRO took them over, and began to fill them with paper. The Prize Papers were on the move again, and in 1950 they arrived in the recently converted wards and dormitories. Old metal bed-frames were cut up to support shelving, and the Prize Papers were among 28 linear miles of records which stayed there for the next 28 years. Archive staff lived on site, and many raised families among the huts – one deputy keeper’s baby daughter is recorded on her birth certificate “place of birth: public record office”.
The majority of the sorting, classifying and cataloguing of the Papers was completed during the 1950s at Ashridge, and presumably to mark the end of this mammoth undertaking, a public exhibition about the HCA was held at Chancery Lane in 1960. The legacy of that work is the organisation of the papers by war and then alphabetically by ship name which we still use today, and which forms the organisational basis of Brill’s online edition. In 1978, when the repository at Kew first opened, the papers moved again, and were there when we absorbed the Historic Manuscripts Commission in 2003 and were re-named “the National Archives”.
The (Dutch) mythology today is of papers lying neglected until their heroic “discovery” by Sipke Braunius in 1980, but in truth, the story is one of care and preservation throughout their history. The pattern of relative obscurity and re-discovery is not unique.
Among the more unexpected treasures in the National Archives, is one of the earliest known examples of polyphonic music notation in existence: an Agnus Dei from 1325 in a collection of Inquisitions Post Mortem dating from the reign of Richard III, now classified as E 149/7. What is music doing in a collection of coroners’ reports?
Parchment was so valuable and difficult to make that it was often re-used, and monastic manuscripts quite commonly ended up re-cycled in this way – pieces of parchment were simply turned over and used for a different purpose. The fragment of sacred music survived by accident, because on the other side of the parchment was a legal record. This brief, tantalising echo of medieval music lay there, carefully housed and stored and listed for centuries, and then, when it was chosen as an illustration for a book last year, one of our conservators tipped off a friend who happened to be a Professor of Medieval Music at Cambridge who pronounced it “A MAJOR find, both for its content and its rotulus format”.
However, when we began to search, we found, on JSTOR, several scholarly articles about this very manuscript: D. Stevens wrote an article called “14th century Polyphony in England” in The Score – and in the journal Musical Quarterly is a piece about “a recently discovered English source of the 14th century” – the agnus dei. Both articles were published in 1953.
To both these generations of scholars, this Agnus Dei was a genuinely exciting discovery, revelatory and worthy of serious study. To the individuals involved this really did feel like their very own opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb moment. No single person can possibly open, read and tell the world about every single document in any collection, never mind one that fills 200 linear km of shelving. But the Agnus Dei had been there all along, catalogued, tended, housed and dusted over centuries. So when Sipke Braunius came upon the Dutch language private letters in the HCA Prize Papers, it was a genuinely exciting moment for him, and the legacy of that excitement and inspiration is still very much alive and growing, as this online edition shows, but it was a discovery of something which has been there all along – studied, described, sorted and cared for by archivists and scholars over a very long period.
When, in 2007, a Dutch project called Sailing Letters started to re-house and scan selected private letters from the Prize Papers archive, we shared the excitement, and the opportunity to witness the process of exploring these amazing maritime time-capsules has been genuinely exciting and captivating.
From boxes of appetising, grubby pirates’ treasure-chest parchments, to the genuine thrill of breaking seals on letters entrusted to the post-ship 200 and more years ago, reading intimate family news all the more poignant for never having reached its readers, thrilled to see some of the mysterious things people entrusted to the post in centuries gone by. There are playing cards, there is brown powder found labelled “Peruvian bark”, which when tested by the forensic lab at Kew Gardens, turned out to be quinine from a slave plantation in Surinam.
There’s tobacco, and seaweed, exotic parrot feathers, communion wafers and music, clothes patterns, love letters and slate tablets, navigational aids, pouches and purses and an endless number of begging letters. And of course, there are the voices of the mariners, thousands of them, hustled nervously before the interrogator and telling us all these decades later where they come from, why they were at sea, how old they are and what business has led them to the back room of an Essex pub explaining themselves to the English. And through both the Sailing Letters and Brill’s Prize Papers Online projects, it has been a privilege to enable and share in the revelations which these papers have brought not just to the lucky explorers who have worked their way through the boxes, but to the international research community as we re-discover a lost, floating world.
But it’s individuals who forget. The beauty and importance of archives is that archives remember. Through decades, or even centuries, archivists list and dust and mend and store yesterday’s worlds, and I’m immensely proud to have witnessed the happy outcome of this particular re-discovery.
As Brill begins the task of bringing order and searchability to the interrogation papers, conflict by conflict, more and more about that world will be discovered and explored. In cyber-space, the organisation and sequence, the interpretation and presentation of old papers is infinitely mutable, but I have no doubt that in another 50 years, someone, somewhere will be proudly telling an audience about the marvellous discovery they’ve made among the boxes and we at the archives will thank heavens that our predecessors never threw anything away!
Head of Licensing
The National Archives of the UK
The Prize Papers Online 1 contains approximately 7,000 interrogations of members of the crew of ships taken during the American Revolutionary War and Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (ca. 1775-1784). It shows images of each interrogation (of two, three, sometimes even six or more pages). Answers to the fourteen most researched questions are transcribed and stored in a searchable database.
The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies, but gradually grew into a war between Britain on one side and the newly formed United States, France, and its allies the Dutch Republic, and Spain, on the other. The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780–1784) was a conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Dutch Republic. The war, tangentially related to the American Revolutionary War, broke out over British and Dutch disagreements on the legality and conduct of Dutch trade with Britain's enemies in that war.
On the product’s landing page you’ll find the ships alphabetically ordered by their names, in the spelling retrieved from the documents. When you click on a ship’s name, you’ll see the names of the interrogated crew members (again, in the spelling retrieved from the documents), their occupation, the date of seizing, and the ship’s place of departure (“Authorized from”) and port of destination (“Authorized to”).
Clicking on the interrogated person’s name, will take you to the document landing page. Here you’ll find key information about the ship and its seizing. “Place” gives information about the ship’s intended route, using the authorized names of places according to the Library of Congress’ authorized list. “Sailing From” and “Sailing To” show the names of these places as they appear in the document itself.
The “Reference” refers to the codes which are used by the National Archives in Kew in their finding aids. The last 10 digits are Brill internal. So, HCA32/0265_02-012-010-0005 for instance, refers to box HCA 32/0265-02. To view the documents, click on the “Open reader” button.
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Prize Papers Online 1: American Revolutionary War and Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, Brill, Leiden - Boston, 2014 <http://primarysources.brillonline.com/browse/prize-papers-part-1-online>