J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Prize Papers Project’s Peri

The Prize Papers Project is a largely German research endeavor exploring documents at the British National Archives.

Between 1582 and 1817, the English and then British government authorized the country’s naval ships and privateers to capture enemy vessels during war—and there were a lot of wars.

The crews of those naval ships and privateers, the privateers’ investors, and the Crown could claim shares of the value of the captured ships and the cargo they carried. But to keep that practice respectable, the governments established prize courts to value the captures and adjudicate disputes over them.

The project website explains:

For the seafarers setting out to take prizes, this meant that they had to swear and adhere to a strict legal procedure, which included making sure that every last scrap of paper travelling on board the captured ship was confiscated as evidence for the ensuing court process. The confiscated documents that were deemed part of a legal capture were then stored in the Admiralty’s archives, along with all juridical documents emerging from the respective captures.
Once those documents went into the files, they usually stayed there, unread. Ultimately the British government built up “documents from more than 35,000 captured ships, held in around 4088 boxes and 71 printed volumes.”

These include “at least 160,000 undelivered letters,” each a peephole into the lives of two people—mercantile partners, relatives, bureaucrats—who were trying to maintain some sort of link in wartime. Those letters never got to the intended recipients. Most have never been opened. They are in at least nineteen different languages, showing how many enemies the British Empire had over time.

The Prize Papers Project has publicized some of the stories scholars have found in that archive, hoping to attract more researchers. Yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, however, ran an article that might make scholars less interested in being the first to open those bundles.
This photo shows a page from the ledger of a slave-trading vessel that sailed from La Rochelle, France, to the Guinea coast and then Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in 1743. The ledger then moved with some crew members onto a different ship headed back to France. But this happened during the War of the Austrian Succession. British privateers captured the vessel and confiscated the ledger.

As National Archives specialist Oliver Finnegan found when he opened the volume to digitize it, it also contained a large dead cockroach.

This insect was very much part of the Atlantic world. The species is native to Africa but during the slave trade was brought to the Americas, where it thrived so much that it’s called Periplaneta americana. Since the species is uncommon in Britain, the archivists could feel confident that this bug hadn’t crawled into the volume in recent decades.

The Guardian states that the National Archives staff have now nicknamed and catalogued the roach:
Peri, now pinned and mounted in a box with a Perspex lid, will have his own reference number, and will be kept in a drawer available to order up for anyone wishing to inspect him further in a special room at the National Archives.
Book your trips to London now.

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