The Prize Papers of the High Court of Admiralty are a unique and fascinating collection which is held in the UK National Archives. A result of the early modern practice of capturing enemy ships and confiscating all papers travelling aboard them during wartime, they are an extraordinary combination of juridical documents relating tothe captures, and a vast “accidental” early modern global archive of all documents and objects that were part of the captures: trading and maritime papers, doodles, books and notebooks, keys, playing cards, colonial administration papers and around 160,000 undelivered letters intercepted on their way across the seas, many of which remain unopened to this day. This accidental archive provides matchless insights into the global entanglements of early modern worlds and lives, representing men, women, and children from a multitude of social and cultural backgrounds – so far, documents in at least 19 different languages have been identified (Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Basque, Yiddish, Ladino, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Mandarin, Hindi), and we expect to discover more languages as the project progresses.
The aim of the Prize Papers project is the complete digitization of the Prize Papers including the Preservation of the collection’s material dimension, the initial and in-depth cataloguing, the creation of research-oriented metadata and finally the presentation of the digital copies and the metadata in an open access research database. The project also pursues various research projects and cooperates with numerous international researchers and research institutions working on the Prize Papers and in project-related areas.
The Prize Papers trace back to the practice of prize-taking on sea which was part of the early modern sea powers‘ war strategy. Martial Law required that the lawfulness of a capture be established in front of a Prize or Admiralty Court; to that end, the entire shipload (including private and commercial documents, ship’s papers, newspapers, personal effects, trading registers etc.) had to be seized by the capturing party. In the High Court of Admirality (HCA) collection at the National Archives, Kew, London, these captured documents and objects from the period between 1664 and 1817 have been preserved, together with the corresponding process files, largely untouched and unsorted as the only surviving collection of its kind in Europe.
This accidental preservation stretching over more than two centuries has created a global archive which has not been subjected to any selection or revision by the historical writers themselves, their descendants, or archivists. Thus, the Prize Papers allow unique insights into past worlds and cosmologies, historical self-concepts and interpersonal relationships, language acquisition, knowledge transfer, political and economic practices and processes of juridification in the context of the global interweaving of Europe and the world.