Key figures

·      165 years (1652–1815)

·      35,000 captured ships

·      4088 boxes

·      82 document types

·      160,000 undelivered letters

·      71 printed volumes

·      19 languages

·      5 continents

·      3.5 million digital copies in 2037

The Collection

The Prize Papers Project is dedicated to the study of the Prize Papers Collection, a vast and unique trove of documents and artifacts that track the daily lives of people around the globe in the time of the European colonial expansion and resistance.

The objects in the Prize Papers Collection were impounded by the High Court of Admiralty of the English and later British Royal Navy between 1652 and 1815, and they are now held by The National Archives of the UK.

The Prize Papers were collected a result of the early modern naval practice of prize-taking: capturing ships belonging hostile powers, dealing severe blows to their military, political and economic capabilities. This practice had its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries, and so the collection proves a fascinating insight into the formative period of European colonial expansion.

Prize-taking was not a lawless act of piracy. On the contrary, laws, which typically were respected by all parties involved, dictated precisely how and under what circumstances a legal capture had to unfold. A ship could only be legally captured if it could be proven to belong to an enemy party or to have been supporting that party’s war effort.

The final ruling on the legality of a capture had to be made in court. 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.

The Prize Papers Collection

The practice of prize-taking resulted in a vast, extraordinary and partly accidental archive of the early modern world, contains documents from more than 35,000 captured ships, held in around 4088 boxes and 71 printed volumes. The Prize Papers Collection includes at least 160,000 undelivered letters intercepted on their way across the seas, many of which remain unopened to this day. These are accompanied by books and papers on all manner of legal, commercial, maritime, colonial and administrative matters, often embellished with notes and doodles. Documents in at least 19 different languages have been identified so far, and more languages are likely to be discovered as the project progresses. Alongside this written material is a variety of small miscellaneous artifacts, including jewelry, textiles, playing cards and keys.

This collection of time-capsules has preserved the voices of men, women and children from a multitude of societies and cultures. Each item reveals how peoples’ lives were caught in the global entanglements of the early modern world. Their frozen dramas provide matchless insights into 165-years of colonial development, spanning three centuries.