Let’s imagine a treasure hidden for more than 200 years, with documents seized from 35,000 ships by British privateers and warships and 160,000 letters that never reached their destination. These files preserved in a time capsule have finally seen the light of day in the National Archives in London. Among them are the letters that traveled in the bellies of 130 Spanish ships captured in the 18th century. “I would like to know the reason for having written you thirteen letters without these and none of them having had a response, I would like to know if there is no paper or pens or ink to even see one written, I see that it is due to a lack not of what was said, but of a lot of forgetfulness that you have made of your entire family, since everyone around here has their help and I am the only one who is unfortunate.

Francisca Muñoz’s spiteful letter to her husband Miguel Atocha, who went to the Americas and left his family behind, was traveling with a cargo of silver on La Ninfa, a 36-gun frigate captured during the Anglo-Spanish War (1796). -1802). Incredibly preserved, it has reached our days and is one of the Spanish jewels of the Prize Papers, the cataloging and digitization project of the treasure hidden in 4,000 boxes that have finally reached the shore.

“We are facing a discovery like the Potosí gold, the authentic memory of Europe in a crucial period in history,” says Elvira Barroso Bronheim, a volunteer researcher at the National Archives, who became involved in the project almost by chance. “They told me that they were opening the boxes and that if I could help them, that many documents appeared in Spanish. Imagine the surprise when seeing all these letters, drawings, wills, recipes. This is pure archeology.”

“My friends, I inform you that on the eve of my departure from Havana, having gone to board at ten o’clock at night with my father, at the time of climbing the ship’s ladder my hands and feet went away. In the darkness of the night, I fell into the water, staying on top of it more by the work of God than by my ability, since I do not know how to swim, and seeing me in such a great conflict, he used all the quickest measures that the situation required, and gave me a “God, the Virgin, Mr. San Antonio and Mr. San José wanted me to grab him, and I don’t know how I grabbed him because I was already short of breath and sense.”

This letter was signed by a 16-year-old boy, Joaquín Ruiz, who was traveling with his father to Veracruz. His letters to the family were intercepted in the Agata Galera in 1747, during the War of the Seat that pitted the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean area. The history of this ship is well known to Alejandro Salamanca, associate researcher at the Prize Papers Project, to the point that he plans to dedicate a book to it. “The Agata Galera made a fixed route between Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Veracruz,” emphasizes Alejandro Salamanca, 31 years old. , a native of Arganda del Rey. “Reading these letters for months has helped me put a human face on immigration and the fact that they are made public can serve to reinterpret aspects of the colonial era. But what is most striking is the human factor; you can write real soap operas with them. It is worth clarifying here the meaning of the English word prize as “prey”; that is, the boats “captured” many times by British privateers. Alejandro Salamanca also draws a line between pirates and privateers, “who were normally entrepreneurs or sailors who obtained the patent of marque, that is, licenses to attack and capture enemy ships, a way of privatizing wars.” The so-called Prize Court , or prize court, ruled on the “legality” of the capture and determined the destination of the shipments. Once the valuables were distributed and documents of strategic or political value seized, the rest were stored in the High Admiralty. From there, it went to the Tower of London, finally ending up in the National Archives.

The documents now digitized correspond mainly to the Wars of the Seat and the Austrian Succession (1739-48). This is the case of the beautiful bribe books of the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, which can help decipher life on the galleons that made the route between Acapulco and Manila. Another jewel of high historical value are the units of the Army of the Endowment, carefully wrapped in the name of José Gálvez, Secretary of State for the Indies between 1776 and 1787, with names and surnames of the “free morenos” who abandoned slavery and were recruited by colonial militias.

There are more than 2,000 documents seized in 1779 from the frigate La Perla, when it was sailing through the Azores, with letters written in a dozen languages ​​(including Catalan and Basque), which are among the documents that will be digitized thanks to the nine million of euros of investment and to the University of Oldenburg in Germany.

“We are faced with documents of great importance for our historiography and for understanding the fine grain of the past and our relationship with the Americas,” declared the Spanish ambassador in London José Pascual Marco, at the presentation of the Prize Papers. “We want Spain to get involved in this project and the presence of the director of the Naval Museum and the director of the General Archive demonstrate the awareness and interest that already exists in our country.”