Prize papers project Akademie der Wissenschaften
zu Göttingen
Mat HCA32 140 B1 0019 5

What is the Prize Papers collection?

The Prize Papers of the High Court of Admiralty are both unique and fascinating: a huge collection of documents and small objects from the period between 1652 and1815, which is being held by the National Archives of the UK. The Prize Papers are a result of an early modern warfare practice which witnessed its heyday in the context of 17th and 18th century European colonial expansion. During wartime, hostile European powers would capture their enemies‘ ships all over the world, dealing severe blows to their military, political and economic force.

No mere pirates

Capturing, or prize-taking, was not a lawless act of piracy – on the contrary: Laws, which were respected by all the parties involved, dictated precisely how a capture had to unfold, and under which circumstances it would be legal or illegal. Only a ship that could be proven to belong to an enemy party, or to support that enemy party’s war effort, could be legally captured. The final ruling on the legality or illegality of a capture had to be made in court. For the seafarers setting out to take prizes, this meant that they had to adhere and swear 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.

Oldenburg Student Verena Gödecke explains the difference between legal captures and piracy (in German)


The confiscated documents that were deemed part of a legal capture were then stored in the High Court of Admiralty’s archives, as were the juridical documents emerging from the respective captures. The result is an extraordinary and vast, partly “accidental” early modern global archive: court papers, 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. It is like a collection of time-capsules, of past situations frozen and preserved across several centuries.

This collection 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.

Facts & Figures:

The Prize Papers Collection contains

  • ca. 4.088 boxes and 71 printed volumes
  • - papers from more than 30.000 captured ships
  • - In at least 19 different languages
  • - ca. 160.000 undelivered letters, many of them still sealed
  • - Miscellaneous objects: rings, necklaces, keys, fabric samples…
The Prize Papers in the NDR - Kulturjournal, November 2019