Mail at Sea

May 6, 2019

By the end of the 18th century, the British Isles enjoyed one of the most efficient postal services in the world. Purpose-built mail coaches, accompanied by armed guards, sped along the newly constructed turnpike roads at speeds of nine or ten miles an hour, carrying both passengers and letters between all the main cities. Correspondence going overseas was carried on a fleet of purpose built mail-packet ships that ran regular services to major destinations, while letters to other places were handed over in sealed packages for merchant ships to deliver. So vital was the service considered, that the Post Office was an important department of government, headed by a Post Master General, who was a senior minister of the crown.

 

The Royal Navy was a major beneficiary of the postal service when war with France broke out in 1793. With substantial numbers of officers and men operating overseas, regular contact with home was considered an important part of maintaining morale. But the postal service was expensive, with a letter from Britain to a ship in the Mediterranean costing as much as a tenth of a sailor’s monthly wage.  So in 1795 the government introduced a special flat rate for Royal Navy sailors of a penny a letter, irrespective of distance. Literate sailors made considerable use of this service, while those who couldn’t read often got more learned shipmates to write letters for them.

 

There are plenty of accounts from sailors of the pleasure that news from home could bring. Samuel Leech, a sailor aboard the frigate Macedonian, describes how “...the men crowd around as the letters are distributed, and he was pronounced a happy fellow whose name was read...while those with none...hide their disappointment...” So valued was the service by sailors that it was never suspended, even during the naval mutinies of 1797, when it was widely suspected of being used to spread dissension. Estimates vary, but somewhere approaching half a million letters were being delivered to warships each year during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

 

This volume posed considerable logistical difficulties on the Postal Service. Letters were only addressed to the recipient, followed by the name of the ship. It was down to the Post Office to decide where on the earth’s surface that ship might be found. For those in predictable locations within home waters, letters generally arrived within a few days. Letters to the Mediterranean or the West Indies took a few months, while it could take over half a year to receive a reply to correspondence sent to a ship based in the Indian Ocean.

 

The Postal Service had to assume that ships would return to the port where they were meant to be based, but this was not always the case. On occasion, the actions of the enemy could cause the strategic situation to become fluid. Imagine Lady Emma Hamilton writing to her beloved Lord Nelson in the spring of 1805. She would have addressed her letter to him, on board the Victory. The Post Office would have sent the letter to the fleet off Toulon, in the south of France, where Nelson had been for most of the previous year. But in April 1805 the French fleet escaped, unleashing one of naval histories great chases. Any letter to Nelson would have had to pursue him out of the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to the West Indies, back to Portsmouth in Britain, and then down to Cadiz in south west Spain. It is most unlikely that such a letter could have reached him before his death at the Battle of Trafalgar that October.

 

Many letters never arrived at all. The Post offices packet ships were considered a valuable target by enemy warships or privateers. When capture seemed likely, they would throw the mail overboard, rather than risk it falling into the wrong hands. Of those that operated out of Falmouth during the Napoleonic Wars, 128 were attacked, with 44 being captured, and 8 managing to capture their attackers. Packet ships were at least built for speed, unlike the majority of merchantmen, who could be even more vulnerable to capture, along with any mail they carried.

 

As well as carrying mail, many merchant ships would use the Post Office to receive letters. As they tended to operate on predictable routes, they proved easier to deliver to than Royal Navy ships. An exception to this was whaling ships. By the late 18th century British and New England whalers had almost emptied the Atlantic of prey, and their ships were embarking on voyages into the Pacific Ocean that could last up to two and sometimes three years. They devised their own unofficial system for mail distribution, via a crude post office made from a large cask that was installed on the otherwise uninhabited Charles Island in the Galapagos. Newly arriving whalers from home would deposit mail there for ships already in the Pacific. When it was time for a whaler to return home, they would pass by Charles Island to check the barrel for any letters they could take home with them. This cumbersome system worked well, although the American frigate USS Essex learnt of the post office during the War of 1812, and made use of the letters it found there to help track down and attack British whalers.

 

In an era of e-mail and text messages that instantly cross the globe, it is hard to visualise the isolation that many sailors would have felt on whaling trips, or long voyages of exploration like those of Cook. Small wonder that they made such enormous efforts to try and make those months and even years away a little more bearable with at least the possibility of mail from home, a place that must have seemed, at times, to be a different world.

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