This years’ Open Access Week (October 19-25) is the occasion for a post about a number of projects tapping the wealth of the remarkable archival collection of the High Court of Admiralty (HCA) in the British National Archives. Several projects deal with a few record series within this archive, the Prize Papers. Someof these record series have become accessible online in open access, others, however, can only be viewed only at subscribing institutions. This contribution offers a sketch of the situation facing scholars who might want to use these rich resources. Surely one of their questions is why such differences have been allowed to develop by the National Archives and the partners in the various projects concerning the Prize Papers. My post will not offer a definitive conclusion to this question, but I will try to create a starting point for further consideration.
In 2012 I focused on the project concerning the so-called Sailing Letters, focusing on Dutch letters found among the Prize Papers, and I will therefore discuss this project here concisely. The recent launch in open access of an online atlas created using the Prize Papers and bringing a most interesting example of possible research rekindled my interest in the archives of the High Court of Admiralty.
Ships from every corner of Europe
When you look at the fine online guide for the High Court of Admiralty at the website of the National Archives at Kew some things will attract your attention, that is, when you do not start immediately to read the guide. First of all, the sheer length and detail of the guide does credit to the importance of this archive. For many HCA series you can find more information on consecutive pages, and this feature can only be applauded. Secondly, at the very start it is indicated no materials from the High Court of Admiralty are online at this website, a statement which is correct, but it does not tell you enough. In the section about the Prize Court you will find the link to a finding aid at the website of the Dutch Nationaal Archief in The Hague, with a lapidary statement that this deals mainly with the series HCA 32, the Prize Letters. However, this is simply misleading, The Dutch finding aid does provide with an index of Dutch letters in other HCA series as well.
The website of the NA does not bring you directly from its general HCA guide to the Dutch online general guide to the HCA 32 series with its thousands of letters, and in particular some 8,500 scans of Dutch letters, not just from the HCA 32 series, but from other series as well. You can also download the introduction to this index as a PDF or EAD.
Apart from these remarks the most important thing you will register is the great variety of resources forming entire record series which merit attention both per se and, more importantly, within the context of the history of the High Court of Admiralty. Normally you would not decide so quickly to single out one particular record series of an archival collection without acknowledging its wider context and setting. There are more than sixty HCA record series, eleven series for the Court of Delegates (DEL) for appeals in instance cases, and five series for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (PCAP). Nine HCA record series make up the main body of the records of the Prize Court, and seven HCA series deal with appeals in prize cases. HCA 30 appears at several points in this guide, the last time in a paragraph stating this series contains Admiralty Miscellanea. The guide closes before the very useful glossary of legal terms with a clear warning: “HCA is a large and complex collection of documents, and this leaflet does not attempt to be comprehensive. Both the finding aids and secondary reading can be found at The National Archives.”
When you continue focusing at the HCA 32 series at the website of the National Archives you will encounter a set of digitized records, four French muster rolls of ships captured in 1805 during the Battle of Trafalgar. As is the case with more digitized records at this website, you can search freely in these records, but you have to pay to view this pieces. It would be nice if one could download them at least one day every year without this financial procedure or with a broadly advertised discount, preferably on October 21, the day of the Battle of Trafalgar. Here I leave it to others to find out about the digitization of other records in connection with Nelson.
Prize papers at a price
My story of open access and subscribers-only access becomes more complicated when we look at the major research projects for the Prize Papers. In my country the project for the Sailing Letters gained most publicity. In five issues of the Sailing Letters Journaal edited by Erik van der Doe, Perry Moree and Dirk Tang a number of letters appeared in critical editions with accompanying essays. At Gekaapte Brieven [Captured letters], a website created by the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam, you can view both the originals and transcriptions of six thousand Dutch letters from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The transcriptions were done to a large extent by crowdsourcing. At the University of Leiden the project Brieven als buit [Looted letters] resulted not only in an online linguistic corpus for roughly the same set of letters, but also in a number of monographs, mainly dissertations. The Dutch Nationaal Archief created as lasting results the finding aid, the searchable index and a substantial number of scans, all of them accessible in open access. At the center of these projects were the Dutch letters documenting social life and the uses of the Dutch language in daily communication.
The blog of the Prize Papers Consortium shows graphically the number of parties participating in projects concerning the core of the archive of the High Court of Admiralty. Interestingly, this blog mainly shows the amount of preparations to launch the Sailing Letters project, and at some points the major project for digitizing a substantial number of other archival records is already hinted at. For the historiographical background of the projects dealing with the Prize Papers this blog – kept alive after finishing the Sailing Letters – is invaluable.
A second major project tapping the riches of the HCA archive is Marine Lives. This project puts the life of sailors and the events touching their ships first. In striking difference with the projects for the Dutch letters you find here images and transcriptions for selected items taken from several HCA record series. In fact the team of Marine Lives organizes campaign to deal with a clearly set case or a few registers. At present you will find for example a project focusing on the capture of three ships with Spanish silver in 1652, using in particular the HCA 13 series with in its 272 bundles and volumes in particular answers and examinations in prize cases and instances. For this case only the team does use as main resources four volumes of the HCA 13 series, HCA 13/66 to HCA 13/71. The description of this case is a veritable mine of information, and you will benefit from looking at this case, its references and bibliography. At the website of Marine Lives you can find the transcriptions of relevant pages in HCA 13/69. For other projects participants in Marine Lives have also looked outside the HCA archive, for instance at probate records and chancery records. By casting its nets wide Marine Lives does in my opinion justice to the sheer range and scope of the HCA archive. Marine Lives is not just a project, but a set of projects showing the importance and impact of maritime life for British history in general. Most of them focus on a particular archival record documenting a period of one or two years during the seventeenth century, or in the case of the Silver Ships on a particular case.
The same width and broad scope is a feature of the bilingual Prize Papers portal created at the university of Oldenburg. Alas this portal does contain only announcements of research, and the website has not been updated since 2012. The projects of German scholars will cover subjects such as cultural exchange, the material world of Frisian in the eighteenth century, missionary activities, views of the body, learning foreign languages and the role of correspondence. Whatever the outcome of these projects their aim is clearly showing the chance to open with the Prize Papers windows on a world in various ways. A nice element of the portal is an image gallery showing boxes holding the paper materials, various objects, word lists, drawings and notes, playing cards and much more. The Prize Papers are indeed a great time capsule.
A seducing interactive map
In the last major project open access and subscribers-only access rub shoulders. When I spotted the interactive map accompanying Brill’s online edition of selected Prize Papers I knew I would write here about it sooner or later. The interactive map uses information for the period 1775-1783, the years of the American Revolutionary War and the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, doubtlessly a very interesting sample period. The sample uses some 7,000 interrogations. In her background essay for the Prize Papers Online I Caroline Kimbell of the National Archives skilfully tells the story of the various locations and the rare use of the Prize Papers before 1980, a story not to be missed. At the map you can pose your questions helped by eight search fields about ships and six fields for their crews. The introduction contains a number of preset configurations for a number of subjects, for example the voyages of sailors from Scandinavia or the origins of illiterate crew members. The results on the map contain clickable links to the scans which can in most cases only be accessed by subscribers and subscribing institutions. Only at this point it becomes clear it is indeed the HCA 32 record series forming the backbone of this large-scale project with five sets, each of them focusing on a period of war. Eight sample biographies with scans of the interrogations accompany the map, as does a list of some studies, a number of them available online. You can search online in each set, but you will receive only restricted information and a thumbnail for the purchase of full access.
In the last paragraph I already hinted at a problem with the selected periods, the choice for war years. Wars had and have a major impact on society, but one will have to look at the years before and after a war, too, to gain insight into any substantial differences. The choice for war years during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century does make it possible to compare consecutive wars and changes in conditions for ships and crews. A second problem is the decision to include here only interrogations, presumably taken in overwhelming majority from the HCA 32 series. The guide to the HCA archive at the website of the National Archives shows precisely for this series a nice division into sets stemming from war years, and obviously the temptation to start with its crisply defined sets has been strong and convincing. I cannot help noticing the omission of the very series number in the introduction to each set of Brill’s Prize Papers Online. The correct references are also lacking for the sample biographies, In contrast to the images for the other projects discussed here the images of the scans of Brill’s project do not show the HCA 32 numbers.
Contrary to the policy for many commercial projects with digitized historical resources Brill does indicate clearly the price of € 45,000,- for purchase of access to the five sets, and € 8,500,- for yearly subscription. Access for one set comes at € 9,000,-. As a matter of fact Brill does offer a number of books online in open access, and this publisher gives discounts and waivers to people in developing countries for some online materials. The old motto of this Dutch firm, Tuta sub aegide Pallas, “safe under Pallas’ shield”, has evidently renewed its meaning and significance. Many will read here protection for its own interest instead of protection and care for the texts written by Brill’s authors trusting the high standards of this publisher.
Is it a blessing in disguise that only some years of the HCA 32 series can only be accessed online at subscribing institutions? Instead of lamenting the protective shield around Brill’s digital resources we could also consider the chance to create in new projects open access to other series of the mighty HCA archive kept at Kew. In my view the different approaches shown here each have their qualities. The Dutch projects with the letters literally give us the most telling personal stories. Marine Lives makes a choice to look at a number of HCA record series and at particular cases. The team at Oldenburg promises to open vista to global worlds, but the portal shows no results at all, apart from the tantalizing showcase with a great choice of images and objects. The interrogations published by Brill benefit from the standardized form with thirty-two questions which makes this series to a substantial extent reliable and open to statistical treatment. Many scholars will use it as a part of their own research, not as the sole resource at the center of their interest.
Anyone organizing large-scale projects in the humanities does know that finances are often a determining factor in launching and finishing them. Brill obviously reckons the internal qualities of the record series is sufficiently high to make institutions pay for this publisher’s efforts to make this series of the Prize Papers accessible online. The interactive atlas is a showcase inviting scholars to convince their institutions to give them access to this remarkable resource. However, the German project convinces me even in its embryonic stage and hidden progress there is indeed a world to win when we opt for a broad approach to the records of the High Court of Admiralty. Marine Lives probably makes the wisest choice to alternate between singular records and major cases within a limited time span, and thus you can gain relatively quickly more insight into the chances for further research using the entire range of the sixty great HCA record series. The digitized letters remind you to remember the human and personal aspects of the large theme or subject you would like to investigate.
Perhaps it is wise to realize your luck as a historian in having at your disposal on your screen one or two major record series within the many boxes of the HCA archive. In view of the prize for the sets offered by Brill the best policy is probably to go to a subscribing institution for online access to one or more of these valuable sets, to arrange for images from the National Archives at Kew, and to pay a visit to this outstanding archive.
A debate about the use of digital resources should not lead us away from scholarly literature en sources in print dealing with the High Court of Admiralty. Using the Karlsruher Virtual Katalog and tapping the wealth of the library of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main you can find numerous publications. Eighteenth-century pamphlets and books, too, can be most helpful or serve as a starting point for archival research. In his research concerning Admiralty cases from the sixteenth century Alain Wijffels (Leiden/Louvain-la-Neuve) looked in particular at the role of Roman law. Wijffels has devoted several studies to Admiralty cases, including even in 1993 a Cambridge Ph.D. thesis on Civil law in the practice of the High Court of Admiralty at the time of Alberico Gentili. Do not tempt me to add here more than just the titles of relevant publications of the Selden Society, Select pleas in the Court of Admiralty, vol 1: 1390-1404 and 1527-1545, Reginald Marsden (ed.) (London, 1892; Selden Society, 6), vol. 2: 1547-1602, Reginald Marsden (ed.) (London, 1897; Selden Society, 11) and – more recently – Hale and Fleetwood on Admiralty jurisdictions, M.J. Pritchard and D.E.C. Yale (eds.) (London, 1992; Selden Society, 108)!
There is enough space and material for approaching again this court with its magnificent holdings and using them to the benefit of the field of legal history, too. If legal historians want to have open access to any HCA record series which has not yet been digitized, it is up to us to follow in the wake of the Marine Lives team, and to start our own projects to achieve this aim. Publishing firms will steer their own course. Some universities have already created their own open access publication series or indeed changed their university presses into open access establishments. In my view watching from aside the struggles between publishers and libraries about access to scholarly publications is to take sides. The scholarly community itself has to play an active rol in this turbulent period with major changes in communication and access to information. Fighting for open access has only just started.
Almost two weeks after publishing this post I heard about another project with Early Modern letters. The international project Signed, Sealed & Undelivered deals with some 2,600 letters – written in six languages – from the seventeenth century found among the holdings of the Museum voor Communicatie (MusCom) in The Hague which received the letter trunk in 1926. New technology will be used for the deciphering of 600 of these letters without even opening them, and thus preserving the sometimes peculiar foldings of personal messages.