Four years after the Gairsoppa’s silver was safely recovered, an unlikely new treasure came to light. Hopes were not high to tease any information out of soggy paper covered with black slime and smelling of rotten eggs. After being painstakingly opened, washed and stabilized in the conservation laboratories of AOC Archaeology in Edinburgh, however, the finds were transformed from mush to miracle: the largest cache of lost postal letters found on any shipwreck worldwide.
The Gairsoppa’s lost mail turned out to contain 19 batches of letters bundled up in India by the Royal Mail for delivery in southwest England, Scotland and America. A total of 717 personal and business letters and Christmas cards and postcards, alongside cheques and even personal photos, were homeward bound with messages of love and hope for the coming year as Christmas 1940 loomed.
The letters give a remarkable snapshot of life in British India for soldiers, officers’ wives, teachers, nurses and missionaries from the frontline to the fireplace. Troops fighting tribes in the Northwest Frontier, modern Pakistan, led by the Muslim cleric the Fakir of Ipi – the Osama Bin Laden of the age – wrote of mountain patrols, the lack of beef, attacks with homemade dum dum bullets, getting gangrene, jaundice and death.
With letters taking two to four months to arrive, Britain’s working in the Raj or fleeing the fear of invasion, wrote about being isolated from news of the war in Europe, but being free to enjoy outdoor wonders, play golf and tennis, buy fur coats, visit the zoo and find love.
Missionaries roaming rural villages among snakes and sand storms were especially cut off. Their news transports the reader back to a world of great hardship, where an old woman was buried alive to save one of her two sons who had leprosy, 2,700 Tantric temples abounded, “a guide to atrocious and unnatural sins”, and the Ganges river was choked with dead bodies caused by food scarcity and suicides.
Resting in the cool of their tents in Kashmir, overwhelmed missionaries contrasting home with the here and now wrote poetically to friends in Los Angeles how:
God’s peace is here; and yet, what right have I
To peace, when over there the millions die,
And helpless wives and mothers anguished cry?...
My Brothers they who die in dreadful pain!
My sisters they who weep and weep again!
My little ones, screaming ‘neath battles rain!
The Gairsoppa postal archive is now housed in The Postal Museum, London.