American Maritime Documents
Mediterranean Passport American Mediterranean ship’s Passport
The American Mediterranean Passport, commonly called a ship’s passport, was created after the United States concluded a treaty with Algiers in 1795. During the early years of independence, America was one of several nations paying tribute to the Barbary states in exchange for the ability to sail and conduct business in the Mediterranean area without interference. This treaty provided American-owned vessels with a “Passport” that would be recognized by Algeria and later by other Barbary states through similar treaties. These Passports were to be issued only to vessels that were entirely owned by citizens of the United States and were intended to serve as additional evidence of official nationality.
In June 1796, a Federal law was passed which required the Secretary of State to prepare a form for the Passport and submit it to the President for approval. The result was a document modeled after a similar British style, called a Mediterranean Pass, which England had employed for the same purpose. The American version was a printed document, on vellum, that measured approximately 15″ X 11.” Centered in the upper half were two engravings, one below the other, (some early examples had a single large engraving of a lighthouse with a ship at anchor across the entire top quarter of the document). Signatures of the President of the United States, Secretary of State, and Customs Collector appear in the lower right-hand corner. The United States seal is in the lower left-hand corner.
The most apparent similarity with the British passport was the presence of a scalloped line of indenture across the upper part of the document which was used as a method of authentication. After they were printed, the Passports were cut along the waved line and the top portion sent to the U.S. Consuls along the Barbary Coast. The Consuls subsequently provided copies to the corsairs, whose commanders were instructed to let all vessels proceed, who had passes that fit the scalloped tops.
Every American vessel sailing in this area was to have a Mediterranean Passport as part of its papers. The penalty for sailing without one was $200.00. The master requested the document from the collector and paid a fee of ten dollars. A bond was also required to ensure that the Passport was used following the conditions under which it was obtained, and was canceled when the document was forfeited. New Passports were not required for each following foreign voyage, but it could not be transferred to another vessel, and it was to b returned to the port of original issue if the ship was wrecked or sold. American Maritime Documents
Mediterranean Passports were received by the various customs districts pre-signed by the President and Secretary of State. The Collector could then insert the vessel’s name and tonnage, master’s name, number of crew members, and the number of guns mounted on the vessel, into the appropriate clanks and sign the document. It is interesting to note that I have found one Passport issued and dated nearly six months after the President whose signature appears on the document had left the office. One might wonder just how efficiently these rather necessary forms were managed. Unused and outdated Passports were supposed to be returned to the Treasury Department, after first being canceled by cutting holes through the seals.
Unlike the Mediterranean Passport, the Sea Letter does not appear to have had any formal establishment but rather acquired validity through years of maritime use. The term “Sea Letter” has been used to describe any document issued by a government or monarch to one of its merchant fleet, which established proof of nationality and guaranteed protection for the vessel and her owners. However, it the Sea Letter use by the United States after 1789 that is of particular interest here.
The 1822 edition of The Merchants and Ship master’s Assistant described the Sea Letter as a document which “specifies the nature of the cargo and the place of destination,” and says that is was only required for vessels bound to the Southern Hemisphere. It further “indicated that “…this paper is not so necessary as the passport, because that, in most particulars, supplies its place.” In 1859 the document was defined as part of the ship’s papers when bound on a foreign voyage,”…it is written in four languages, the French, Spanish, English, and Dutch, and is only necessary for vessels bound round Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.”
Like the Mediterranean Passport, the Sea Letter was a remarkably standardized document, which changed little during the time that it was used. Usually printed on heavy grade paper, approximately 16″ x 20″ in size, the first Sea Letters carried only three languages instead of four. However, they soon became known as “Four Language Sea Letters.”
The statement within the document conveys in part that the vessel described is owned entirely by American citizens, and requests that all “Prudent Lords, Kings, Republics, Princes, Dukes, Earls, Barons, Lord, Burgomasters, Schepens, Counselors…” etc., treat the vessel and her crew with fairness and respect. The signatures of the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, and the customs collector appear, usually in the middle portion of the document, The United States seal is present, while customs and consular stamps or seals are frequently in evidence. American Maritime Documents
Sea Letters are mentioned in the formative maritime legislation forged by the new Federal governments. Like passports, they provided additional evidence of ownership a nationality, but the criteria by which a shipmaster utilized one document over the other is not completely clear. It was explained at the time that both documents were “rendered necessary or expedient because of treaties with foreign powers,” a statement which suggests that individual nations required a particular document because of existing agreements with the United States.
In any case, the Sea Letter was valid for only a single voyage, and a bond does not seem to have been required. Neither was it to be returned to the collector when the voyage was completed. Indications are that, as the years progressed, Sea Letters were being used more often by whaling ships than by merchant’s vessels, perhaps because American whalers fished in areas where this document was preferred as proof of national origin.
By providing a statement of American property, signed by the President of the United States, the Mediterranean Passport and the Sea Letter were intended to confirm our status as a neutral nation, when international conflict put added dangers on America’s commerce at sea. By mid-century, however, much of what had previously threatened our shipping was being neutralized by the expanding power of the United States. In 1831 Congress eliminated the fee required for obtaining a Mediterranean Passport. It was argued a the time that the revenue arising from that source, and the protection which is provided, were no longer objects of any importance. As our merchant fleet became more secure, fewer shipowners and shipmasters considered these documents as necessary to guarantee their rights and safety in foreign lands.*
Both pieces were deemed to be essential parts of a ship’s papers in the 1800s. They were kept aboard the ship during the voyage and deposited, along with the Registry Certificate, with the appropriate U.S. consular authority anytime the vessel was in a foreign port. The Mediterranean Passport had disappeared from use by 1860, while the Sea Letter was still in evidence several years later. American Maritime Documents
Today both pieces are considered to be essential documents in any maritime collection. However, they are also highly valued by autograph collectors and investors, which keeps many fine pieces in private hands.
*It is important here to note that both documents were intended only to protect the vessel from the capture of destruction by providing Americans, i.e., nonbelligerent, ownership. American crew members aboard these ships were still vulnerable to impressment, especially if they did not carry their own personal protection certificates as proof of citizenship.
Seamen’s Protection Certificate
Seamen’s Protection Certificates were usually printed documents, varying in size and style, that were carried by American seamen as proof of citizenship. The certificate was obtained by the individual through the customhouse, public notary, or U.S. Consul when required in a foreign port. It contained the person’s name, birthplace, approximate age, height, skin color, eye and hair color, and other distinctive descriptive information, such as the location of scars or tattoos. “United States of America” was often printed prominently across the top, and the word “protection” might also appear. Small engravings of the American eagle often served to decorate and establish the nationality of the document. A serial number was included on every Customs Protection Certificate for record-keeping purposes. The wording of the document was standardized, having been transcribed on many examples, verbatim from the Act of 1796.
The Act of 28 May 1796, entitled “An Act for the Protection and Relief of American Seamen, provided certificates for the protection of American seamen from the threat of impressment by the Royal Navy. Prior to this act, a mariner could obtain a similar document from a public notary. Individual desiring protection was required to bring some authenticated proof of citizenship to the customs collector, who, for a service fee of 25 cents, would issue him a certificate. Most seamen of the day, however, were so transient that they were unable to produce the required proof, and so the condition was altered to allow him to bring a notarized affidavit, instead, in which the seamen and a witness swore to his citizenship. Because it was easy to abuse this system, the Royal Navy did not always honor the Protection Certificates as valid. Collectors were required to keep a record book of the names of individuals receiving protections and send quarterly lists to the State Department. As the threat to American freedom on the high seas began to disappear, Protection Certificates became more valuable as identification, and they were used as such until 1940 when the Seamen’s Continuous Discharge Book replaced them. These documents are common items in maritime collections and are important research sources for any study of American seamen.
-Stein, Douglas L. 1992- American Maritime Documents