American Maritime Documents, 1776-1860 - Stein, Douglas L.
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The 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 completely 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 Passort and sumbit it to the President for approval. The result was a document modeled after a similar British form, called a Mediterranean Pss, 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 obvious 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 insure that the Passport was used in accordance with the conditions under which it was obtained, and was canceled when the document was forfeited. New Passports were not required for each succeeding 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.
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 office. One might wonder just how efficiently these rather important 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.