American Maritime Documents, 1776-1860 - Stein, Douglas L.
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The 1822 edition of The Merchants and Shipmaster'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" x20" 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, Consullors..." etc., treat the vessel and her crew with fairness and respect. The signatures of the President of the United Stated, 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.
Sea Letters are mentioned in the formative maritime legislation forged by the new Federal governments. Like passports, they provided additional evidence of ownership an 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 of expedient by reason of treaties with foreign powers," a statement which suggests that certain 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 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 it 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 considered important parts of a ship's papers in the 1800s. They were kept aboard 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.
Today both pieces are considered to be important 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 capture of destruction by providing American, - 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.