A History of Passports

I am currently back in Siem Reap and I must say I welcome the opportunity to be here, but the main reason I am here is because I can no longer stay in my otherwise host country of Malaysia. My visa is out and I must leave the country and re-enter on a new visa to continue there.

Since childhood I have a strong dislike of the passport and visa system which restricts where people can travel based on their national identity — indeed goes a long way to give them a national identity and all the problems that come along with it. I have always been a world citizen in outlook and the global village just makes sense to me.

But only in the last few days did I read this BBC article and find out how recent a phenomena the present system is. If it has been instituted in the recent past it can just as easily be abolished. Now Europeans can travel freely throughout Europe, something still unthinkable in my youth, and hopefully soon worldlings will be able to travel just as freely throughout the world.

SOURCE (slightly edited)

David Cannadine – A History of Passports (A Point of View)

Identity card schemes have been introduced into this country twice before, only to be scrapped soon after amidst widespread public rejoicing and relief. They were initially brought in during World War I, as a way of increasing domestic security at a time of unprecedented national emergency; but they were generally regarded as a threat to civil liberties rather than a safeguard, and abandoned when the war ended.

They were introduced again in 1939, for essentially the same reason, and were met with an equally unenthusiastic public response. But despite these familiar objections, the Labour government of Clement Attlee decided to continue the scheme, in the face of the Cold War and the perceived Soviet threat, so it was not until 1952 that identity cards were abolished a second time. This was partly because the Conservative government of Winston Churchill was determined to “set the people free”. But then, as now, it was also on account of the cost.

Many of the arguments that have recently been deployed against identity cards were used in earlier times against passports, which have often been seen, and have sometimes been intended, as identity cards under another name.

The first reference to something anticipating the modern-day passport is in the Old Testament, in which Nehemiah bore a letter from his master, the King of Persia, addressed “to governors of the province beyond the river”, asking them to afford the bearer safe passage.

This kind of document is also mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where the king, on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, declares to his followers: “He that hath no stomach for this fight, let him depart; his passport shall be made.”

But neither of these papers linked individual identity with national identity as modern passports do. They were essentially letters of safe conduct, which King Henry may well have pioneered in England. Such documents were customarily written in Latin and in English, but in 1772, the government adopted the international language of diplomacy, namely French, and this remained the practice even when the British were fighting Napoleon.

When in France…

The history of the modern passport effectively begins during the decades following the defeat of France in 1815.

For many of the Continental monarchies that were restored following the downfall of Napoleon, passports were primarily a means of domestic surveillance, which enabled the authorities to keep track of people who might be a threat to the established order. For most Britons, by contrast, the possession of a passport was a sign that they were free to leave their native land to travel anywhere in the world; and it was also evidence that they were people of standing, for British passports could only be obtained if you knew the Foreign Secretary personally, or if you knew someone else who did.

But it did not have to be a British passport: if, for example, you wanted to travel to France, it made better sense to get a French passport from the French embassy in London, and this was something it was quite easy to do.

At this stage, then, there was no necessary link which a passport established between personal identity and national identity, and as a result, the system could be easily abused. This happened most famously in 1858, when an Italian revolutionary named Count Felice Orsini travelled to Paris on a British passport in the name of one Thomas Allsop, and tried to assassinate the Emperor Napoleon III.

The attempt was unsuccessful, and Orsini was subsequently caught, tried and hanged; but the story didn’t end there. There was a huge diplomatic row between Britain and France, as a result of which the British government, led by Lord Palmerston, was brought down by a hostile vote in parliament. More lastingly, the whole system of granting passports was tightened up, so as to establish a much closer connection between the individual and the nation. In future, British passports would only be given to British nationals, and they were issued in English as well as in French.

But this didn’t result in the widespread proliferation of passports, for during the closing decades of the 19th Century, and in the years before 1914, they virtually went out of use, not only in Britain, but also in much of Europe.

As railways spread over the continent, and as more people than ever travelled across national boundaries, it seemed impossible to cope with the increased demands of issuing and checking passports. The result was that in 1861, only three years after the row with Britain on this very subject, France abolished passports, and many other nations soon followed suit. By the early 1900s, the only two major European powers which insisted on passports for their own nationals travelling overseas, and for visitors from abroad, were Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Both were then regarded as deeply reactionary regimes, more Asiatic than European, and the fact that they also insisted on passports was no coincidence.

Spies like us

WWI changed all that, as passports became compulsory virtually everywhere, as a means whereby the belligerent powers sought to keep out foreign spies and also to prevent the emigration of their own citizens with valuable skills. The Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, passed in 1914, established the first recognisably modern British passport as a single page, folded into eight, with a cardboard cover, and a photograph of the bearer.

In 1920, under the auspices of the newly-established League of Nations, the format of the passport was internationally standardised, and the British version was expanded into the 32-page document known as Old Blue. The matter was discussed again by the League in 1926, when the British passport was acclaimed as “perfection itself”: the personal details were handwritten, the bearer’s name and the passport number appeared on the front cover, and it was this design which endured, essentially unaltered, until 1988.

Yet during the early decades of its existence, the old blue British passport was resented rather than esteemed.

Indeed, it was none other than Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government, who once opined that his ambition was to be able to travel from Victoria Station, to any destination in the world, without any passport whatever.

In 1949, which was during Bevin’s tenure of office, this view was echoed in a classic Ealing Comedy, entitled Passport to Pimlico, starring Stanley Holloway and Margaret Rutherford. The film is a protest against excessive government interference in the lives of ordinary people, as Pimlico successfully asserts its claim to be part of the ancient Duchy of Burgundy, declares itself independent of Britain, abolishes rationing and other bureaucratic restrictions, and establishes its own frontiers and passport checkpoints.

By then, the chances of abolishing the British passport had disappeared, and subsequent changes in its format have been driven by growing concerns about security, and also by the trend towards increased European integration.

Watermarked paper was introduced in 1972, laminating over the photograph in 1975, and overprinting in 1981. Seven years later, the old blue British passports were replaced by smaller machine-readable versions, which also feature the words European Community on the cover, and which print the bearer’s personal information at the back rather than the front, where it had previously been.

Many Britons mourned the passing of what they regarded as their traditional passport, although in truth it hadn’t existed for all that long. When, I wonder, and for what duration will identity cards be re-introduced yet again?


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2 comments to A History of Passports

  • Kah Choon

    Dear Bhante

    Just to contribute a small footnote. Finger printing was established by the Colonial Office after the Russian Revolution and the fear of Communism swept through the Empire. Interestingly the whole exercise started from and centred around the Indian Colonial Office which at that time included the Straits Settlements. So one could say that at least, Singapore, Malacca and Penang were very much in the forefront of all this.

    I believe the technique was perfected in Kuala Lumpur though and then used throughout the Empire. As to what happened to all that data base… well that is one of the mysterious and cunning alleyways of history.

    With metta

    Kah Choon

  • Anandajoti

    Dear Kah Choon,
    Thanks for the extra information — it prompted me to investigate further, and I found this very informative article on fingerprinting in the Wikipedia.

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