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All About Passports

Updated on September 10, 2009

Control by Passport

The Passport goes back, broadly speaking, to the passes and safe-conducts which have been granted since the earliest times, but what we now mean by a passport - that is, a standardized document, more or less compulsory, issued by governments to their citizens for general travel rather than for particular journeys and withheld when authority so desires, is relatively modern; it belongs to the era of both nationalism and the struggle for political liberties, the growth of the state at the expense of the individual, the organization of the police, the nervous hardening and control of frontiers and the perfection both of the card-index and the card-index mind.

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Rulers have a natural itch to control the movement of their subjects, but a need also to protect their servants. In classical times passes were issued by rulers to assist and protect those who were traveling on their behalf; these documents were marks of confidence, hence the name pisteis, 'confidences', mentioned in a Greco-Roman papyrus of the second century B.C. When the Roman Empire began to split, passes were required by ordinary travellers; in the days of Theodosius II, Emperor in the East from 408 to 450, it was necessary to have a permit for going from the east to the west part of the empire. In the Middle Ages the vast number of pilgrims from all countries to such centres as Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostella or Canterbury argues a world less stiffly divided, ditched and dyked than our own; and it was a world with a common religious belief, not too conscious of nationality, nor yet fearful, on the whole, of revolution.

Coming down the centuries, it was advisable and sometimes necessary, before the disturbances of the French Revolution and the revolutionary wars, to obtain local passports and passes to ease one's way through foreign countries. It is ironical that in France the first revolutionary Constitution of September 1791 guaranteed among natural and civil rights 'freedom for every man to go and depart without arrest or hindrance'; passports for French citizens were abolished - only to be re-introduced, internal and external, by 1793: the monarchy had needed means of controlling tendencies to revolution; revolution, once in power itself, needed means of controlling counter-revolution.

From the American Revolution and the revolutionary year of 1848, liberty, reform and war and words of objurgation such as 'jacobin', 'democrat' and 'sedition' created a new degree of politicians' and officials' neurosis. A government plain-clothes man, it will be recalled, shadowed Wordsworth, Coleridge and Thelwall in the Quantocks, reporting back to his superiors in London their seditious talk of Spy Nosey, i.e. Spinoza; and in parliament the Postmaster-General opposed Rowland Hill's penny post on the ground that it would encourage sedition. The English, however, had no liking for passports. When Harriet Campbell reached Calais in 1817, she remarked in her journal how a man 'followed by about half a dozen attendants in office dressed as soldiers but looking more like monkeys ... lept into the ship and seating himself on a trunk opposite the carriage and demanded our passport'. This was a post-war period, and generally speaking, countries, as the nineteenth century settled down, tended to relax passport control, passports remaining documents it was advisable rather than essential to have about one; they were discretionary documents, they might be of help by establishing nationality and identity. The passport, in fact, has been likened to a pistol in Texas: 'You didn't want it often, but when you did want it, you wanted it very badly.'

Though the U.S.A. in 1856 required its citizens to have passports for overseas travel, foreigners landing in America were not compelled to show passports until 1918. British subjects by this time rarely bothered to ask for passports - unless they were visiting Russia, where officials' neurosis has for so long been so severely epidemic, under emperor or soviet. Cook's Guide to Paris of 1906 remarks that 'throughout France the green tickets supplied by Thomas Cook and Son with their travelling coupons are so well known that as a rule there can be no better credential. Passports, however, are useful for obtaining letters addressed paste restante, and they will frequently gain admittance to museums when closed against the general public.' Also under 'Passport', the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1910-1911 makes curious reading for ourselves. It defines passport, first of all, by its older signification of a safe-conduct in time of war, 'a document granted by a belligerent power to protect persons and property from the operation of hostilities'. Then, coming to passports in the modern sense, it says, 'Although most foreign countries may now be entered without passports, the English foreign office recommends travellers to furnish themselves with them, as affording a ready means of identification in case of need.'

The First World War changed matters, giving the totalitarian card index its supremacy. The movement of subjects was controlled as a war expedient, and control hardened into a habit. It was in 1914 also that photographs were added to the English passport. The war over, there was a new stiffening of frontiers, and there began a new era of suspicion and control encouraged by fear of communism and the Russian Revolution. Travel became impossible without passports, and the new conditions were reflected in the huge expansion of the Passport Department of the English Foreign Office. Before 1914 the staff consisted of 'one second division clerk and a doorkeeper, occupying two small rooms near a back entrance'. The department now has branch offices at Liverpool and Glasgow, and a staff varying from 400 to 470 in summer. Also in 1853, no more than 9,409 British passports were issued. In 1953 new British passports numbered about 420,000.

This document has not always been formed, as it is today, into a neat booklet. In England until 1916, when the book form was introduced, the passport was a single sheet of paper covered with coats-of-arms, preambles and stampings. Thus a surviving British passport, issued in 1884 for a man going to Russia, consists of a large sheet of thin bank paper. This has perforations at top and bottom and seems to have been torn from a roll. Today most passports are in the form of 32-page booklets, the outcome of a League of Nations conference in 1921.

It should be added that no law compels a British subject to have a passport. Circumstances may be compulsive; but whatever he requires elsewhere, a British subject can leave or return to his own country without a passport, though he may be asked to prove his British status. The wording on British passports, 'Her Britannic Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford him every assistance and protection of which he may stand in need', still stresses the old protective function of the safe-conduct, but willy-nilly the passport has become to some degree an instrument of control as well as a safe-conduct. One historian in 1927 was already, rather crossly, calling passports 'glorified and expensive identity discs'. The American situation is stricter and more authoritarian than the British. By law a citizen of the United States must have a passport either to leave or to enter his country. American passports can be and are refused in the national interest.


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