These days, if you want to cross an international border, you need a passport. Possibly a visa, too, but most definitely a passport. Without that little book bearing a photo of you on your worst day, plus the details of your birth and so on, you can’t go anywhere outside your own country.
For a recent book, I wanted my hero to go from Britain to Italy in the eighteenth century. They didn’t have compulsory passports then, so how did the government know where to find people? How did a government track down a murderer if he fled his home country for another one?
The answer is, they didn’t.
However, passports are not a completely new option. While everyone didn’t have to have one, there were certain ways of ensuring safe passage. Passports were less a way of keeping tabs on a person, more of a way for the person to ensure their personal safety.
Letters of safe conduct could be obtained, and the higher the level, the better. There was no obligation to obey them, but if a King wrote a letter saying “This person is important,” then people usually took notice. And they would contact other people, to make sure the person bearing the letter was the right one, and the letter wasn’t forged. That was what seals were for.
In the middle ages, even traveling from city to city was a big undertaking. Most cities were surrounded by walls, and admittance was through designated gates. Without the right letters, or permissions, a person wouldn’t get in, or out again.
By the end of the sixteenth century, countries had gained pre-eminence over cities and city-states. But borders were still flexible, and countries like Italy and Germany were more a collection of states than bona fide countries. Passports were still not standardised. But they were understood, and a person with a letter of conduct was more likely to pass unhindered than an ordinary traveller. The word “passport” dates from the early sixteenth century, and more people were traveling and requiring safe conduct letters. From then until 1794, the Privy Council issued the letters. After that, it was the State Department.
They were still not compulsory, but by this time highly desirable.
People traveling would try to obtain a variety of letters, including letters of introduction. This would usually be from someone who the recipient knew personally. The system really began to come under strain with the advent of the railways. A person could race across a country in a day or two, and pass through to another before the credentials could be checked. More people took advantage of the travel system. During the last forty years of the nineteenth century, passports were abolished. Rather than keep up with modern technology, countries threw in the towel!
But when the First World War arrived, the need for passports emerged again. It was either that or let spies wander around whichever parts of the world they wanted to. The passport was back, and this time to stay.
In 1920, the first blue British passport arrived. It contained verbal descriptions as well as a photo, which must have been a bit traumatic! It only lasted for two years, unlike the present one that lasts for ten.
The passport has been continually updated, and at the time of writing, the current British passport is a red European one. I’m rushing to renew mine before it becomes a British blue one again! It does have stamps from the US, although many countries don’t bother with the stamp any more, which has taken even more of the glamour out of travel. Now, travel is a mundane, tedious experience if you’re lucky, and a traumatic one if you’re not! But the days of glamorous travel are long gone.
In the US, only a third of the populace owns a transport, which is exceedingly strange to this European, but there is a lot of the USA to see!