A 1811 Four Language Ship’s Passport (or Four Language Sea Letter) signed by President James Madison (4th President) and countersigned by Secretary of State James Monroe (5th President).
The signatures on this ship’s paper, dated December 17, 1811, constituted authorization of the 311 ton brig named “Alexander” under the command of Captain “William S. Picket“, master or commander… lying at present in the port of Boston bound for the port of Civitavecchia [Rome] and laden with Fish.
The document is written in the four major languages of the day — French, Portuguese, English, and Dutch, and provides the protection of the U.S. Government for the ship for this specific voyage. This paperwork also proves that the ship is not running contraband.
Both signatures are good clear examples.
The document measures 20.5″ x 16.5″, and is in very good condition, with minor creasing, very little toning (the shade of the document is very light) and professional repair for minor paper loss along the intersecting middle folds. Both seals are completely intact.
Sold with Letters of Authenticity from both The Autograph Source and independent third-party authenticator Beckett Authentication Services.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT SHIPS PAPERS / SEA LETTERS:
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.
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. 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.”
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″ x 20″ 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, Sheens, Consolers, etc., treat the vessel and her crew with fairness and respect.
The signatures of the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, and the customs collector appear in the middle portion of the document.
Sea Letters are mentioned in the formative maritime legislation forged by the new Federal governments. They provided additional evidence of ownership and 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.
As our merchant fleet became more secure, fewer ship owners 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.
Today they 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 these 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.