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A short history of passports

From the Old Testament to the new age of terrorism – the humble passport has in equal measure meant freedom and aided oppression

Paul Simpson | Issue 98 | October 2008

Inside your passport, Her Britannic Majesty ‘requests and requires’ the world’s governments to allow you, the bearer, ‘to pass freely without let or hindrance’. But any British passport holder with the misfortune to be called Robert Johnson can expect heavy-duty hindrance if they fly to America.

In June 2007, the CBS news programme 60 Minutes interviewed 12 Robert Johnsons who were constantly being interrogated because a namesake once tried to blow up a Hindu temple in Toronto thus landing them on a famously long and inaccurate register known as the No Fly List. One Robert Johnson was strip-searched. Another admitted to entering airports in a “panic, sweating”.

The humble passport is a-changing: it’s coming over all biometric; it will have its monopoly challenged – in the UK – by the high-tech ID card; and will become more expensive as governments fret over their use by terrorists, and the media terrifies us about the perils of identity theft. In paranoid times, the passport evolves – for better or worse.

Ye olde passe port

The first reference to a document enabling passengers to travel across borders is in the Old Testament’s Book of Nehemiah, in which Persian king Artaxerxes gives a letter ‘to governors of the province beyond the river’ asking them to offer court official Nehemiah safe passage. This kind of letter is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry V where the king, before Agincourt, declares: ‘He which hath no stomach for this fight, let him depart; his passport shall be made.’ These letters, known as Safe Conduct, were mentioned in an act of parliament during Henry’s reign and were first granted by the Privy Council in 1540.

There is a minor linguistic debate about whether the term ‘passport’ is to do with ports. In medieval Europe, travellers were issued documents by local authorities so they could pass through the porte (gate) of city walls. The counter theory is that many royal letters of request – literally called passe ports because they allowed the bearer to travel from ports in ships – were signed by the great Louis XIV.

The oldest British passport still in existence was signed by Charles I in 1641. Three years later, Charles was dethroned and Oliver Cromwell’s miserablist regime developed an early prototype of the No Fly List by decreeing that no pass be issued to citizens until they promised they would not ‘be aiding, assisting, advising or counselling against the Commonwealth’. The No Sail List lapsed under Charles II who persuaded the secretary of the state to sign these letters so he could cavort with his floozies. Peter the Great, Russia’s ruthless modernising tsar, introduced passports in 1719 and, ingeniously anticipating the multi-tasking 21st-century ID card, used them to control taxes and military service.

England’s letters of safe conduct were first written in Latin and English but, in 1772, the government decided to use the international language of high finance and diplomacy: French. This didn’t change until 1858, which meant that Britain’s passports were issued in French even as the empire fought Napoleon.

Spy catchers

In the 19th century, the passport system began to collapse as railways criss-crossed Europe. To the French government, the rigmarole of issuing such documents and checking those of every Tom, Dick and Harriet seemed pointless. In 1861, France abolished passports and many European countries happily followed suit. The passport returned, however, during the First World War in an effort to keep spies at bay.

The British Nationality And Status Aliens Act sounds like the dubious, legal fruit of the war on terror but, passed in 1914, it defined the first recognisably modern British passport as a single page, folded into eight, with a cardboard cover, a photograph of the bearer and a note of such details as shape of face and features.

Peace resumed in 1918 but the passport stayed and the format was internationally standardised in 1920 – the year the British version expanded into a 32-page booklet known as Old Blue – and again in 1947.

Mere passports were soon not enough. Such official pettifoggery as visas proliferated. Fortunately, the British government has largely eschewed such nonsense, even offering – from post offices between 1961 and 1995 – a cheap, simple visitor’s passport with which Britons could enter 25 countries. But since the late 1960s, there has been a remorseless – albeit understandable – emphasis on making passports more secure through watermarked paper (introduced in 1972), laminating photos (1975), overprinting them (1981) and machine-readable burgundy versions (1988), which featured the words ‘European Community’ on the cover.

For some Englishmen of a certain age, Old Blue’s demise was a dastardly concession to ‘polyglot European bureaucracy’, the final blow for those who had never quite recovered from the British Empire’s downfall.

New cost of travel

The end of Old Blue, and the increasing reluctance of some countries to waste money on stamps to colour our passport pages, took some of the fun out of travel and was a harbinger of officialdom’s new mood. This trend has culminated in Heathrow’s pseudo-military passport control desks, an ironic counterpoint to the video welcoming travellers to Britain.

Security isn’t cheap. It is essential – we wouldn’t forgive any government that ignored the risk of further 9/11s – but there is a lingering suspicion that invoking terrorism is a licence for companies and governments to print money. The cost of a UK passport soared five-fold between 1994 and 2008. If the cost of bread had risen like that, a sliced white loaf would cost £2.75. If you choose the new eJumbo 48-page biometric passport, it will cost you £85, but it will get you into America without a visa (if your name’s not Robert Johnson).

The biometric passport stores all the information printed on the passport – and a digital description of the holder’s physical features – in a chip. The chip’s data is encrypted and protected by a key printed inside the passport. But the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) decided the key should consist of, in this order: the passport number; the owner’s date of birth; the passport expiry date. Eager geeks soon cracked this key with a reader you can buy in shops for £174. The Home Office insists this doesn’t matter because, a spokesman says: “Even if you had the information you would still have to counterfeit the new passport – and it has new security features.”

The race between forgers and issuers will continue. And in the biometric age, it will take longer to go through passport control. The Immigration Service Union says it takes eight to ten seconds to process a passenger with a biometric passport. With machine-readable passports, it took four seconds.

My most fretful hour at passport control came at Sheremetyevo airport (former USSR) in the late 1980s. A disturbingly boyish soldier, inspecting my passport and hand luggage, opened my Max Headroom joke book to find a cartoon of a Cossack dancing. He glanced over, inspecting me for subversive tendencies, stared at the cartoon for an age and then went off – I assumed to show this outrage to a superior. As visions of KGB officers and gulags raced through my mind, he returned, handed the book and passport back and, with no word or change in expression, beckoned me through. Later that same year, after dropping my passport on a Virgin Atlantic flight to New York, I managed to enter the US by showing my chequebook.

To me, these experiences symbolised the contrast between the land of the free and a bloated, statist society that was well past its sell-by date. Yet two decades later, the world’s passport controls are increasingly manned by the heirs of the boy in his military uniform.

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