Paying for the Privilege: A Closer Look at the History of the Passport

The cab dropped us off in front of a stately mansion, perched on a hilly corner of a city block in the chic Belgrano barrio. According to a plaque on the gate, Albert Einstein resided here during a visit to the city just after the First World War, back in 1925. We almost, for a fleeting moment, felt smarter just being there…then we thought better of it. Intelligence — as defined by the compulsion to query, to probe, to question the nature of things…and to critically process the results — would not be required for the purpose of today’s visit. In fact, it would be none-too-quietly discouraged.

Quote the address described above today and the taxi driver will deliver you to the front door of the Australian embassy in Buenos Aires. Yes, Fellow Reckoner, the time had come for your editor to renew his passport. Actually, our little blue book won’t “expire” for another seven years. But we’ve been on the road for the past three, collecting stamps and paying the requisite fees for the “privilege” of walking (flying, training, busing…) over imaginary lines in the sand. And since we plan to stay on the road, we went along for the routine shakedown.

Having spent plenty of time in these lifeless places in the past, your editor came prepared; Passport Application Form downloaded and filled out, passport-sized photos in pocket, money (“cash only”) in the other pocket. We were ready.

At the entrance we were instructed to hand over our documents, then to place cameras, phones, etc. in a small lockbox beneath the guard’s counter. We were given a key and informed that we could retrieve our personal belongings on the way out. We then passed through a metal detector and another security door, the second of which led out to a garden path, which in turn wound its way up to the building’s foyer…to another desk…with another clerk…behind another glass panel…in front of another security door.

“Hello,” came the female voice, in pleasantly accented Spanish, from behind the glass. “Hello…I can help you here?”

“Perhaps. I made an appointment yesterday for a passport renewal.”

“Ordinary passport?”

[Look that suggested, “Huh?”]

“Are you applying for an ordinary passport?” the woman repeated.

“Yes. That sounds right.”

“We can start the interview now then. Can I see your documents and photos?”

Going through the motions, we began to think about the origin of this odd — and oddly compulsory — little book…

The term “passport” was likely derived from the name given to a particular type of medieval document, one required at the time to pass through the gate (“porte”) of a city wall or to pass through a foreign territory. Though earlier references can be found, perhaps the most interesting (and most telling) is the “bara’a,” a kind of “pass porte” issued during the medieval Islamic Caliphate to citizens wishing to travel abroad. The bara’a was essentially a receipt for taxes paid, and only citizens who paid their zakah (for Muslims) or jizya (for Dhimmis) taxes were permitted to travel to different regions of the Caliphate.

King Henry V is widely “credited” with inventing the first “true passport” back in the 13th century, allegedly to help his subjects fairly identify themselves abroad. The rapid expansion of the European rail system in the 19th century, however, proved a logistical nightmare for the little books and the officials trying to keep track of them and their respective owners. People were beginning to travel en masse, and at high speeds, over borders around the continent. As such, passports were generally not required for movement between countries and as late as the early 20th century, few Europeans even held them. Then came WWI.

One by one, in the years leading up to and during “The Great War,” European governments joined the Russians and Ottomans in requiring that their citizens carry state-issued identification. The official, conspicuously Orwellian line was that passport requirements would bolster security, allowing the state to track individuals, thereby making it more difficult for spies to cross borders. The effectiveness of passport laws here are debatable, though the requirements did go a long ways to restricting freedom of movement for skilled workers, which in turn enabled warring states to retain manpower for their own, dubious purposes.

During meetings in 1920, ’26 and ’27, the League of Nations took the first steps toward standardizing the modern passport, much to the disgust of, in particular, British tourists, who complained that physical descriptions required in the booklets amounted to “nasty dehumanization.” Unsurprisingly, however, the requirements remained in place post combat, even though cross border security threats had, presumably, diminished after the various armies of the world had ceased marching over this and that border.

In 1980, international passport standardization was implemented under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). For the most part, those born after that year think nothing of having to carry an identifying, state-issued document with them when and wherever they travel abroad. All of today’s versions come complete with photograph; many also include “the subject’s” fingerprint and, as the Australian version does, a contactless integrated circuit chip. It is, for all intents and purposes, impossible — and illegal — to travel without them. And yet, we must pay for the privilege of carrying one!

Fortunately for us, the fee was not prohibitive…not even for a poor, wander-lusting editor of a fringy, online newsletter. But say we were the lower-paid editor of an even fringier newsletter. For the cost of renewing an Australian passport, one could buy a week of steak dinners here in Argentina, with enough change to sponsor a handful of above average, Malbec-induced hangovers. Worse still, what if, by sheer lottery of birth, we had come into this world by way of an Iraqi hospital, or a Sudanese birthing clinic? Your editor can think of no good reason why he should have “the right” to travel places where others, through no fault of their own, may not venture. Put another way, he can think of no good reason why anyone, based simply on their accidental place of birth, should be denied the right to travel anywhere he or she pleases, simply because their “home state” doesn’t get along with the state claiming ownership over their desired destination.

Fellow Reckoners will notice, on the back page of their compulsory document, a line reading something to the effect of, “This Passport Remains the Property of The XXXX Government.” Are we really to believe that these states are only staking claim on the books we are required to carry? Or does their reach go beyond that, to the very lives and freedoms of the bearers themselves?

Despite the nature of his inner monologue, your editor’s interview went as well as might be expected. We dutifully remembered our place of birth, mother’s maiden name, city where our last document was issued and the various other details asked of us. The woman at the counter was very friendly. It turned out her son’s middle name is “Joel.” We even shared a joke about a certain “Piano Man” from New York City. The whole thing went so well, in fact, we almost forgot that our pockets were being picked and that we, in a small, sickeningly complicit way, were paying to keep the lights on in that mansion on the hill.

Joel Bowman
for The Daily Reckoning