Identity Papers and Paper Nations: Making Nationality at Sea in the Revolutionary Era

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 12:10 PM
Room M104 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, University of Southern California
The massive global wars occasioned by the American and French Revolutions sparked the greatest efflorescence of privateering – regulated commerce raiding – in the early modern Atlantic world.  Privateering was big business in the revolutionary era and also a central pillar of the military, diplomatic and political strategies of the revolutionary states and their opponents.  Since eighteenth-century privateering regulations permitted the seizure only of ships and property belonging to the enemy, how to mark and detect the national identity of ships and cargoes at sea became a high-stakes problem.  Yet nationality at sea was exceedingly difficult to pin down with certainty even before 1776.  The revolutions of the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, by making and breaking sovereign entities and by reimagining the nature of nationality, made it considerably harder.

This paper examines the role that muster rolls (crew lists) and the correspondence found aboard ship played in the process by which privateersmen and admiralty jurists determined the nationality of U.S. merchantment at the end of the eighteenth century.  A pair of mirror-image questions animate the paper.  First, what does the attempt to use physical objects (paperwork) to identify persons reveal about the instability of national boundaries in the revolutionary era?  Using paperwork to discern nationality uncomfortably exposed the fragility of the underlying categories.  Second, how did individuals’ socio-professional identities change the way in which they interacted with paperwork?  I argue that privateersmen and admiralty jurists, though they looked at the exact same documents, differed radically in their approach to reading and using them.  The gap between their approaches could become both a cause for war and a spur to state development.  Studying the interaction between people and maritime documents in motion thus opens new windows into the political and cultural history of the revolutionary era.