Historians once tended (and sometimes still tend) to think about the growth of English empire in terms of the uniform expansion of English sovereignty over widening sections of the globe’s surface. Yet, around the early modern world, diverse English, European, and extra-European legal authorities and political bodies coexisted, interacted, and competed. The emergence and evolution of pluralistic legal regimes out of the interactions of English subjects with their foreign counterparts was as much a part of processes of empire building as were outright claims of imperial sovereignty over swathes of territory. Under these conditions, interstate treaties and imperial firmans not only set terms for diplomatic and commercial interactions, but also served to establish and construct British sovereignty and jurisdictional authority overseas. The corporate authority of the East India Company rested both on the charters it received from the English Crown and on the grants, privileges, and farmans it received from the Mughal emperors and other South Asian and Asian rulers. Similarly, the authority of Levant Company consuls rested on the jurisdiction delegated to them by Ottoman rulers, while the Royal African Company relied upon agreements with local rulers to establish its trading posts along the African coast.
The Mediterranean pass regime offers an additional perspective on the centrality of interstate and interimperial legal regimes in English expansion.
From the end of the seventeenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth, the security and free navigation of British ships in the corsair-infested waters of the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic depended largely on sheets of indented parchment decorated with maritime images. In themselves, Mediterranean passes simply certified that a given vessel was owned and manned by British subjects and thus fell under the protection of Britain’s treaties with the North African regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli and with the empire of Morocco. These passes formed, however, the basis for a pluralistic legal and regulatory regime that arose from a process of negotiation and treaty-making with the North African powers and defined the organization of British navigation in the Mediterranean.
Mediterranean passes emerged out of the seventeenth-century efforts of the English Crown to secure its subjects’ shipping and commerce from the effects of the corso, the perennial and religiously inspired naval war waged between Christian and Muslim corsairs throughout the early modern period in and around the Mediterranean. Through much of the seventeenth century, North African corsairs constituted a real threat to English trade and navigation, seizing several hundred vessels and, on occasion, even raiding coastal towns in England and Ireland. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, first the Commonwealth and then the restored monarchy marshaled the new-found naval power of the English state to secure the safety of English vessels from corsairs. A series of naval wars produced short-lived treaties that secured English vessels from attack, but it was the treaty that England negotiated with Algiers in 1682 in the wake of a particularly long and costly war that established the foundations for the pass system, by mandating that Algerian corsairs were to allow ships bearing passes from the English Admiralty to pass freely. As a result, the treaty essentially required that English vessels carry passes if they were to avoid interference or possible seizure by corsairs. Soon thereafter, the ‘scalloped’ Mediterranean pass came into use. In order to enable corsairs who could not understand English to determine whether the pass a ship carried was valid, these instruments drew on the example of English indenture contracts: the tops of the documents were cut off by means of a jagged incision and the bottom sections given to English vessels. Samples of the resulting “countertop,” meanwhile, were given to the captains of North African cruisers so that they could check the validity of passes by confirming that top and bottom sections matched.
The Anglo-Algerian treaty of 1682 survived largely unchanged 1815 and signaled the rise of a new treaty regime between England and the North African powers in which official passes constituted the basis for determining to which country a ship belonged. In part, the endurance of these articles reflected the growth of British naval power, as Algerian corsairs and rulers increasingly refrained from interfering with British navigation. Yet, by providing a clear and theoretically reliable means of identifying ships at sea as British, the pass system helped to forestall maritime disputes between Britain and the regencies.
More importantly, the Anglo-Algerian treaty regime turned the corso to British advantage. If British vessels could travel in Mediterranean waters without fear of attack or interference by corsairs, then foreign merchants otherwise at risk from attack would freight British vessels. Moreover, the necessity of restricting the advantage of Britain’s treaties to British vessels and of preventing foreign vessels from passing as British and thus leading the regencies to inspect more closely into all supposedly British ships required stricter national organization and regulation of British Mediterranean navigation. Only vessels that were owned by British subjects and that carried crews that were at least three quarters British were legally entitled to carry passes. The pass regime that emerged from Britain’s treaties with the North African powers thus provided a framework for the government of British navigation broadly comparable to that found in the navigation laws. In this case, though, the regulation and promotion of British navigation in and around the Mediterranean depended on the creation of an interstate legal and regulatory regime.