Travel has become so commonplace an activity. We tend to forget that, as we know it, it is a relatively new thing. We live in a time in which humanity is moving around as never before.
Prior to about sixty years ago, most people did not travel for work, leisure, and resettlement, as we do today. Before powered transportation, humans’ ability to move distances was naturally severely limited. Generally, you walked or rode on an animal’s back; if you were lucky, an animal pulled your carriage; or you used a slow-moving, oar-propelled, or wind-powered, ship.
One consequence: life was much more settled and static than now. Most rarely ventured more than about “50 miles” from where they had been born. If anyone did undertake a journey, there was usually a compelling reason to do so.
And if they did leave home, there was no reasonable guarantee that they would ever come back. Those who did travel overseas, or even took distant overland journeys, tended to travel “one-way.” Many never returned to from where they had come, and sometimes did not leave even planning to…
As American Minister (meaning ambassador) to Great Britain in the 1780s, John Adams had snapped at a British official who asked if he had English relatives:
Neither my father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, great grandfather or great grandmother, nor any other relation that I know of, or care a farthing for, has been in England these one hundred and fifty years; so that you see I have not one drop of blood in my veins but what is American.
Now when people jump between countries regularly, Adams’s view is not the yardstick we today as Americans might use to measure our Americanness. One hundred fifty years is a LONG time. Today, we are more likely to see it argued that the moment a foreigner is granted U.S. citizenship, he or she is “just as American” as was Adams.
In the 1700s, before the invention of the steam engine, mostly it was still diplomats like Adams who traveled. Or the rich who possessed time to sightsee. And some merchants. So, of course, did sailors.
In Europe, arrivals could generally step off ships without showing a travel document. But to proceed inland, away from the port, you may have needed to obtain a “pass-port” from that government. Essentially it was a “pass” allowing you to leave through the port town’s landside gates.
However, “passport” also became synonymous with a travel document your home country provided you to show to a foreign government. For example, the British government had been granting identification papers to those traveling abroad since the mid-1600s. Those British passports were in French, “the language of diplomacy,” until the mid-19th century. Harkening back to that era, passports today still include French.
Until after World War II, anyone from the empire was allowed to settle in the United Kingdom. Few from around the world could actually get to the United Kingdom, of course – or even knew that they were allowed to live there if they could get there, or even thought that they might want to move there. So there was no need to try to regulate arrivals.
Similarly, the United States had no real border controls until after the Civil War ended in 1865. It is hard to imagine that U.S. existing ever again: All you needed to do to stay in the U.S. legally was to manage to get to the U.S.; no one stopped you from entering. Interestingly, once you landed and became a resident of a state – before the Civil War, the states were far more powerful than they are today – you became a “citizen of that state” through residence and then by extension you were also considered a U.S. citizen.
Passports then did not look like what we – regardless of our country – have today. Mostly they were just pieces of paper, stamped and signed by a consular official.
Our modern passports date from World War I, when, within Europe, the war led to borders being much more carefully monitored. After the war, photographs began to be required, and the documents began to become far more rigid and formal – a fact which disgusted many travelers. Mostly well-to-do people traveled for leisure, and demanding a photograph of them, and assigning them a passport number was, they believed, treating them like “criminals” and as numbers, and not as decent people.
Like it or not, numbers became what we are. The increasing ease of travel since the end of World War II in 1945 prompted even greater frontier-watching. It has led to far more technologically advanced passports as well, culminating in today’s biometric ones; and there will be further changes in the future no doubt. A few years ago, the United Kingdom had experimented with allowing pre-registered citizens and residents to enter the country using an iris eye scanner.
The major reason for that border-tightening has been the massive growth in international air travel – which has been the most revolutionary event in history in terms of global mobility. In just the last sixty years, the world has become what it was never before. By now, in 2017, no part of the planet is effectively more than about “24 hours” flying time from any other part of the planet. No longer does it take four to eight WEEKS to reach America from Europe by sailing ship (if you even made it alive), or four months, or so, from Asia.
Now we can fly between Hong Kong and New York in about 16 hours:
Compared to what had been the norm for uncounted centuries before, that is astonishing. It has made possible populations traveling to a new home from a birth homeland and back over and over with relative ease. It has also created more tourism than ever.
And it has also enabled the largest global shifts of humanity ever. We often see the happy observation that “the world is smaller than ever.” However, that has also meant it has naturally become more tightly-frontiered and border-policed than ever because courtesy of air travel anyone can travel anywhere within hours.
Global migration is now as we know a huge political issue in many places. A lot of ugliness has been unleashed. Strains have appeared on governments and societies in numerous ways that are unlike any before.
Our world in 2017 is only vaguely recognizable in many ways to someone who had lived in 1917. And it is probably close to incomprehensible to someone of 1817. And what that also means is the world of 100 and 200 years from now seems almost certain to be a very different place than it is today for us.