Chapter 2: Adventures in the Far East
Be it Known, that on the day and date hereof, before me CLEMENT C. BIDDLE, ESQUIRE, Notary Public for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, residing in the City of Philadelphia, duly commissioned and sworn, and by law authorized to administer oaths and affirmations, personally appeared Asa Eldridge and made oath that he is a resident of Yarmouth in the State of Massachusetts and a CITIZEN of the United States of America, that he is aged twenty-two years, or thereabouts, of the height of five feet eleven inches, fresh complexion, brown hair, blue eyes, and has a scar on his right shin from a cut.
(Signature) Asa Eldridge …
SWORN and SUBSCRIBED as above before me: and in Testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and affixed my Notarial Seal the 19th day of April A.D. 1832
(Signature) Clement C. Biddle, Not. Pub.
SO READS the earliest document the author has found that can be linked with certainty to Asa Eldridge’s maritime career. It is his application in 1832 for what was known as a “Seaman’s Protection Certificate,” a passport-like document mandated by Congress in 1796 to protect US sailors from being forced into service on British warships. Such “impressment” of Americans by the Royal Navy occurred routinely between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and was a major cause of the latter. By affirming that the sailor who carried it was a US citizen, the certificate was supposed to protect him from this fate. Given that photography had not yet been invented, the certificate had to rely on descriptive details to identify the bearer: age, place of birth, height, complexion, hair color, eye color and distinguishing marks. To obtain a certificate, the seaman was obliged to submit an application providing these details and witnessed in the presence of a notary public by someone who knew him. The document cited above is a typical example, submitted by Asa Eldridge in 1832. By that time the risk of impressment had long since passed, but the certificates had turned out to be useful forms of identification and so the practice of issuing them continued…..