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Ravens, Lemons, and Peste: 19th-Century Maritime Health Certificates in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress

(This guest post is by Julie Miller, Historian in the Manuscript Division, with thanks to Suzanne Schadl and Giselle Aviles of the Hispanic Reading Room of the Latin American, Caribbean & European Division for their translations from Portuguese and Spanish.)

As ships traveled from port to port in the 18th and 19th centuries, they carried health certificates to reassure local officials that the places they came from were free of contagion. These filled a function something like the “vaccine passports” or “immunity passports” that are under discussion today because of Covid-19.

The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress has preserved a group of early 19th-century maritime health certificates. Created as routine documents, today they are eloquent artifacts of the history, politics, religion, culture, and even the artistic traditions of the times and places that produced them. Here are three examples:

Louisa,” Lisbon to Baltimore, January 19, 1801, Captain John Champlin

When Captain John Champlin was ready to leave Lisbon, he received this certificate from the city’s board of health. It certified that “Capitão João Champlin” and his crew on board the Louizade, en route to Baltimore, were “san, e livre de mal de peste, e de outro qualquer contagion,” clean and free of plague and any other contagion. When Champlin arrived in Baltimore on March 2 (“New York Gazette,” March 7, 1801), he could use this certificate to reassure port officials that the “Louisa,” as the ship was called in the United States, had not carried any disease across the Atlantic.

The officials of Lisbon’s board of health could have printed a plain document for this routine transaction, but instead they chose to represent their work and their city with this decorated one. Lisbon’s symbol, a ship surrounded by two ravens, is deconstructed here. On the right, one raven holds an L (for Lisbon?) in its mouth, and a ship is on the left. A larger, more elaborate symbol featuring flowers, arrows, and festoons is in the center. When the health officials made this choice, they not only certified local health conditions, but also expressed pride in their city.

Health certificate from the city of Lisbon, Portugal, for the ship Louisa, 1801. The certificated is headed by an ornate symbol of Lisbon.

“Louisa,” Lisbon to Baltimore, January 19, 1801. Health certificate from the city of Lisbon board of health. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Henry,” Malaga to Baltimore, September 17, 1802, Captain Nathaniel Sherman

The certificate issued in Malaga to another Baltimore captain, Nathaniel Sherman of the Enrique is even more elaborately decorated than the one issued to Captain Champlin in Portugal. It combines religious, maritime, and civic symbols. Some of the figures appear to be Native Americans, possibly a reference to Spain’s colonial presence in the Americas. The language is familiar: the health board of Malaga assures foreign port officials that “esta Ciudad, y sus vecinos, están libres do todo mal contagioso de peste,” the city and its surroundings are free from contagious disease.

The certificate also notes the Enrique’s cargo: fruit. When the ship arrived in Baltimore (where it was called the “Henry”) two months later, an advertisement in the “Telegraph and Daily Advertiser (November 27, 1802) offered more detail about what Captain Sherman brought Baltimoreans from Spain: figs, grapes, almonds, lemons, oranges, and Malaga wine.

Health certificate from Malaga, Spain, for the ship Enrique (Henry), 1802. The certificate is headed by an elaborate symbol.

“Enrique” (Henry), Malaga to Baltimore, September 17, 1802. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Advertisement in the cargo of the ship “Henry” in the “Telegraph and Daily Advertiser,” November 27, 1802.

Advertisement for the cargo of “Henry” in the “Telegraph and Daily Advertiser,” November 27, 1802.

Adriana,” September 29, 1804. New York to Liverpool, Captain Humphrey Ricketson

In 1801, three years before the Adriana set sail from New York, the American consul at Lisbon, Thomas Bulkeley, pleaded with Secretary of State James Madison to provide American ships with certificates of health. Without them, he wrote, ships that arrived in Lisbon from the United States had to spend five days in quarantine before they could enter the city. (Was the “Louisa” one of those ships?)

In response to Bulkeley’s complaint, and concerned about the effect quarantine had on American trade, treasury secretary Albert Gallatin sent a circular letter to the collectors of customs in American ports. “The Quarantine laws of some European nations have proved so oppressive to our commerce,” Gallatin wrote the collectors, “that it has become necessary to adopt every measure which will induce a reasonable relaxation.” Gallatin, at the direction of President Thomas Jefferson, proposed that the collectors draft certificates of health for American ships to carry, and he provided guidelines: to earn the trust of foreign port officials, the certificates had to be absolutely truthful. To enhance their authority he proposed two signatures: one from the port collector and another from a representative of the local naval office, which explains the two seals on the “Adriana’s” certificate. He suggested wording that would be familiar to European port officials, assuring them that “no Plague or any other dangerous or contagious disease at present exists” in the port from which the ship had sailed.

Gallatin’s circular to the customs collectors was issued on July 15, 1801 and published in the “Commercial Advertiser” (New York), July 30, 1801 and “National Intelligencer” (Washington, DC), August 3, 1801. For background see: Albert Gallatin to James Madison, [ca. July 1, 1801]; Albert Gallatin to Thomas Jefferson, [July 7, 1801]; Albert Gallatin to James Madison, July 22, 1801.

In September 1804 Humphrey Ricketson, captain of the “Adriana,” arrived in New York from Liverpool carrying British textiles to sell in the city’s auction market (“Evening Post,” New York, September 10, 1804). Now he was on his way back to Liverpool with this certificate of health modeled on Gallatin’s instructions of 1801. Unlike the certificates issued in Lisbon and Malaga it is plain, but like them it uses religious language. New York’s public officials, unlike those in Portugal and Spain, were not connected to an established church, but the official who drafted this health certificate had an explicitly Christian agenda. The certificate begins: “To all the faithful of Christ, to whom these presents come,” then embeds Gallatin’s suggested phrase: “no Plague or any dangerous or contagious disease, at present exists in the said port” with this parenthetical exhortation: “(praise be to God the most high and good).”

District of New-York certificate for the ship Adriana.

The certificate of health used by the “Adriana” in 1804. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

The certificate of health used by the “Adriana” in1804 lasted until at least 1830, when social reformer (later an Indiana Congressman) Robert Dale Owen protested that its religious language was not in keeping with what he expected from “the officers of a free republic.” According to American principles of religious freedom, he argued, the health certificate distributed in New York’s port ought to be addressed not just to “the faithful in Christ,” but “to all men; to Turks, Christians, Heathens and every other sect and nation” (“Free Enquirer,” April 10, 1830).

Learn more about it:

These documents are among approximately 200 similar ones in the Manuscript Division’s Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection. The papers of each ship are individually cataloged in the Library of Congress online catalog. You can locate them by searching the term “Ship’s Papers” or, if you know it, the name of the ship.

The voyages of these ships and others can be traced in the columns of shipping news published in 19th-century newspapers. You can find these in online databases of historical newspapers, see e.g., the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room or “Chronicling America.”

For questions, contact Library of Congress reference staff through Ask a Librarian.

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