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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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Books for Adults - Nonfiction


Cover Art: Citizen Sailors
Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution
By Nathan Perl-Rosenthal
Belknap Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0-674-28615-3, $29.95 / £22.95 / Ä27.00

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Nowadays, we take nationality for granted. But nationality was a relatively new concept in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before the American Revolution, if you were born in England or France, then you remained an English or French subject for your entire life regardless of where you lived. In fact, your financial status, religion, ethnicity, and family lineage mattered more so than your allegiance to a particular country did. Then the upstart colonials upended this definition when they rebelled and became the United States of America. Perl-Rosenthalís study focuses on sailors and their role in shaping and helping to define what it meant to be a citizen of the United States, because seamen were in the forefront of establishing oneís identity and citizenship long before most people had to do so. In the process he shows how the documents from this time period eventually evolved into passports and identity cards we use today.

This question of nationality might seem straightforward, but at the time it was not. Americans and Britons spoke English, and there wasnít as significant a difference in our accents as there is today. Language no longer allowed seamen to differentiate between friend and foe. Complicating this issue was that some people, like Nathaniel Fanning, could claim to be either American or French. Also, since war was frequent during this time period, ships and sailors of one nation sometimes claimed to be those of another nation. So how could authorities, such as the British and French governments, distinguish who truly was an American and who was not? Perl-Rosenthal answers this question through historical documents and by looking at some of the sailors and government officials, such as Edward Livingston and David Lennox, involved in defining nationality. Burgess demonstrates that seamen of all races participated in this, for the prejudices and restrictions of later decades hadnít yet invaded the maritime world. He also discusses in detail how American seamen could prove their citizenship, and who had the right to determine who was a citizen of a particular country.

Maps, illustrations, end notes, and an index accompany the information presented in this book. Citizen Sailors is of particular interest to students of privateering, for the men who served on these ships were at the forefront of defining nationality due to the prize law in force during the Age of Revolution. Anyone interested in how early sailors thought of themselves as Americans and how other countries viewed mariners as citizens of the United States will also want to read this book. Perl-Rosenthal clearly shows the difficulties in proving oneís citizenship and the precarious methods and legislation other nations implemented to do so. Citizen Sailors is a fascinating look into a topic often overlooked or glossed over in history classes, and yet it has now become such an important part of our everyday lives.

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Book Review Copyright © 2016 Cindy Vallar



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