Tuesday, April 27, 2010


To be shanghaied was to be conscripted to join the crew of an ocean-going vessel against your wishes, either by force or through trickery. The origin of the word dates to the mid-19th c. and refers to the fact that many of these ships were bound for China. Young men on both the east and west coasts of the U.S. were at risk of being kidnapped by "crimps," who often plied them with liquor to coerce them on board. Crimping flourished as available sailors instead flocked to the California gold rush. These unethical boarding masters were paid by the body to outfit the vessel and also supplemented their ample income by selling supplies at an inflated price to the seamen against their wages. The names of notorious crimpers have gone down in history, but the stories of their victims are also sometimes told.

London, England, 1811
In Eyewitness to History, 22-year-old Robert Hays, who had made one voyage aboard a British merchant ship, tells the story of being shanghaied by a man in seaman's dress while strolling the streets of London one evening:
"He gave a whistle and in a moment I was in the hands of six or eight ruffians who I immediately dreaded and soon found to be a press gang. They dragged me hurriedly along through several streets amid bitter execrations bestowed on them...and landed me in one of their houses of rendezvous. I was immediately carried into the presence of the Lieutenant of the gang, who questioned me as to my profession....I made some evasive answers to these interrogations...but my hands being examined and found hard with work, and perhaps a little discolored with tar...I was remanded for further examination. Some of the gang then offered me spirits and attempted to comfort me....In a short time I was...before the Lieutenant, who told me as I was in his hands and would assuredly be kept I might as well make a frank confession of my circumstances, it would save time and insure me better treatment....I therefore acknowledged that I had been Carpenter of a ship. His eye seemed to brighten at this intelligence. 'I am glad of that, my lad,' said he, 'we are very much in want of Carpenters. Step along with these men and they will give you a passage on board.' I was then led back the way I came by the fellow who first seized me, put aboard of a pinnace at Tower Wharf and by midday was securely lodged on board the Enterprise. As soon as the boat reached the ship I was sent down into the great cabin, in various parts of which tables were placed covered with green cloth, loaded with papers and surrounded with men well dressed and powdered. Such silence prevailed and such solemn gravity was displayed in every countenance that I was struck with awe and dread....No sooner did I enter the cabin door than every eye was darted on me....A short sketch of what had passed between the press officer and myself had been communicated to the examining officer, for when I was ushered into his presence he thus addressed me, 'Well, young man, I understand you are a carpenter by trade.' 'Yes, sir.' 'And you have been at sea?' 'One voyage, sir.' 'Are you willing to join the King's Service?' 'No, sir.' 'Why?' 'Because I get much better wages in the merchant service and should I be unable to agree with the Captain I am at liberty to leave him at the end of the voyage.' 'As to wages,' said he, 'the chance of prize money is quite an equivalent and obedience and respect shown to your officers are all that is necessary to insure you good treatment....Take my advice, my lad,' continued he, 'and enter the service cheerfully, you will then have a bounty, and be in a fair way for promotion. If you continue to refuse, remember you are aboard....you will be kept as a pressed man and treated accordingly.' I falteringly replied that I could not think of engaging in any service voluntarily when I knew of a better situation elsewhere. He said no more, but making a motion with his hand I was seized by two marines, hurried along towards the main hatchway with these words thundered in my ears, 'A pressed man to go below.' What injustice and mockery thought I...but my doom was fixed and I was thrust down among five or six score of miserable beings, who like myself had been kidnapped, and immured in the confined and unwholesome dungeon of a press room."
Thus was Hays recruited by the British Navy.

Seattle, Washington, 1901
Henry Short, 15 years old, left home for work on a Saturday. When he did not return by the next day, his parents reported him missing. He had given no indication that he planned to leave, and all of his clothes and belongings remained at the residence. Short's parents suspected that he had been shanghaied from a saloon in the Tenderloin District and authorities found no trace of him. It is unknown whether he ever returned to Seattle.

Portland, Oregon, 1910
The New York Times reported that a French sailor had been acquitted of deserting his ship 2 1/2 years earlier when it docked at Portland. He was able to prove that he had been drugged, kidnapped, and enslaved at a lumber camp for several months. He also testified that the captain and several members of the crew of a French ship he was sailing on from Portland had been shanghaied and forced to work on salmon-fishing and whaling vessels.

The practice of shanghaiing finally ended in America in the early 20th c. with the passage of effective federal legislation and a diminished need for unskilled labor aboard steam-powered ships. It is only a memory in the big ports like New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Only Portland preserves a piece of its unsavory past by offering Shanghai Tunnel Tours.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! In recent years I read a history of Scurvy by Stephen Brown. One reason both the merchant fleets and the military needed to start with crews twice the size really needed due to the massive loss of life due to scurvy. As ships became larger and voyages longer, scurvy was rampant. So not only was a fellow being pressed into service, there was a pretty good chance he would die on the ensuing voyage.



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