Stupid Question ™
Oct. 3, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Were drunken sailors ever really “shanghaied” into forced service on ship? Were they paid? Why didn’t they mutiny?
A: For most of history, sailing was so awful—extreme danger, horrible abuse, wretched food and quarters—that almost no one did it willingly.
Unfortunately, European law from the Middle Ages up to the 1800s allowed for men to be virtually enslaved to businesses and the military. Financial slavery was the most common form: by not paying sailors until the voyage’s end, and forcing them to “borrow” money to buy necessities, captains kept their crews in debt and thus in servitude.
“Impressment” was the military version. “Press gangs” of thugs intimidated men on the street into joining the military. The British navy’s impressment of American sailors was a major justification for the War of 1812.
As impressments waned, shanghaiing began, with its glory days running from about 1850 to 1920.
Kidnappers known as “crimps” could earn $30 or more per head for providing men (sailors or not) for merchant ship crews. The practice was so called because many West Coast ships indeed headed for Shanghai in the booming days of the Asian trade; plus, it sounded remote. (East Coast victims were more likely to wind up on a local oyster boat.)
Crimps of both sexes and all ethnicities ran saloons, casinos, boarding houses and similar businesses that provided lots of victims. Typically, shanghaiing involved drugging (usually with opium-laced liquor) and/or cold-cocking the victim before dragging him onto a ship, where he would wake up too late.
Portland, Oregon and San Francisco were the shanghai capitals of the US. Portland has a network of tunnels form the period that were used, in part, to transport shanghaied victims to ships from trapdoors in saloon floors. (There’s now a tunnel tour that exaggerates the lurid aspects.)
Portland crimp Jim Turk reportedly shanghaied his own son, while Joseph “Bunco” Kelly infamously shanghaied 24 men he found dying after they drank formaldehyde; most were already dead when he shipped them.
San Francisco boasted James “Shanghai” Kelly, the “King of the Crimps,” who reportedly staged an open party with free (opium-laced) booze, thus shanghaiing 100 sailors. Super-crimp James Laflin, who bought victims from other crimps, actually kept an account book. It shows that in only four years of his 50-year career, he bought and sold more than 6,000 men.
Despite the scale and infamy of this hideous business, corrupt politicians looked the other way. (Some crimps even became California state legislators.) Meanwhile, naïve and desperate men continued to flood the waterfronts.
Shanghaied men usually served at least a year aboard ship. They might then be paid. Or they might be handed back to a crimp for a cut of the profit.
Shanghaiing indeed generated desertions and mutinies galore, though many of them were stopped by violence. The law generally favored the captain, not the crew.
Unions and federal legislation attacked shanghaiing, but most historians of the subject agree it was killed mostly by the rise of the steamship, which required a specially trained crew.