American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SHANGHAIING. In the second half of the nineteenth century, as the U.S. Merchant Marine began to change from sail to steam and from American to foreign personnel, it became increasingly difficult to find a crew for a sailing vessel. As the best and most profitable routes went to steamships, new technology made it possible to build massive, iron-hulled sailing vessels for carrying bulk cargoes cheaply. Often poorly manned and maintained, these vessels developed a reputation for brutality under their “bucko mates,” and few experienced sailors were willing to sign on under such conditions.

It was possible to get men through trickery: saloon owners, prostitutes, and boardinghouse keepers often cooperated to create a debt that a man could not pay off except by signing aboard a ship and surrendering his advanced wages. Under more desperate situations, shipowners turned to “crimps,” men and women who would forcefully abduct men using drugs or violence. By the time a man woke from the opium or chloroform that had been slipped into his drink or cigar, he was on a ship headed to Shanghai, China. Though the practice of “shanghaiing” was known to have occurred from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, the most notorious ports were on the West Coast. San Francisco led the pack, with the ship-jumping inducements of the goldfields leaving many ships shorthanded, but Portland, Oregon, and Port Townsend, Washington, were not far behind.

Paddy West and other well-known crimps were celebrated in several chanteys, but, for the most part, shanghaiing became a more popular theme in twentieth-century movies than it was in nineteenth-century novels. The most famous appearance of a crimp in literature is the Liverpool thug who brings a corpse on board the Highlander in Herman Melville’s* Redburn* (1849). Shanghaiing occurs in Samuel Samuels’* From the Forecastle to the Cabin (1887). Frank Norris* includes a shanghaiing episode in Moran of the Lady Letty (1898), reportedly based on the experiences of a San Francisco coastguardsman, and a hapless S.S. Glencairn* crewman is shanghaied in London in Eugene O’Neill’s* play The Long Voyage Home (perf. 1917; pub. 1919). A number of factual accounts of being shanghaied were written by sailors, including James H. Williams, whose autobiographical writings were collected in 1959 as Blow the Man Down! A Yankee Seamen’s Adventures under Sail. A good history of the practice can be found in Shanghaiing Days (1961) by Richard H. Dillon.

Mary Malloy