Captains watched their crews fly off to the goldfields. Crimping was the only apparent solution.

The relative obscurity of shanghaiing can be attributed to several factors. It took place only at unsavory waterfront locations frequented by a tiny, roisterous segment of the citizenry. Politicians and law officers could easily ignore the problem or benefit from it. The relevant laws served more to protect shipowners and captains from mutiny than to safeguard the rights of seamen. And most victims were not literate enough to record their plights—a U.S. Supreme Court justice described seamen in general as “thoughtless, credulous, complying, and easily overreached”—and few non-seamen even cared about their fate.

During and after the Civil War, maritime authorities were simply overwhelmed with much more urgent problems. Confederate raiders destroyed 257 vessels, compelling Union shipowners to transfer 700 others to foreign registries—a blow from which the U.S. Merchant Marine did not fully recover until 1900. But half a century earlier impressment of American seamen—the forerunner of shanghaiing—not only represented a principal government concern but was one of the most urgent issues leading to the War of 1812.

In retrospect impressment seems a blatant denial of human rights. Nevertheless it was supported by British statutes for centuries. Based on the premise that the adequate manning of warships, vital to the empire’s survival, outweighed concerns for individual freedom, the Royal Navy had authority to press men into service by virtually any means—seizing crews from merchant ships, anchored or at sea, or rounding up unsuspecting sailors at docks and taverns. When President James Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war on June 1, 1812, he cited the “pernicious consequences” of impressment and blockades as the two chief provocations.


Yet the 1815 treaty that ended the war made no reference to impressment; the issue was among several that had been scuttled by both sides in the guise of compromise, and the matter lost its impact in diplomatic debates. Nevertheless the problem smoldered, as tales of impressment persisted and then burst forth again at mid-century in a more subtle cloak—as the work of private enterprise. This new version presented a mirror image of its predecessor. Instead of preying on merchant ships, the modern crimp supplied them.

In 1848 the discovery of gold in California touched off an avalanche of migration. Easterners could get there overland or by ship. So many chose the latter that shipbuilders from Maine to Virginia went into a spate of production limited only by the numbers of workers they could round up. Some 770 ships carrying twenty-eight thousand gold seekers rounded the Horn from Eastern ports in 1849; just four had gone to California the year before. Captains watched fortune-seeking crews join their passengers in leaving the ships upon arrival in San Francisco, and the bay became littered with abandoned vessels.

Owners of ships carrying cargoes to go on to foreign ports after dropping off passengers faced the prospect of watching their goods rot in holds unless they could fill their crews. Those hoping to return East felt equally stranded, while along the Atlantic seacoast, manning the growing number of new sailing vessels became similarly difficult.

The only apparent alternative to bankruptcy was the crimp. Faced with this newest challenge as brokers of seamen, many crimps did not hesitate to turn to shanghaiing.

History is vague on the origin of the term shanghai . The explanation most widely accepted is one given by the Reverend William Taylor in his 1856 book, Seven Years Street Preaching in San Francisco : “… but from ‘Shanghae in China,’ there were seldom any ships returning to California. To get back, therefore, they [seamen] must make the voyage around the world. … Hence to get ‘crews’ for Shanghae … they [shipowners] depended, almost exclusively, on drugging the men. Crews for Shanghae were, therefore, said to be Shanghaed, and the term came into general use to represent this whole system of drugging, extortion, and cruelty.”

Father Taylor had gained a substantial reputation preaching on the streets of Washington and Baltimore before accepting a missionary assignment in San Francisco in 1849. The Reverend Edward Thompson Taylor was even better known as an outspoken defender of seafaring men. Having been impressed himself by the British during the War of 1812, he founded the Boston Seamen’s Bethel and “trod its quarter deck” for forty years. The efforts of such religious leaders, however, were suffocated under the pressures applied by the powerful crimps.

The hierarchy of crimping was developed in New York City and Boston. At the top were shipping masters and boarding masters, both known as crimps. The shipping master, charged with producing a crew, depended primarily on the boarding master, or boardinghouse keeper, for his supply of sailors. The boarding master provided food, shelter, liquor, and entertainment for men awaiting berths. At times the two vocations overlapped.