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The Shanghai Passage

July 2024
4min read

It remains to make one more point which is essential to any attempt to understand the heyday and the long decline of the American sailing ship. It was a time which was very hard on the ships themselves, but it was infinitely harder on the men who sailed them. The foremast hands who took those winged racers so far and so fast were driven much more mercilessly than the ships they manned. The skippers and mates of the packets and the Cape Horners were, as noted, consummate seamen, but they also bore a strong resemblance to Simon Legree. They ruled with belaying pins and knuckledusters, and the human costs of their achievements were often sickening.

One reason was, quite simply, that the supply of willing seamen had run out. The sailor’s life, at best, was hard, and young Americans were quitting the sea for easier, better-paid jobs ashore just when the clipper-ship era was getting started. The captains had to take what they could get when they made up their crews, and increasingly what they could get was the sweepings of the seaports, ne’er-do-wells, landsmen who hardly knew one end of a ship from the other, men who went to sea, in a sense, in spite of themselves. Quite literally, the captain who wanted to make a fast passage and keep his ship afloat had to beat these men into shape.

Even more important was the fact that during its final half-century the deepwater windjammer was fighting a losing fight economically, a matter which became even more pressing after the clippers had vanished. The sailing ship of the latter half of the nineteenth century had to operate on the cheap, and in the last analysis this meant that it could operate only by exploiting its crews to the very limit. The “bucko mate,” who ruled by unadulterated brutality, was a necessity, and the name “hell ship” was attached to one after another of the vessels that struggled to compete with steam. Rarely in the world’s history have supposedly free men been so evilly handled as were the crews of the last windjammers.

There is a detailed account of how this worked and what it meant in Richard H. Dillon’s Shanghaiing Days , a somewhat disorganized and poorly assembled book which does shed a graphic light on the almost incredible conditions under which men went to sea in the last days of sail. It belongs with Mr. Cutler’s books: they show the beauty and the romance; this one shows the dark underside, a useful and shocking corrective to the picturesque accounts of noble ships and dauntless skippers.

To begin with, the sailor was wholly at the mercy of the waterfront crimp, an antisocial character who infested the seaports and got a monopoly on the business of supplying sailing ships with sailors. The waterfront boardinghouses which the sailor automatically headed for when his ship paid off were run by the crimps who separated the sailor from his money as rapidly as possible, got him into debt, and then signed him up for a new voyage, cashed his advance note, and shipped him off to sea.

At its best, this was a bad deal. The sailor tolerated it, partly because there was not very much he could do about it—if he wanted to get another ship, he had to get it through the crimps, who controlled the hiring—and partly because he could usually count on a couple of weeks of gaudy carousing of the kind traditional for seafaring men from time immemorial. But the business was not at its best very often. For the crimp developed a way of giving his man one night’s binge and then either getting him dead drunk or feeding him knockout drops (which was simpler and cheaper) and promptly delivering his inert carcass aboard some deepwater ship that was just about to sail. The sailor would come to, with aching head, to find that he was off on another long cruise on some ship he had never heard of before.

This was the famous “Shanghai passage,” invented apparently in San Francisco but widely copied. As the pressure for men grew stronger, the crimp reached out for non-sailors, and there were times and places when any man who entered a waterfront saloon did so at his dire peril—he might wake up in a squalid forecastle, completely at the mercy of a captain and a mate who would kick and club him into performance of dangerous and unfamiliar tasks.

The shipping firms, both American and British, put up with this because it paid. When crimps persuaded sailors to desert a ship—and they were expert at this task, promising men anxious to get off a “hell ship” all sorts of shoreside jobs—the money that was due those men in wages did not have to be paid. When a new crew was to be hired, to be sure, the crimp had to get his blood money, but the fees were deducted from the pay the new hands would earn.

Shanghaiing Days , by Richard H. Dillon. Coward-McCann, Inc. 352 pp. $4.75.

Mr. Dillon examines this business in all of its dreadful detail, coupling his recital of the horrendous things that were done to sailors ashore with a description of the equally horrendous things that were done to them afloat. The story is simply incredible, or would be if it were not so amply documented. The whole thing is a stain on the American record, and it leaves one with the feeling that the sailing ship did not go out of existence too soon.

This exploitation did finally come to an end, of course. Public opinion was at length revolted and laws were passed. The sailing ship gave way to the steamer, and the crimp’s place in the picture automatically declined. Also, the sailors finally got a union and were able to do something in the way of asserting their rights. In the end—somewhere in the early 1900’s—the sorry old system died out.

One of the men who helped to kill it was a sailor named Andrew Furuseth, who helped to establish the union which the sailors needed. Furuseth once summed up conditions on the old sailing ships as neatly as any man could. Arrested after some organizing fracas on the docks, he was sentenced to jail, and he remarked that he did not mind very much—no jail, he said, could possibly give him worse living quarters, worse food, or more inhuman treatment than he was used to on shipboard.

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