No, I am not talking about that rockin’ Nazareth tune (hear below) but what I am referring to is the meaning of the verb “shanghai” or “shanghaiing.”
The word came up in class the other day; actually, I brought it up when I was explaining—after I learned that one of the students lived in Shanghai, China—how the term was once used in English to refer to the practice of conscripting men as sailors by coercive techniques such as trickery, intimidation, or violence. (I also explained that a related term, “press gang” referred to the impressment practices of Great Britain’s Royal Navy.)
What I didn’t know was that those involved in shanghaiing were called “crimps” and that they were predominantly found in port cities like San Francisco, Portland and Astoria in Oregon and Seattle and Port Townsend in Washington. The role of crimps and shanghaiing resulted “from a combination of laws, economic conditions, and practical considerations in the mid 1800’s.
Back then, “once a sailor signed onboard a vessel for a voyage, it was illegal for him to leave before the voyage’s end.” The penalty was imprisonment (the result of federal legislation enacted in 1790); however, later acts such as the Maguire Act of 1895 prevented this from happening and sailors could leave causing shortages.
Another reason for shanghaiing was the shortage of labor, in particular when many crews abandoned ships during California’s Gold Rush. No doubt, any able bodied seamen who stayed onboard a ship was literally “worth his weight in gold.”
Finally, shanghaiing came into its own when boarding masters had to find crews for ships. They were paid “by the body” and had a strong incentive to find as many seamen as they could. The pay they received was called “blood money” and in order to place as many seamen on a ship as possible no doubt set the stage for crimps who used “trickery, intimidation, or violence to put a sailor on a ship.”
Some of these crimps were some pretty smooth operators (and were well positioned politically to protect their lucrative trade) and according to one source, the most infamous examples of crimps included Jim “Shanghai” Kelly and Johnny “Shanghai Chicken” Devine of San Francisco and Joseph “Bunco” Kelly of Portland. In one classic story, “Bunco” Kelly “passed off a wooden Cigar Store Indian as a much-needed crewman to a desperate ship’s captain.” That would have been something to see. Wonder what happened when there was muster or roll call on board that ship. That Cigar Store Indian must have had a lot of explaining to do.
From what I learned, the most widely accepted theory of the how the word originated was that it came from Shanghai a common destination of the ships with abducted crews.
Today, the term means to be “induced to do something by means of fraud.”
Okay, got all that?
Now, here’s Nazareth’s “Shanghaied in Shanghai.”