Cesario on Strecker, 'Shanghaiing Sailors: A Maritime History of Forced Labor, 1849/1915'

Mark Strecker
Bradley Cesario

Mark Strecker. Shanghaiing Sailors: A Maritime History of Forced Labor, 1849/1915. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2014. 260 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9451-4.

Reviewed by Bradley Cesario (Texas A&M University) Published on H-War (August, 2017) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

“Shanghaiing” conjures up tales of the sea--of forced voyages, secret liaisons, and oceanic crossings. While fully understanding and drawing upon the romantic side of these tales, Mark Strecker sets out to undertake a more scholarly examination of the phenomenon. His work Shanghaiing Sailors: A Maritime History of Forced Labor, 1849-1915 “presents not only a comprehensive history of shanghaiing, which peaked roughly between 1850 and 1915 … but also examines the nineteenth-century seafarer’s world and the circumstances that created the perfect storm of events which made shanghaiing a lucrative business” (p. 1).

To accomplish this, Strecker divides his work into ten chapters. They are thematically rather than chronologically organized, and cover a great deal of ground--chapter 3, for example, ranges over the topics of shipboard flogging, mutiny, piracy in Hawaii, and desertion in China. The most relevant chapters to Strecker’s central theme of shanghaiing are the fourth, sixth, and tenth. Chapter 4 covers crimps, the common term for those who did the shanghaiing--whether by false advertising, forced signature, or simple kidnapping. Chapter 6 provides various brief case studies of those who were shanghaied, from England to Australia and Brazil. The final chapter covers the legal history of the court cases that ended the practice in the United States in 1915.

Unfortunately, it must be said that there are two major issues with Strecker’s work. The first is a question of definition. The author notes early in the first chapter that shanghaiing specifically refers to “the kidnapping and forcing of a man to serve on board a merchant ship” (p. 3). However, many of the examples and anecdotes used relate to entirely separate maritime activities--impressment/the press gang, privateering, and piracy. All three of these are covered as activities distinct from shanghaiing, with the result that the reason for their inclusion in the volume is somewhat unclear. There are certainly parallels that could be drawn between all forms of involuntary maritime service, but they are not to be found here. Rather, Strecker treats impressment and piracy essentially as subsets of shanghaiing, which at the very least creates a problematic chronology. Related to this point is the second major issue, that of the work’s timeline. Strecker’s reason for choosing 1915 as his ending point is made clear in the final chapter (though not before)--1915 saw the passage of the Seaman’s Act in the United States, ending legal penalties for desertion from a merchant vessel. But why 1850 (or 1849) as a beginning? The only clue is a mention of “shanghaiing” as a recent term in 1856 (p. 81), which is itself contradicted by Strecker’s earlier assertion that the term dates from 1872 (p. 3). The California gold rush is mentioned early in the first chapter (p. 9), and if this was the reason for the starting date it would have been helpful for that information to be presented up front. Moreover, many of the author’s examples date from before 1850. Special attention must be given here to chapter 7, which deals with impressment and in which every example and case study took place before the book’s ostensible chronology begins. That the cover features a scene from the War of 1812, though likely outside the author’s control, does not improve the chronological issues. The work also features no historiographic section of note, and no real conclusion.

Yet there is value to be found in Shanghaiing Sailors. Strecker’s work can serve as a jumping-off point for a variety of intriguing avenues of research. Take media history, for example. Many of Strecker’s primary sources are period US newspapers--do tales of crimping and shanghaiing fit within the larger tradition of late nineteenth-century sensationalist journalism? Or social history--who was being shanghaied? The author provides examples of everyone from wayward youths to other merchant captains. And who were the crimps? Maritime legal historians could find useful questions to answer here as well. Strecker briefly mentions some US laws that aimed to clamp down on crimping and shanghaiing, such as the Seaman’s Act of 1915, the Maguire Act of 1895, and the Shipping Commissioners Act of 1872. If explored in more detail and combined with other relevant maritime law such as the Dingley Act of 1884 and the White Act of 1898, the result could be a useful addition to the literature on how such practices came to an end.

Then there is the question of the work’s geographic scope. Strecker notes that one of his goals is to “shatter … the … myths” (p. 2) that shanghaiing took place only on the West Coast of the United States, and admirably provides many examples of its international scope. Yet the vast majority of his primary sources, generally newspaper articles, are from the Pacific Northwest and the West Coast, and as previously noted his timeline and legal framework match the situation in the United States. With all this being the case, Shanghaiing Sailors could have benefited from a narrower geographic framework. A regional history of shanghaiing on the West Coast would open the door for future avenues of investigation--perhaps the rest of the United States, perhaps an international history. A definitive history of shanghaiing and crimping has not yet been written, and Shanghaiing Sailors is not that project. But it demonstrates that far from being a lost offshoot of the press gang, shanghaiing was a real and pressing concern for certain maritime populations around the turn of the twentieth century--and it raises intriguing research questions related to the above that call for further exploration.

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Citation: Bradley Cesario. Review of Strecker, Mark, Shanghaiing Sailors: A Maritime History of Forced Labor, 1849/1915. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46216

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