Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 42. Shanghaied

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Shanghaied, crimped or 'pressed' - filling job vacancies at sea

Shanghaied, crimped or 'pressed' - filling job vacancies at sea

The British sailing ship Monkbarns left Bunbury in Western Australia late in 1918 two hands down – even though young Captain Donaldson of the Australian coaster SS Kurnalpi had generously let his father poach one of his crew, 18-year-old FG McMullen from Fremantle.

Two of the men old Captain Donaldson had signed in Rio three months previously had been paid off properly on arrival in Australia, and needed replacing, but one (a Finn) had gone Awol during the Armistice celebrations and was simply not seen again.

By three weeks before Christmas, the old sailing ship was laden with 3,300 tons of Jarrah wood sleepers destined for the South African railways. Her hatches were battened, her running gear overhauled, her stores topped up and two injured apprentices – one of whom had toppled into the hold and one off the jetty – had been retrieved from the infirmary, and pronounced fit for duties. Monkbarns was ready to sail. It was time to say their goodbyes.

There was no tug to take the old square rigger off the jetty, so “head sails were loosed, head mooring lines cast off, and when she swung out seawards, up went the fore lower topsail and with the mooring lines let go, she glided out into the bay to anchor about half a mile out,” wrote apprentice Victor Fall.

Then, half the apprentices were given shore leave and rowed off to spend a last evening with their new friends, particularly the girls. At 11pm on December 5th a forlorn little group reassembled on the jetty, their arms full of homemade cakes and jam, and rowed back out to the distant ship, rocking at anchor silhouetted against the night sky.

Elsewhere in Bunbury, but specifically in the bar at the Pier hotel (which was conveniently near the jetty), several of Monkbarns’ older hands were engaged in an altogether less innocent enterprise. The ship was short-handed, but the pool of sail-trained men in the little timber port was limited, and the number who cared to sign up for an indefinite voyage in an old British windbag, at British rates, was non-existent. It was a problem. But there was a solution.

You can still visit the infamous Shanghai tunnels under Portland, Oregon, where a roaring trade was done in stolen lives

The US Seamen's Act of 1915 laid down that on American ships no more than a quarter of the crew should be unable to understand the language of its officers.

That night one S. Grotheim, able seaman, of the Norwegian barque Aldgirth was treated to lashings of “grog” in a farewell booze-up organised by a bunch of his very dear new Britisher friends. A selected group of Monkbarns’ hands had been “softening him up” for days, according to young Fall.  Now, when he duly passed out, his dear friends were on hand and tenderly carried him, deadweight, out of the bar and down to the jetty, where a boat was waiting. Grotheim awoke the following day with a banging head in the fo’c’sle of the wrong ship, well out at sea. Not even the hearty sea chanty as the anchor was hauled up, nor the clink of capstan pawls piling the cable link by slimy link into the adjacent chain locker had roused him.

Fall records that the poor man brought a lawsuit against Captain Donaldson on arrival in South Africa, but lost. All that survives in the ship’s papers is an incomplete scrawl by an administrator in the Cape Town shipping office three months later, noting the master’s report of the “engagement at sea” of S Grotheim AB. He had been “placed on board” at Bunbury, the official records blandly, “and instructed by the Shipping [Office?] only after leaving”.

It was one of the last cases of “Shanghaiing”, says Fall, although looking back over Monkbarns’ crew lists at the number of “stowaways” signed after sailing, the suspicion grows that Captain Donaldson had almost certainly done it before.

Shanghaiing, or crimping (or “press-ganging” if you ended up on a naval vessel), had a long and dishonorable tradition at sea. Many seafaring countries have their own word for it: ronselen, embarquer de force, and all the variations of sjanghaja, schanghaien etc.

In the days before international banking a merchant sailor paid off after lean months at sea was a plump target for the “crimpers”. Far from home, he needed a roof over his head and the quayside crawled with men eager to sell him all manner of entertainments at inflated prices. What did he know? By the time all the money ran out, he was in debt to the boardinghouse keeper. It was they who “sold” seamen to short-handed masters for settlement out of the advance on their first month’s pay – and who often rendered them drunk for delivery, to ensure compliance.

In the 17th century the Dutch East India Company called such men “zielverkopers” or sellers of souls, but Shanghaiing almost certainly stems from the cut-throat competition of the 19th century tea trade – when fast ships of many nations raced to China and home again against the monsoon to snatch the best price for the new season’s harvest following the repeal of Britain’s restrictive Navigation Acts.

The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 foreshadowed the end for the clippers and sailing ships generally. In Britain, the Board of Trade had taken over the pioneering money transfer systems set up by the charitable Sailors Home on Well Street, east London, and a marine department was legislating on pay and conditions for seafarers, although it remained illegal for a sailor to refuse a ship until 1871 – even on grounds of seaworthiness. (And Britain’s life-saving Plimsoll line of 1876 – against overloading and loss of ships – was not adopted by the US until 1917).

The new regulations curbed crimping, but Shanghaiing had never been legal anyway. It was just harder to prove at sea, in a foreign jurisdiction, far from any witnesses.

If S. Grotheim did try to sue Captain James Donaldson in Cape Town, he is unlikely to have met much support as a Norwegian national seeking redress against a British employer over something alleged to have happened half a world away in Australia.

The ship’s record shows Grotheim finally left Monkbarns in Cork in June 1919, a sadder and wiser man with £21 11s 9d in his pocket – further mulct of his official £11 a month pay by the ship’s slop chest system, to replace waterproofs, warm clothes and other necessities he’d naturally had no opportunity to bring along.

Read on: Man overboard
Previously: A face in the crowd

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll

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  1. […] Coming next: Goodbye to Monkbarns Previously: Shanghaied […]

  2. […] Shanghaied, and a death at sea Previously: Armistice in Bunbury […]


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