Unfolding the Map
Lots of stuff in this post. We rarely get to visit a big city with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) because he tries to avoid them. No avoiding Portland, however. We'll look at some of the nefarious history of shanghaiing in Portland's past, and relate it to human trafficking today. There are, count 'em, two musical interludes in this post. What a deal! Here's the map to see where Portland sits in the scheme of our journey!
"The river road came off the hills into the industrial bottoms of Portland and left no way but through the city; once committed to it, I went looking for oysters downtown in the area where drinking (Erickson's Saloon formerly had a bar running nearly eight hundred feet), whoring and shanghiing sailors were the main after-dark endeavors a century ago. It was here that five-foot-tall Bunco Kelly kidnapped, by his own count, a thousand lubbers through his standard method of knockout drops, although his easiest haul was eight tramps he found drinking formaldehyde in an undertaker's basement; Kelly gathered them up and got them aboard ship by passing the dying men off as intoxicated."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 6
The description of Portland's Bunco Kelly, in LHM's quote above, led me to do a little bit of thinking. We currently live in a world where, despite the fact that every country has officially outlawed slavery (the last country to do so was Mauritania as recently as 2007, though the practice remains there), the world has more slaves than at any other time in its history. The estimates range from 12 million to 27 million people living in conditions of slavery, a shocking statistic considering that we live in what is considered a modern and humane world.
In Bunco Kelly's time, slavery had been abolished in the United States for at least 20 years when he started his practice. And to be fair, his trade in trafficking of humans was not considered slavery, though that might be a quibble. Shanghaiing was officially known as impressment, and it had been used in official capacity by the British Royal Navy up until the defeat of Napoleon. Impressment was the forcible recruitment of sailors, and was justified by the king's right to call out people for military service during a time of need. For Britain, which had extensive holdings overseas, pretty much any time could qualify as a time of need. Impressment agents would find men, usually those who were considered vagrants, and impress them aboard Navy ships. Sometimes, individual Navy ships, plying the high seas and in need of personnel, would impress sailors and other men aboard ships that they stopped. The result was the same regardless - the new sailors were obligated to serve a time aboard the ship and were penalized if they deserted their posts and were caught, frequently by flogging.
While the Royal Navy discontinued impressment after the Napoleonic Wars, the practice continued. In various American ports a labor shortage of qualified seamen led American merchant ships to adopt shanghaiing, which was essentially the same practice. However, instead of relying on the government and military agents to provide sailors, ships' captains relied on ruthless and unscrupulous characters called crimps. These men would find ne'er-do-wells, usually in places like Portland's Skid Road or other such places in other American port cities, and then use various means including drugging them to bring them aboard ships. Upon bringing the men aboard, the crimps would receive a fee per head after "signing them in" usually by forging a signature. A successful crimp could make over $9000 a year, which averages out to over a quarter million dollars a year at today's prices. Once the men were aboard, they could not leave the ship under threat of imprisonment until their time of duty was finished. On board, ships operated like the company store in mining communities - the sailors were indebted to the captain for their clothes, food and other necessities, which were subtracted in advance from their pay.
Of course, it being an unscrupulous business, the crimps themselves were often unscrupulous. LHM's quote relates how one of the most infamous shanghaiers, Bunco Kelly, was not above collecting his fee for dead men. Kelly, whose legitimate occupation was as an hotelier, prowled the streets at night and brought in hundreds of men and women over the course of his dubious career. Once he found a number of men who, thinking that they had broken into the basement of a bar, drank formaldehyde in the basement of a mortuary and were dying. Kelly sold the men to captain, telling him that they were drunk and got $52 per head for them. Imagine the captain's surprise when out at sea he tried to awaken dead men. Kelly also once sold a dime-store carved Indian to a captain, getting $50 by wrapping him up and passing him off as unconscious.
Musical Interlude One
Here's a Jack White and Loretta Lynn song about Portland. I usually don't do two musical interludes, but I'm getting into some heavy stuff in Part 2 and I don't want to give the wrong impression about Portland, which I hear is a fantastic place to live and work.
What really stands out to me is the connection between shanghaiing, which the United States fully outlawed by 1915, and modern day techniques to traffick humans, especially women and children, into slavery. Modern slavery is made up of women and girls often sold into prostitution. Women can be literally "shanghaiied" by slavers who might use a drug like Rohypnol - the "date rape" drug - to sedate the women who then wake up in a nightmare scenario where they are forced to provide services to men for the profit of their captors and kept by various ways in bondage. We often think of this as being a crime that is perpetrated in developing countries, but in fact human trafficking is present in developing and developed countries. Europe and the United States both have problems in human trafficking - the United States in 2010 listed itself on the State Department's Report on Trafficking of Persons for the first time ever. In the major cities, on the streets, the girls and women that you see along the routes favored by prostitutes are rarely ever in the business for themselves, but are at the mercy of pimps who force them to work day after day. While legalized brothels in the United States and Europe may employ women who choose prostitution as a trade, many brothels, both regulated and unregulated, might have women that have been trafficked and forced into prostitution. Many women from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia are forced into prostitution each year with promises of good jobs and money in Europe and America, only to find themselves expected to work off the debt of their passage through prostitution with the penalty of physical harm if they refuse to cooperate.
Since the beginning of the human race, people have found profit in buying and selling other humans for their various uses. It has been called by what it is (slavery) and called other names to take some of the stigma away (indentured servitude, impressment, etc.). Some places now considered wonderful places to live, like Portland, had these types of activities in their past. A decade into the 21st century, the world has outlawed most forms of slavery, but paradoxically the world has the highest number of people in slavery conditions ever. We still have slavery happening in the United States, which fought a civil war partly over whether all humans had the rights of freedom and liberty. Humanity must now take the next step, and not just outlaw trade in humans, but eradicate the trade in humans that still exists despite all the best laws.
Musical Interlude Two
There are a couple of good songs about human trafficking in today's world. I found this one with music by Crash Parallel called Rain Delays to be very meaningful. If you want to see another that is also very meaningful and good, see She: A Song About Sex Trafficking.
If you want to know more about Portland
Food Carts Portland
Lewis and Clark College
The Oregonian (newspaper)
Portland's Best Food and Drink Blogs
Portland Food and Drink
Portland Oregon Magazine
Portland Mercury (alternative newspaper)
Portland State University
The Portland Tribune (newspaper)
Portlanders.com: 75 Best Portland Blogs of 2011
University of Portland
Next up: Vancouver, Washington