Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Riversdale Incident

The full-rigged ship, Riversdale


Back in the palmy days of the Portland sailor’s boarding masters the occasional landlubber that was shipped was small fry compared to the steady trade in deserting seamen. The following article is from the April 1903 edition of the British ship owner’s trade magazine, The Syren and Shipping News. The events mentioned in the article on the Riversdale marked the beginning of the end for the Portland shanghaiers. Within three years the mighty Sullivan, Grant Bros.& McCarron would “throw down their hands in sheer disgust” as reformers got the upper hand in Portland politics.


On Watch
T’ is gratifying to find an Englishman, in this degenerate age, having the pluck to pit himself against the combination of sailors' boarding-house proprietors, their runners and the whole evil fraternity that have long made Portland, Oregon, a place to be avoided by shipmasters, officers and men under the British Red Ensign. Captain Porter, of the Riversdale, belonging to Messrs. Leyland, of Liverpool, deserves the sincere thanks of every right-minded subject of His Majesty King Edward VII., and also of every citizen of the Great Republic who has a reputation to lose, for the fearless stand he has recently made against the hellish combination that is for some reason allowed to dictate terms to masters of British ships with respect to the shipment of seamen at Portland, Oregon.

There are not wanting those who boldly assert that some shipmasters and their employees find it convenient, if not absolutely profitable, to work hand in hand with the remorseless crimps of the Pacific Coast of the United States who make a golden harvest out of the ignorant and defenseless foreigners so often found in the forecastles of British sailing ships engaged in the long voyage trade. But the action of Captain Porter, backed up by the owners of the Riversdale, clearly shows that there are not wanting British shipmasters competent and willing to hold their own against the class of crimp who, in this country, would soon be cooling his heels on the stone floor of the nearest gaol.

British shipowners have for many years past been the best customers of the authorities connected with Portland and Astoria, and, owing to circumstances apparently beyond the control of the City Fathers, the former have been harassed almost in excess of the bounds of belief by a small but malignant band of sailors' boarding-masters who seem to be the very salt of the political earth inside the bar of the Columbia River. Had our shipmasters and shipowners years ago combined forces against the common enemy, and shown the cruel crimps an unwavering front, there would not be prevalent the state of anarchy such as now makes Portland, Oregon, an object-lesson to every civilized nation as to the necessity for local authorities to prevent persons of this undesirable class from becoming a power for evil at the polling booths.

Citizens of Oregon have for some years past been fully alive to the bad odour in which their city is steeped owing to the actions of men whose aim is to keep the sailor in a state of thraldom by the aid of every artifice known to the lowest class of liquor-saloon keeper around the city front; ship him, like a white slave as he is when under the crimp's control, on board some ship of the latter's choice and scoop in the dollars on every deal. San Francisco is bad enough in all conscience, but never, not even in his palmiest days, did the 'Frisco boarding-master hold such a full hand.

When freights are high and men difficult to obtain, we fear that the shipmaster prefers to pay a considerable sum to the crimp-euphoniously known as "blood money" -rather than have h is ship held up by the close combination of the very lowest class of sailors' boarding house master. We venture to say that, if the Shipping Federation could, and would, enter as strongly into this serious business in Oregon as it has done of late with far less important strikes on the Continent of Europe, the Portland crimps would throw down their hands in sheer disgust at the altered run of the cards. As matters stand to-day, the crimps play with marked cards; and there are far too few of the stamp of Captain Porter who will dare call the sharper's attention to the fact that there is a short shrift for rogues of this description.

American deep-water vessels do not visit Portland, and the coasting seamen are, as a rule, of quite a different class from the men who come to the port in foreign ships. Hence the crimp confines his operations solely to vessels under the flags of England, France and Germany, and often grows rich in this nefarious business of inducing sailors to desert and forthwith reshipping them in a strange vessel, after a few hours of dire dissipation, having first taken care to demand and obtain from 30 dols. to 50 dols. for each dissolute white slave and a substantial advance in addition. This class of shanghaied sailorman has positively nothing to lose by displaying a mutinous spirit, and not much to gain by obedience to orders, and it is useless to expect discipline so long as the crimps of Oregon and California are permitted to work their evil will upon the sailors of British ships.