Shanghai Surprise: the Language of San Francisco and the Barbary Coast

Shanghai Surprise: the Language of San Francisco and the Barbary Coast• 200: the population of San Francisco in 1846.
• 25,000: the population of San Francisco in 1849.
• 300: the number of women living in San Francisco in 1849.
• 200: the number of those women who were prostitutes.
• 1,400: the number of murders in San Francisco from 1850-1856
• 3: the number of murderers hanged during the same period.

One number that we’ll never know are the amount of people who were abducted, taken out to sea during this time period, and forced to, among other things, use words like “ahoy.” It happened so much that a particular word was invented for the practice and it has since entered the American lexicon: to shanghai someone.

The Barbary Coast was the physical hangover-a living, breathing collective gasp of desperation-of the Gold Rush. It created a lawless atmosphere that not even Moscow could compete with today.

As Simon Winchester wrote in A Crack in the Edge of the World: “During the 1850s, San Francisco’s notoriety was fully and widely established; it was a den of iniquity, a lawless town where men in unrestricted mobs drank, gambled, and whored their way from street to street, unchecked by family, by conscience, or by law.”

And the practice of shanghaiing went largely unchecked. Here’s how it would go:

A miner would go out for a night of drinking and carousing and when he couldn’t cough up enough money (or gold), he was given over to a crimp, a sort of loan shark, who would eventually knock the miner out and sell him to a sea captain. Eventually the minor would wake up, head aching from too much drink, and find himself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, his fate to working off his debt on the ship sealed, as the boat made what was called a “shanghai journey,” slang for a very long voyage.

It was a shanghai surprise: the language of San Francisco and the Barbary Coast.