New Orleans, c.1841
John Burns was a steward on board a merchant ship named the Rio Grande. He’d sailed with it to New Orleans in 1849 where he’d gone ashore with a fellow crew member who had been taken ill. He took temporary lodgings in a boarding house and made plans to collect his pay packet in the morning. This was normal: sailors often collected their pay onshore, being paid at a shipping agent’s office.
However, this was also when they were vulnerable to thieves and fraudsters who knew they were likely to have been carrying fairly large amounts of cash. In London the Ratcliffe Highway and its associated dockland was notorious as an area where prostitutes would inveigle seaman into bars, get them drunk, take them upstairs and rob them (or assist others in their robbery). I’m fairly New Orleans presented very similar hazards to the unwary.
As Burns left his lodgings to collect his money two men seized him and forced a drink down his throat, which ‘rendered him insensible’. Having dragged him they manhandled him on board a ship called the Ashley, which was run by Alfred Greg. The two men were what were known as ‘runners’ or ‘crimps’; in effect they acted as a press gang for merchantmen, forcing men to serve as seaman against their will.
We are probably all familiar with the concept of the press gang as it operated in the eighteenth century, forcibly enlisting men and boys into the Nelsonian navy but this was nearly half a century later and in a foreign country. In 1849 New Orleans was, as it is today, the largest city in Louisiana, the 18th state of the USA. In 1849 something like half of Louisiana’s population were enslaved and it is hard to think of what happened to Burns as anything other than enforced labour by kidnapping.
Burns tried to explain to the master (Greg) that he was no sailor, just a steward with no experience of seamanship but he was ignored and set to work. He was promised $35 and the ship sailed to England, docking in London in April. When he asked for his pay he was told he’d already been paid, but he’d never seen ‘a halfpenny of it’. Instead the master had paid all the money to the two men that had pressed him.
Perhaps this was a common scam, akin it seems to me, to modern slavery where men and women and kidnapped and forced to live and work in terrible conditions by criminal gangs. The steward had the sense to get away from the ship and present him himself at the Thames Police court where he obtained a summons against Greg. A few days later the master was in court to hear Burns testify against him. Two other crew members turned up to confirm his evidence and Mr Yardley (the magistrate) said it was evident that a ‘gross and scandalous fraud’ had been committed.
However, it doesn’t seem like he was able to do much about it, perhaps because the crime (of kidnapping) had happened outside his jurisdiction. He could – and did – insist that John Burns was paid however, and would remand the master in custody if necessary until the sum was handed over.
The story served as a cautionary tale for others travelling to ‘foreign’ parts to not get taken unawares by unscrupulous captains in search of a crew.
[from The Standard, Monday, April 23, 1849]