Crossing The Line Ceremony
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
Qualifying for membership in an organization, whatever its formality or purpose, is as old as mankind. Taking a “test” to see if you are “worthy” of belonging is a practice common to professions, fraternal organizations, and just about any group activity in which we might indulge. In the maritime world, perhaps the oldest such ritual is the “crossing the line” ceremony, which seems to have originated in the Middle Ages. In today’s Navy, the “line” in question is the Equator, and the initiation makes “Shellbacks” out of “Pollywogs.”
When Constitution first went to sea in July 1798, the Equator was not the only “line” whose crossing was observed by sailors. In her log of 11 January 1799, as she was making her first voyage to the West Indies, it was recorded that a “crossing the line” ceremony was performed with great hilarity “Vizt. Blackg. Ducking Shaving &c. which among 400 People produced a Set of Devils equal to any ever Seen.” In this instance, the ship was crossing the Tropic of Cancer, that “line” marking the sun’s northernmost zenith in our yearly orbit. Crossing this line probably was the occasion for ritual in the Age of Discovery, as sailors headed south along the African shore to what some said was a region of fire. Then, the ceremony was religious in nature, seeking God’s protection as they journeyed to what might prove to be Hell. Once the southern tip of Africa had been rounded and India reached by sea, the fears of a southern region of perpetual fire died and the ceremony became one commemorating a journey to the “other half” of the world. It was a time for fun, involving everyone on board, and was the one time when a junior might gain a little satisfaction from the discomfort of a senior. Some scrapes and bruises did occur, and some hearty retching was not unknown, but most often the discomfort was transient and one’s ability to be a “good sport” inevitably led to stronger bonds of comradeship later on.
The cast of characters for a crossing the Line ceremony typically consists of King Neptune, Queen Amphitrite, the Royal Baby, the Royal Barbers, the Royal Constables, and lesser attendants such as the Tritons. All of these persona are roles taken by members of the crew who previously have crossed the Line, attired in outlandish regalia created from whatever oddments are to be found in the ship. (The Royal Barber’s “razor,” for instance, might be a section of barrel hoop. Mop heads become wigs, and who knows what might give the Queen her curves?!)
From May 1844 until September 1846, Constitution made a cruise around the world under the command of Captain John Percival. As she first approached the Equator (she would cross it four times during the cruise), the old timers in the crew, including the Captain, laid their plans and prepared the regalia for the event. The ritual began on the evening of 23 July 1844, just after the setting of the evening watch at 8 o’clock, when a lookout sang out, “Light ho! Dead ahead!” From the bow head area there shortly appeared the “herald” of “Neptunus Rex, Lord of the Watery Domain.” John B. Dale, Fifth Lieutenant of the ship at the time, has left us a description of what transpired: “…his messenger…, instead of being a stalwart Triton, covered with sea weed and dripping with brine, a little Forecastleman by the name of Fitzgerald was rig’d out more like a North American Indian than a Sea-God. Indeed, it was a laughable burlesque, for our little Forecastleman with his wiry legs developed [sic] his white sheeting wrapper, which he drew around him in a tragedy style, and with a paper cap on his head, had lost his presence of mind and forgotten his part. However he managed to deliver a letter to the Officer of the deck from Neptune to Capt. Percival an old acquaintance welcoming him back once more to his dominions, requesting the names of such of his children as had never been initiated, and also permission to come aboard to-morrow morning. This was graciously accorded by the Capt. with an appropriate speech, when Old neptune was again heard calling for his ‘Postman’ …”
Fitzgerald disappeared back into the bow head, and shortly thereafter was seen Neptune’s “flaming chariot” passing down the ship’s side in the darkness. (It was, in fact, a half-barrel of tarred rope-yarns made up for the purpose.)
At 9 the next morning, as Constitution lay hove to, King Neptune arrived. Our eye witness: “…Old Neptune soon after hailed us and was seen coming aft in the weather gangway in a triumphal car (a map chest mounted on trucks [wheels]) drawn by four sea-horses (four negroes painted with red streaks across their faces and naked from the waist upwards) with Amphitrite seated by his side and one or two boys dressed very queerly but whether they were to represent male or female gods was very doubtful, accompanied by Tritons and Constables with long spears and oakum beards. The barbers too performed their part in the strange procession flourishing their razors made of hoop-iron a foot or two in length. Father Neptune was personified by Kemp an old broken down boatswain now a quarter-gunner, and when he arrived on the quarterdeck he made, thro’ his speaking trumpet a very complimentary speech to the Captain and Old Ironsides with permission to initiate those of his children who had never before crossed the line. After a good deal of mummery of that sort, and some private cursing of Neptune sotto voce to his black sea-horses when they came near capsizing his Majesty in turning. The whole party took a glass of grog and returned to the Forecastle. Then was a platform raised and the starboard gangway occupied by a large tarpaulin triced up so as to hold water. The hose of the forcing pump was led into it, and the Carpenters [Henry G. Thomas] set to pumping. A band of oakum bearded constables came aft with the list of names and first pounced upon the Lieutenant of Marines [Joseph W. Curtis] who walked off with them most manfully.
Soon he was seen strip[p]ed of his coat, seated on the platform with his back to the tarpaulin reservoir of water, with the grotesque barbers flourishing in the air their huge razors and lather-brushes: many of them wore masks of canvas with painted faces producing a hideous effect; and there sat old Neptune in state, with his white flowing beard, red-robed, paper crown, and in place of his trident, a dolphin on a staff. Screams of laughter echoed from everybody as they proceeded with different individuals, excusing none but the females [passengers], the sick, and Mr. [Henry A.] Wise [our new Minister to Brazil], who got off by making a stump speech (from the Jacob’s ladder over the stern!) in which he claimed, as an Ambassador, privilege of free transit thro’ neutral territories agreeable to the laws of Nations, offering at the same time to substitute all his children, His Secretary and his servants for the ordeal, adding some spirited promises [whiskey] which probably was the most favorable argument he could have used.
“Fast as the neophytes were lathered with soap suds and coal-dust, shaved by these rough barbers with their rasping razors, with edges like sand, they were cap[s]ized over backwards into the water where they were received by four Tritons – the biggest, blackest, half-naked, woolyheaded Tritons – who soused them under, washed them over, and held them for the engine hose to play on, till they made their escape, half dead and half drowned by such rude handling.
“Many were refractory and ran aloft where they were caught by the manhunting constables and lowered down by a bowline, only to get rougher treatment than the others.
No place was sacred, for a party came down to the Purser’s room where he [Thomas M. Taylor] was engaged writing: he was obliged to put by his ledgers and go through the ordeal. The reefers [midshipmen: student officers] were shaved and soused in the most unconscionable manner. One of Mr. Wise’s boys was very refractory, but a drummer-boy taking him by the head and shoulders, while another boy, both rigged out like imps, took him by the heels, and lugged him up to the dreaded platform. The spirit of fun was now rife. Shouts of laughter resounded from all parts of the ship. Little bye plays were going on, very ludicrous in themselves and especially on an occasion where every-body was disposed to laugh. “After two hours frolic the boatswain [Robert Simpson] piped belay. However it closed by a scene not soon forgotten. The Capt. among other had mounted upon the boats amidships to see the fun, when some of the midshipmen got hold of the hose, pointing at some particular person: in the melee which occurred our veteran Captain received a full charge from the force pump and there was such a scramble to get off the boats that some came off coatless or tail-less, and all looking like drowned rats. The Capt. laughed as heartily as any of them, with his yellow nankens [sic: nankeen breeches] clinging close to his legs, and the grey-head drenched with water.”
In today’s Navy, while crossing the Equator is still the ceremony of this type, similar high jinks may attend the attainment of the North or South Pole, or crossing the Arctic Circle, the Antarctic Circle, or the International Date Line. Indeed, in crossing the Equator and the International Date Line at the same point, one becomes that sailor extraordinaire, the Golden Shellback!
Bell, Frederick J. Room To Swing A Cat. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1938.
Howell, Lieutenant Commander Glen F., U. S. Navy. “Neptunus Rex.” U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 1926.
Le Guin, Charles A. “Sea Life in Seventeenth-Century England.” The American Neptune, April 1967.
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM