Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Crossing the Line

Often on this webpage I address assumptions about the past that are imposed by later generations. Sewing a corpse through the nose, wearing canvas hats, nearly all sailors' superstitions, sea shanties, hair plated into a long pigtail, a liquid diet that is exclusively rum, and the arbitrary line between naval and merchant seamen are just some of the myths rampant in popular and even academic history. Outlander, John Adams, Turn, the Assassin's Creed series, and other forms of popular fiction perpetuate these ideas, all of which are derived from the nineteenth century. Any of these assumptions would be appropriate for 1850, but none would be correct for 1780.

Every now and then, I do come across something that is exactly as we picture it in history and fiction. Such is the case with the infamous crossing the line ceremony.

According to Rob Doane, curator of the United States Naval War College Museum, "the first documented instances [of the ceremony] can be found in the accounts of French sailors from the early sixteenth century." By my period of study, it was a well worn tradition. It was so well known that John Nicol refused to write much about it: ' I will not describe the ceremony to fatigue the reader, as it has been often described by others.'[1]

Then and today, when sailors first pass over the Equator they are subjected to a ducking. The severity of the ducking varied greatly, and was the most cause for distress. Joseph Banks, on the famous 1768 exploratory voyage of Captain Cook's Endeavour, kept a journal in which he related the ceremony for October 25:
A block was made fast to the end of the Main Yard and a long line reved through it, to which three Cross peices of wood were fastned, one of which was put between the leggs of the man who was to be duckd and to this he was tyed very fast, another was for him to hold in his hands and the third was over his head least the rope should be hoisted too near the block and by that means the man be hurt. When he was fasned upon this machine the Boatswain gave the command by his whistle and the man was hoisted up as high as the cross piece over his head would allow, when another signal was made and immediately the rope was let go and his own weight carried him down, he was then immediately hoisted up again and three times served in this manner which was every mans allowance.
Throughout the history of the ceremony there has been criticism that the event has gone too far. Sailors have been drowned, assaulted, and abused during the crossing the line. This certainly appears to have been the case in the eighteenth century as well. Banks found it 'sufficiently see the different faces that were made on this occasion, some grinning and exulting in their hardiness whilst others were almost suffocated and came up ready enough to have compounded after the first or second duck, had such proceeding been allowable.'[2] Samuel Kelly, later recalling his first voyage in 1778 'saw the captain's steward ducked from the main yard-arm, three times, while the ship was running six or seven miles an hour...but it was an unwarranted proceeding, and attended with great danger, as the ship was rolling very much.' Kelly himself was subjected to a form of waterboarding: 'my eyes were closed with a wet cloth or stocking bound round my head; I was then conducted and placed on the edge of a large tub of water, but escaped with a little wetting on the captain's interference.'[3]

There were a few ways to avoid the ducking.[4] The first was to pay your way out. In the case of Kelly's 1778 ceremony, the cost was half a crown, though he didn't get the chance to present his fee before they ducked him. Banks recorded the cost on the 1768 voyage as significantly higher: '4 days allowance of wine...and as for the boys they are always duckd of course.' The other avenue of escape was rank. Banks described others that escaped by their inclusion on a 'black list' including the captain, ship's doctor, 'my self my servants and doggs.' Whether or not other dogs and cats escaped he leaves unsaid, though does make a point that the pets' names were recorded and examined to determine if they had crossed the line on previous voyages.[5]

Some men seemed to enjoy the ceremony in spite of or (at least in the case of Banks) because of the near drowning. Nicol declared the ceremony he witnessed in 1789 aboard the Lady Julian 'the best sport I ever witnessed.'[6] Kelly expressed no such enjoyment.

Part of the fun was derived from the appearance of the god of the sea. It was noteworthy enough for Julius Caesar Ibbetson to illustrate during his 1788 voyage on the frigate Vestal.

Crossing the Line Ceremony on Board the Ship, 'Vestal,' Julius Caesar Ibbetson, c.1788, Yale Center for British Art.
Nicol was particularly impressed with the apparently convincing costume the crew of the convict ship Lady Julian prepared:
We had caught a porpoise the day before the ceremony which we skinned to make a dress for Neptune with the tail stuffed. When he came on deck he looked the best representation of a merman I ever saw, painted, with a large swab upon his head for a wig. Not a man in the ship could have known him. One of the convicts fainted, she was so much alarmed at his appearance, and had a miscarriage after. Neptune made the boys confess their amours to him, and I was really astonished at the number.[7]
Usually the absurdity of Neptune was of more importance than a convincing costume. Kelly recalled 'two seamen, representing Neptune and an attendant, disgifured with blacking, flour, and an odd kind of dress.'[8]

[1] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 127.
[2] Banks, Sir Joseph, The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks, via Gutenberg Australia, accessed October 16, 2019, <>.
[3] Kelly, Samuel, Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil, edited by Crosbie Garstin, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925, pages 21-22.
[4] Ibid., 21.
[5] Banks
[6] Nicol, 127.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Kelly, 22.

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