Crossing the equator

On sea voyages, the crossing of the equator is traditionally marked by a ceremony known as ‘crossing the line’. The ceremony is thought to have its origins in a Viking ritual carried out when crossing the 30th parallel. By the seventeenth century the tradition was established in the British and other navies of the world and had spread to include merchant and passenger fleets.

The traditional crossing-the-line ceremony was an initiation rite for new sailors: by the time they reached the equator they had proved themselves capable of enduring long and difficult sea voyages. All crew members had to take part, regardless of their rank or age. Sailors who had not crossed the equator were nicknamed (Slimy) Pollywogs: those who had were (Trusty) Shellbacks.

The event could last for almost two days, but the main ceremony involved a visit from the god of the sea, King Neptune, his wife, Her Royal Highness, Amphitrite, and their loyal assistant, Davey Jones. For some unknown reason Amphitrite used her Greek name rather than the Roman equivalent, Salacia. Neptune began by addressing the captain and crew and calling forth the inductees. In turn, inductees, or Pollywogs, had to sit in a chair above a pool in which ‘angry bears’ waited. The Pollywogs were then subjected to a ‘medical’ examination, shaved with wooden razors and dropped into the pool where the bears dunked them until they deemed them duly inducted into the kingdom of the deep. Each inductee received a certificate that recognised his new status as a Shellback. Doubtless there were variations on this model.

Crossing-the-line ceremonies in the nineteenth century were not always as benign as this. They could be brutal affairs, with Pollywogs being beaten with planks and wet ropes, or even being towed astern in the surf of a speeding ship. There are several reports of sailors dying during these ceremonies.

Passengers on migrant ships in the nineteenth century did not escape attention during these ceremonies and were sometimes drenched in sea water. Early in his career devout Christian, Captain Morgan of the Duke of York, had witnessed the cruel results of ceremonies that had got out of hand. This hardened his resolve and explains why he stopped crew members who planned to carry out ‘the old heathen practice of shaveing’ the The area of between-decks occupied by steerage passengers, that is, those travelling at the cheapest rate. steerage passengers. Some captains banned the ceremony altogether.

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