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Crossing the line

The shipboard crossing of the Equator ceremony was often viewed as dangerous and mysterious, says Simon J Bronner in Crossing the Line: Violence, Play, and Drama in Naval Equator Traditions. As Mark Peters and his brothers found, the ceremony not only enacted “penetration into a new mythological zone,” but involved flogging and ducking.

An officer in white shorts and naval cap grips the horizontal pole between his knees and slides his hands up and down the shaft to make it good and greasy.

This ribaldry marks the beginning of the crossing the equator ceremony my father captured on Super 8 cine film in 1960. After three years in Africa we had sailed out on a Union-Castle ship and were bound for Europe. My brother and I were two and three so we weren't part of the crossing the equator ceremony.

Not this time.

The cine film footage shows pairs of men in baggy swim trunks, and women in frocked swimsuits and floral caps taking turns to straddle the pole laid across the ducking pool as they flail pillows at each other's heads. The pillows aren't the feather-filled clouds of movie dorm room japes. They are English boarding school coshes, a pound of misery and Borstal damp. The joust is fast and furious and the vanquished are likely unconscious when they hit the water. Jolly tars are on hand to yank them on to the baking deck.

The footage cuts to the crossing the equator ceremony's egg and spoon race for kids, also held in the pool. The kids hold their spoons aloft as they slop up and down in the cube of surging salt water. Waves in the pool roll back and forth so a swimmer might fight a backwash one second then in the next is lurched into space on the crest of a roller, sucked back then escalated up the face of a mini tsunami to be propelled into the wall while a parent reaches to delicately remove the spoon and egg from the child's fingers.

But this is all preamble to the main event. Officers accompany King Neptune in his seaweed skirt, crown and sunglasses as he carries a trident and umbrella to his pool-side bench. Under the equatorial sun the deck is blazing hot. Barefooted prisoners with nooses around their necks hop as three shellbacks tow them to the dock.

Historically, the shellback was the name given to a shipmate who had previously endured the crossing the equator rite.

“In narrative terms, they are viewed as brothers who have crossed over into villainy,” says Simon J Bronner in Crossing the Line: Violence, Play, and Drama in Naval Equator Traditions. “They are loathed, but at the same time admired for their daring and freedom from ethical restraint.”

In the trio of shellbacks in the home movie is a shipmate in a white skullcap and white face. He has scarlet holes for mouth and eyes and wears a bloodied surgeon's gown. The doctor is joined by a policeman in a British bobby's helmet with the words Dixon of Dock Green (from the TV cop series of the time) written on the back of his straitjacket. The third villain is a white-faced, scarlet-eyed pirate in a bandanna.

Standing next to Neptune is another whiteface but in a red bathrobe and pork-pie hat who reads from a scroll the charges against the prisoners. Behind them, a man in a grass skirt and bikini-top — Amphitrite, Poseidon's wife, in an odd conjunction of Roman and Greek deities — sits in a deckchair.

When King Neptune casually pushes an unprepared prisoner into the pool it's clear the event will be no more than a show trial, and even an All Fools' Day opportunity for the young crewmen who have taken the part of scoundrels. They might have spent their childhood in the shadow of World War 2 but freed from Europe, muscled up, all at sea, and possibly drunk, there is something recognisably modern, something Clockwork Orangey, in the lads' mischief. For the surgeon, pirate and policeman grab a struggling prisoner, wrestle her to an operating table and wind her in a sheet so she can't move. The scallies complete the mock sea-burial by unrolling the shroud and dumping the body into the pool.

The winding of an initiand in a sheet as if in preparation for burial at sea was likely a toned down version of what Bronner describes as a death sentence prepared by visits to the Royal Undertaker, “who forces pollywogs into coffins (sometimes closing the lid) and to the Royal Executioner who may stage a mock guillotining or hanging”.

Initiands were woefully coined pollywogs in the old days although the term apparently referred to a slimy tadpole.

Another prisoner is manhandled by an officer to the operating table where the surgeon slaps him with a brush dipped into a bucket of whitewash. The cine film shows the prisoner slapping handfuls of whitewash back at his assailants. A struggle ensues but it is futile and he too is dumped into the ducking pool.

Eight years later, sailing on the Southern Cross from New Zealand to England, my two younger brothers and I were subjected to the rite. By then it had been toned down a little on account of a recent accidental death during one ceremony.

In the 18th century and earlier, the line-crossing ceremony was often a brutal event. Initiands — “innocent, feminised young novices, because they have not crossed the line and belong to mother and the land” — were beaten with boards and wet ropes. Victims were sometimes thrown over the side of the ship and dragged through the surf from the stern. Other indignities included interrogation by King Neptune and his entourage, peltings with rotten fruit, confinement in a coffin of salt-water; crawling through rotting garbage, and kissing the Royal Baby's belly coated with vile gunk.

Sailing on the Endeavour, gentleman scientist Joseph Banks described in his journal on Tuesday, October 25, 1768, how around 21 crew who underwent the ceremony were one by one “tyed very fast” to a piece of timber, hoisted high and dropped into the sea three times each. According to Banks, some of those ducked were “grinning and exulting in their hardiness”, but others “were almost suffocated”.

One hundred years later, almost to the day, my own ship's journal entry for Tuesday, October 29, 1968, reads, “This afternoon King Neptune came aboard. We were accused of doing something bad. When it was my turn I was taken up to the stand and accused of running down a corridor naked, hiding behind a fig leaf.

“My punishment was 50 lashes of ice cream and then to be ducked.”

The ice cream whipping was probably a toned down version of a historical segment of the ritual in which the barber (with doctor standing by) used an oversized brush “made out of unraveled Manila rope yarn” to lather up the initiand. Once shaved - with a piece of roughened iron hoop, in Charles Darwin's experience aboard HMS Beagle in 1832 - the victim was pushed underwater by “bears” (sometimes mermaids) stationed in the ducking pool.

At the time of my initiation, I liked the idea of being painted with lashings of ice-cream but they cut straight to the lashing bit. The ice cream was peppermint flavoured, so the lathering was more of a mentholated flogging than tomfoolery, then they threw us in the water to cool down the stripes.

The ritual might have been toned down but the roughness was unexpected. Given the ritual's origins which we were ignorant of at the time, a spot of roughness was only to be expected. The initiation rite might have been a naval tradition that began as a morale booster, a test for new shipmates or hazing ritual. But the ribaldry, the knock-about hilarity, cruelty, spectacle, colour, odd characters like the drag queen, the baby, the king, doctor, pirate, policeman and exotic creatures are part of the British spirit that gave the world Punch and Judy, the Christmas panto, and punk rock.

“Other figures that accompany them in various accounts are Royal Executioner, Lawyer, Counsel, Herald, Policeman, Priest, Chaplain, Devil, Princess, Doctor, Undertaker, Electrocutionist, Pallbearer, Torturer, Cannibal, Skeleton, Hangman, Dentist, Taster, Clerk, and Scribe,” says Bronner.
“Surgeons may operate on the pollywogs with large or absurd implements to remove organs or genitalia.”

My brothers and I witnessed a similar operation when the bloody-smocked doctor pulled intestines – possibly a string of sausages, on reflection - from a victim's stomach and used a giant pair of scissors to sever them from the body.

I silently vowed never to run naked down a ship corridor again.

Reintegrated with the world after trial by seawater and lashings of ice cream, my brothers and I were among survivors presented with certificates.

Henceforth, we were “one of our trusty shellbacks... gathered to our fold and duly initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep.”

RITE OF PASSAGE: A carnival atmosphere prevails in the crossing the Equator ceremony aboard French navy frigate Méduse in 1816. The retinue of characters depicted in this etching include the doused initiand, King Neptune, his wife Amphitrite and the Royal Baby, and the Surgeon.
VILLAIN: A shipmate in a white skullcap and bloodied surgeon's gown is one of a trio of rogues involved in the crossing the equator ceremony filmed in 1960.
THIS WAY PLEASE: The surgeon, a pirate and a policeman in a British bobby's helmet invite a victim to some fresh humiliation as part of the crossing the line ceremony aboard a Union-Castle passenger ship in 1960.