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Crossing-the-Line, in no other way is naval tradition seen more visibly than in the "Crossing the Line" ceremony held on board ships as they cross the equator. For two-thirds of the crews of the Great White Fleet, this would be their first time and would require initiation into the Realm of Neptune. As they approached the equator each ship prepared for King Neptune and his Court to arrive on board and initiate his new "shellbacks."
Initiating a novice into the mysteries of father neptune
At right is a "centerfold" from Harper's Weekly, August 21, 1875.
It is a right of passage for every sailor that goes to sea. An initiation to a sacred fellowship that says you have crossed over into a new belonging and group of others that have gone before you. It tests you to prove you are worthy to your peers and questions whether you are willing to bond to others in an experience that will humble you.
"To get right down to business, let it be said at once that it was a spectacle worth travelling tens of thousands of miles to see. It was the most elaborate, painstaking, well planned, rip snorting initiation of the kind every produced. For it be known that Neptune does not recognize as a thirty-third degree member of his domain anyone who has not crossed the line on a warship." With the Battle Fleet - Franklyn Matthews
The caption from the above illustration: "CROSSING THE LINE" "All over the world sailors have a reputation for being a merry, jovial, and light-hearted race of men. The jolly jack tar, with his brimless cap, blue shirt, and pantaloons shaped in direct opposition to the contour of his legs, suggests the idea of fun and good nature wherever he appears. His songs and his dances, his thrilling yarns told with so much spirit and punctuated with tobacco juice, make him a most entertaining companion. His fondness for grog renders him sociable, and his inexhaustible good nature insures him a welcome ever where. Poets tell us "there lives an inspiration in ocean life for every person, whether bond or free." To Jacky the inspiration is all toward fun, mischief, and merry-making, and he is at once the happiest,jolliest, and merriest of God's creatures, living one day at a time, and enjoying it most heartily, with a spirit that involves all the true principles of philosophy. Among no other class of men can the same contentment with the things of to-day, and confidence in what may be coming to-morrow, be found. Away from home and friends, cooped up for months upon a narrow vessel, surrounded by a waste of waters, and hourly in danger, he is happy and jolly, indifferent to privation, and easily amused as a child. What Jacky can do for himself in the way of entertainment during a voyage that involves the crossing of the line of the equator is shown by our double page engraving."
"Like the Masonic orders, which only admit a member into fellowship through a ceremony of initiation in which the victim usually suffers more from his own imagination than from the hands of his comrades, Jacky also has an elaborate ceremonial, by means of which alone the greenhorn can assume the rights and privileges of a full-fledged sailor. The unhappy novice who has perhaps trusted himself upon the treacherous blue waters for the first time, and who nears the equator in blissful ignorance of what his comrades are preparing for him, probably wishes himself safe at home again on dry land a great many times before the ceremonies are concluded. Further, Neptune is officiating high priest, and presides over the celebration of the rites himself. He is usually the oldest sailor among the crew, whose experience fits him for the office. His costume is not very elaborate, owing to the limited resources of shipboard, but he is provided with a trident, and wears a pointed crown, from which the sea-weed hangs in long festoons. On the day on which the ship crosses the line the officers for once relax all discipline, and give the men full liberty to play their ridiculous pranks, while they watch the maneuvers with great amusement from a different part of the ship."
"The "pollywog" is brought in front where the venerable sea-god is sitting. His eyes are bandaged tightly, and he is then subjected to a severe cross-questioning about his age, his home, his former occupation, and closely examined as regards his knowledge of all things appertaining to a ship, and the duties of a seaman aboard of her. If he resents this catechism, or his answers are not satisfactory to the audience about him, old Father Neptune prods him occasionally with the points of his trident, by way of reminding him how useless it is to refuse to answer the interrogation of a god, and the nature of the punishment that lies ready for him in case he is contumacious."
"The next feature of the ceremony is the shaving of the victim. A thick lather is prepared, which contains among other ingredients, whatever they may be, one that is intended to irritate the skin. This is a trying moment for the unfortunate novice. In the picture we see the barbers, who have their bucket and brush all ready, and seem to be in the act of lathering the poor victim. One man is holding a ragged piece of bone, which will probably be the instrument used for the shaving. Sometimes a handsaw is used, at others a lath, and sometimes the sailors push their barbarous fun so far as to use pieces of glass, but this seldom occurs, as their object is only to frighten the poor fellow they have so completely in their power, and not to injure him in any way. In the right of the picture we have an elaborately attired Irishman, with a bottle marked "Lotion" in his hand. He probably represents the physician, though his medicine is most likely that which Jacky prefers to any other, and the only one he is likely to consent to take on such a festive occasion - grog."
The photograph at left is King Neptune aboard the USS Georgia accompanied by a lovely maiden.
"Another interesting part of the ceremonies is going on just at the foot of the ship's mast. A large piece of sail-cloth is taken and fastened so that it may be made to hold a quantity of water, something like a tank. Into this the unfortunate novices are thrown after their catechism is finished and the shaving process concluded to the satisfaction of old Neptune. As they are blind folded, their impression is that they have been flung into the sea, until they struggle about, and the narrowness of their quarters undeceives them. Through such uncomfortable experiences as these they are initiated into the mysteries of the sea. Yet Jacky's life is a hard one, and it is wonderful that amidst so much of toil and hardship and privation he should preserve the lightness of heart and spirit necessary in order to play such pranks as these. Few can realize who have not looked over the statistics how many vessels are lost at sea and the number of human lives that perish with them. It is said that the average number of English vessels wrecked during a single year is between three and four thousand."
The Georgia crew put some time and effort in preparing for the equator crossing. In my collection I have multiple sources of photographs and documents describing the celebration. Brown & Shaffer, the photographers were on the Georgia and Milton Willard wrote home to his family regarding the events. Midshipman Child brought back photographs, but he probably had a choice on whether he participated or watched.
The certificate at right bears testament that on January 4th, 1908 at Latitude 0'00,00 and Longitude 38'00,00 appeared before Neptunus Rex and found worthy to become "one of our trusty shellbacks" was one Forest E. Frost, Shipwright.
In addition to the large certificate, sailors sometimes received a wallet-sized card that they could keep with them to show in a heated moment of disagreement regarding there fortitude, bravery, and belonging, that they were indeed a "shellback."
The card at left if from the M. R. Battey collection for his crossing on the USS Missouri on this site.
These two documents were "standard issue" for all of the ships that crossed the line heading south on this voyage. I have not found any that deviate from these two selection. In many cases this certificate was brought home, framed, and displayed life-long as a remembrance to their cruise around the world. More that have of the certificates that I have found are still in the original frames from 100 years ago.
The Missouri initiation looks to have been one for the records. The two postcards below show moments from the events of January 5th, 1908.
On the 5th Day of January, 1908 Ordinary Seaman W. O. Bitting, USS Missouri did not give in the the events of initiation into the Order of the Deep.
uss new jersey
The New Jersey certainly had a fun time! The photographs below are from the Richard Wesley Konter collection on this site, an First Class Electrician. The certificate, in it's original frame, was presented to Barry Vincent Dugan, a Boiler Maker. The New Jersey crossed the line on January 5th, 1908.
The Kansas photographs that I have are from the collection of E. L. Demoss who was a 3rd Class Electrician. From the photographs it looks like they decided to have a "toga" party instead of crossing the line!
The certificate above was presented to Charles Edward Burger, Chief Machinist Mate, USS Illinois, for his survival of the 5th of January 1908.
This certificate is part of the items in the Frank Lesher collection on this site. The certificate is in the original frame.
A certificate for Hospital Corpsman First Class B. H. Townsend of the USS Alabama.
uss west virginia - second leg certificate
This certificate was given to Charles Ellis, an Ordinary Seaman on the USS West Virginia, one of the supporting cruisers that shadowed the battleships during the second leg of the cruise. The certificate is different showing a fleet of warships and King Neptune rising up from the seas in a chariot with mermaids by his side. The date of crossing is September 16, 1908, one month before the fleet arrived in Yokohama. It looks like they crossed at a longitude of 166 degrees east of Papua New Guinea.
uss rhode island
This certificate was given to Frank C. Baran, Seaman, USS Rhode Island for crossing the line on January 5th, 1908. The certificate is in the original frame.
This certificate was given to V. G. Gallison, Second Class Master-at-Arms, USS Glacier for crossing the line on January 5th, 1908. The stores ship Glacier and Culoga accompanied the fleet on the cruise to re-supply units with food and materials. The certificate is in the original frame.