Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Crossing the Line: Eyewitness Accounts

Eyewitness Accounts


Earliest Eyewitness Account by an English Sailor, 1708: Woodes Rogers, an English Privateer and later the Governor of the Bahamas.

Sept. 25. This day, according to cuftom, we duck'd thofe that had never pafs'd the Tropick before. The manner of doing it was by a Rope thro a block from the Main-Yard, to hoift `em above half way up to the Yard, and let `em fall at once into the Water; havin ga Stick crofs thro their Legs, and well faftened to the Rope, that they might not be furpriz'd and let go their hold. This prov'd of great ufe to our frefh-water Sailors, to recover the Colour of their Skins, which were grown very black and nafty. Thofe that we duck'd after this manner three times, were about 60, and others that would not undergo it, chofe to pay half a Crown Fine; the Money to be levy'd and fpent at a publick Meeting of all the Ships Companys, when we return to England. The Dutch Men, and some English Men, defir'd to be duck'd, fome fix, others eight, ten, or twelve times, to have the better Title for being treated when they come home.

Source: Rogers, Woodes. A Cruising Voyage Round the World: First to South-Sea, Thence to the East-Indies, and Homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. Begun in 1708, and Finish'd in 1711... (London: Printed for Andrew Bell, and Bernard Lintot, 1718): 23-24. 

CAPT David Porter, USN, on United States frigate Essex, 23 Nov. 1812.

On the 23d, we were honoured by a visit from the god of the ocean, accompanied by Amphitrite and a numerous retinue of imps, barbers, &c. &c. in his usual style of visiting, and in the course of the afternoon all the novices of the ship's company were initiated into his mysteries. Neptune, however, and most of his suite, paid their devotions so frequently to Bacchus, that before the ceremony of christening was half gone through, their godships were unable to stand; the business was therefore entrusted to the subordinate agents, who performed both the shaving and washing with as little regard to tenderness as his majesty would have done. On the whole, however, they got through the business with less disorder and more good humour than I expected; and although some were most unmercifully scraped, the only satisfaction sought was that of shaving others in their turn with new invented tortures.

Source: Porter, David. Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean, by Captain David Porter, in the United States Frigate Essex, in the Years 1812, 1813, and 1814. Containing Descriptions of the Cape de Verde Islands, Coasts of Brazil, Patagonia, Chili, and Peru, and of the Gallapagos Islands... (Philadelphis: Bradford and Inskeep, 1815): 15. 

Midshipman William W. Feltus, USN, on United States frigate Essex, 23 Nov. 1812.

When the ship was supposed to be about on the line the man at the mast head was directed to cry Sail OI & being asked by the officer of the deck where away & what she looked like he answered, a small boat on the Lee bow, then the officer of the deck hailed and asked what boat that was, he answered that it was Neptunes the god of the seas, & that he wished permission to come on board with his train. as soon as it was granted one of the B Mates with some others being in the fore chains, came over the Bows and mounted their carriage (made of some boards lashed together on an old gun carriage having two chairs lashed there on for Neptune & his wife) this carriage was drawn by 4 men some with their shirts off & their Bodies painted & others with their trowsers cut off above the knees & their legs painted & their faces painted in this manner accompanied by his Barbers with their razors made of an Iron hoop & constables & Band of music they marched on the quarter deck where he dismounted with his wife and spoke to the Captain for permission to shave such as had not crossed the line before officers excepted, provided they would pay with some rum, this was granted. they immeadiately got into one of the boats filled with water with all his barbers (those that had not been across the line before were ordered below) and 1 was brought up at a time.

Source: Duley, William F. and Michael J. Crawford eds. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. Vol.1, 1812. (Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1985): 625-26. 

Richard Henry Dana Jr. on American merchant brig Pilgrim, 1 Oct. 1834.

Wednesday, October Ist. Crossed the equator in lon. 24 24' W. I now, for the first time, felt at liberty, according to the old usage, to call myself a son of Neptune, and was very glad to be able to claim the title without the disagreeable initiation which so many have to go through. After once crossing the line, you can never be subjected to the process, but are considered as a son of Neptune, with full powers to play tricks upon others. This ancient custom is now seldom allowed, unless there are passengers on board, in which case there is always a good deal of sport.

Source: Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. vol.1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911): 22-23. 

Chaplain Walter Colton, USN, on United States frigate Congress, 10 Dec. 1845.

Wednesday, Dec. 10. This morning, with our royals set to a steady southeaster, we dashed along the equator at longitude thirty. That great circle, cutting the continents, mountains, oceans, and islands of the globe asunder, now threw its steep plane between us and the thousand objects to which memory clings with affection and pride. The sunset clouds on which we had gazed, the towering crags where morn first broke, and the brilliant constellations which faith had peopled with the spirits of the pure and meek, all went down in dying pomp over the dim horizon. What now to us Niagara's thunder, or the rush of the Alpine avalanche! Even the polar star, that has poured its steady light for ages on the ruins of pyramids, the wrecks of temples, and the graves of empires, has left its watch-tower in darkness,--all are lost in the shoreless ocean of night.

Old Neptune formerly saluted every ship that crossed the line. He appeared in the shape of some tall sturdy tar, in ox-hide mail, with a long beard of yarn falling far below his chin, and locks of the same flowing in drenched ringlets down his shoulders. His trident was a huge harpoon, his pipe the coiled hose of the fire-engine; thus accoutred, he hailed the ship over her bows, and mounting a gun-carriage, was drawn aft to the quarter-deck. Her he summoned the green horns to his presence, and after lathering them from a tub of grease and tar, shaved them with a ship's scraper. Having thus introduced the novice into his service, he returned in triumph to his watery realm. This ceremony was found such an infraction of discipline, that it has been discontinued on board our national ships. Our sailors were allowed to splice the main-brace as a substitute.

Source: Colton, Walter. Deck and Port: Or, Incidents of a Cruise in the United States Frigate Congress to California, With Sketches of Rio Janeiro, Valparaiso, Lima, Honolulu, and San Francisco. (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co.; Cincinnati: H.W. Derby & Co., 1850): 72-73.

George R. Willis, a Sailor on U.S. Frigate Colorado, 11 May 1870.

We were now making nearly a direct course toward the Equator, and must soon pass through waters famed from time immemorial as the cruising grounds of Neptune, Sovereign of the Seas-- the grandest monarch that reigns in fact or fable. In the days of the old Navy no Yankee ships passed the Line unchallenged, and Neptune's visit was looked forward to with pleasure and anticipation; involving, as it did, a general "splicing of the main-brace." But in these hard, matter-of-fact-times, the old King having been, on one or two occasions, denied tribute, rarely visits an American man-of-war, and many were, therefore, agreeably surprised when he boarded the Frigate in all his regal glory.

As we neared the Equator our Captain was heard to remark that he should consider it rather scaly in old Neptune if he allowed the ship to pass without paying us, at least a flying visit. On hearing this hint some of the "old heads" set to work, devising ways and means to promote his advent; and the necessary costumes and fixtures were improvised on a grand scale, and with remarkable secrecy. 

On the afternoon of May 13th, while all hands were assembling on the quarter-deck, listening to the periodical reading of the Articles of War, the proceedings were suddenly interrupted by the sounding of a gong under the fore-foot, followed by a loud hail off the weather bow:

"Ship ahoy!"

"Hallo!" answered the officer of the deck.

"What ship is this?" demanded an uncouth marine monster, now appearing on the head rails.

"United States frigate Colorado."

"King Neptune lies ten fathoms under your keel, and demands that you heave to, and receive him with due courtesy; otherwise he will butt out one of your planks with his royal head!"

This imperative demand, backed by such a terrible threat, was reported to Captain Cooper, who, rather than allow the historic career of the Colorado to be brought to a sudden and awful termination, ordered the engines to be stopped, and asked the Admiral for instructions.

The old hero of the South Atlantic squadron, who would have answered any threat coming from a mortal foe with a broadside of our guns, doubtless detected in the mandate, couched as it was in the tones of arrogance, that dry vein of humor peculiar to a Sovereign, who, however fractious and changeable in his moods toward others, had dealt kindly with him through a long and checkered career; therefore, he ordered that "His Majesty be received with honors due his exalted rank."

On this, a signal from "Prince Porpoise" brought to view as motley a group as ever the sea vomited forth.

Clad in the gaudy and fantastic trappings of a Submarine Court, through the bridle and gun ports, over the head rails and hammock nettings, up the martingale stays and over the cat-heads, they wriggled, rolled or crawled; sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs, finally in a body, until the Frigate's forecastle was graced by the presence of a group of finny monsters, the like of which, it is safe to say, was never before vouchsafed to mortal eyes. Species of which Agassiz never dreamed, were represented, shorn of their surplus fins and mounted on legs to meet the exigencies of the occasion.

The Shark stood in the foreground, and was observed to cast longing glances on the fattest of the ship's company; no doubt, mentally cursing the restraints of a Court, which withheld him from satisfying his appetite on the spot. Near him was the Devil Fish, who, by a strange rolling of his saucer-like eyes, caused the most hardened old sinners on board to tremble in their boots. Following in his wake came the Sword Fish and "Prince of Whales," the latter brandishing in his dexter fin a huge razor, to which, in the minds of the younger portion of the crew, was attached a terrible significance.

In the midst of this strange group rolled the Car of Neptune, surmounted by a circular throne, and profusely ornamented with barnacles and sea-weed. It was rich in trappings, and bore many strange devices and mottoes. Near the throne was suspended a Chair of State grazed by the form of Amazonia, a blonde mermaid of surpassing beauty, who--since the divorce of Old Amphitrite- -figures as the bride of Neptune. The Royal seat was vacant, but Amazonia calmed our fears by explaining that Old Nep--who was suffering from the effects of a bottle of "Jersey Lightning, lately received as tribute from a Yankee schooner"--would soon be here. She had hardly ceased ere a deep growl was heard near the water's edge, and soon from beneath the fore-chains rose the only monarch to whom an American sailor will bow.

His Oceanic Majesty was evidently in a bad humor; and the effect of his late carousal was painfully visible in his person, the dignity of his bearing being somewhat marred by soiled robes and a bent crown. He had no sooner struck the deck than he commenced swearing in a manner that would put to blush the wickedest old quarter-gunner afloat. Among the old stagers, this was looked upon as a matter of course, for, as Jack Tail-block remarked, "he allers comes aboard roarin' like a typhoon and--if grog's aplenty--goes away smilin' like a sun-fish." 

Turning to the Executive Officer, Neptune demanded the nationality of the ship.

"She belongs to the United States."

"What?" he roared, "an American ship with stump mast-heads, French davits on her quarters, and a Bremen flag at the mizzen? I'll not believe it! Her name?"

"The Colorado--and that, which you mistake for the Bremen ensign, is the Broad Flag of Rear-Admiral John Rodgers, Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Fleet."

"John Rodgers?" cried the King, "John Rodgers, the hero of Warsaw Sound? By Jove! I would have gone ten degrees to the north of the Equator to meet him. It has been many years since I set these old eyes on him; and I began to fear that he was swamped in the Sea of Politics. Heave ahead, my fine officer; I would fain exchange greetings with your Commander."

The whole cortege then moved to the quarter-deck, where Neptune ordered a halt and demanded the name of the Captain.

"Captain Cooper."

"Cooper?" queried the King, rubbing his eyes and glancing at the Captain-- "ah, I remember him well; Cooper is a brave name; a Cooper will surely keep the ship `bung up, and bilge free.'"

At this point the Royal Car was met by the Commanding Officer, whose reception of the King was courtly and dignified. Bowing to the throne he delivered in an easy and impressive manner the following Address of Welcome:

"Most Generous Sovereign:--It is with feelings of joy and veneration that I tender you the freedom of this magnificent ship. Years, teeming with great events, have elapsed since I last enjoyed the honor of a visit from Your Majesty; but though the lapse of time may have silvered my hair, it has not shaken my allegiance. I mourn with you the loss of those tapering poles which in days of yore imparted to a Yankee man-of-war such a rakish and jaunty appearance, and grieve to say they have been `snubbed short' by a late edict of the Navy Department. Regarding the French davits, I am not responsible for their adoption; and I assure your Majesty that, with the general use of Manila ropes and patent davits, it's getting devilish hard to lower a boat at sea. As regards being `bung up,' I'm only sorry that I cannot treat yourself and suite to a glass of good old-fashioned grog from the bungs of some of our casks; but as Congress though proper, many years ago, to abolish the spirit ration, I will give vent to my feelings by commending to your kindly notice the gallant crew whom I have the honor to command. And now, as I presume you wish to exact tribute from those who are, for the first time, trespassing on your domains, allow me to transfer to Your Majesty the entire command of the Colorado."

To which, rising in the throne, Neptune replied as follows: "Noble Captain, I accept your homage with that respect and confidence which is never withheld from a loyal subject. Tis indeed true that the hand of time has produced a change in your once familiar figure-head, but I, to whom time and space are as nothing, having kept a rough log of your earthly voyage, know that much of the wear and tear of your hull is the result of hard and faithful service in the interests of my lovely daughter Columbia." At this stage one of the Admiral's servants appeared, bearing a tray of glasses, flanked by a couple of decanters of choice wine, the sight of which not only completely upset "Old Nep's" dignity, but created a great commotion among his scaly satellites; even the gentle Amazonia betraying a surprising appetite for stimulants. After pledging the Admiral in an appropriate toast, Neptune resumed: "I come, Captain, as you have rightly conjectured, to claim just tribute from all who are known in my books as fresh fish; but, as Columbia's sons are prone to resist the demands, and dispute the authority of anything that wears a crown, it is fitting that my warrant for so doing should be made public. Slave, produce, and read the document!"

Porpoise drew forth a time-worn parchment, covered with strange and uncouth hieroglyphics, which he proceeded to render in a tongue, of course, unintelligible to mortals; taking care, however, to supplement the reading with the information that it was "dead low tide in the Royal wine cellar," and with this delicate hint as to the kind of tribute expected from the officers of the Colorado, the formality of the visit was declared ended, and the Prince produced the "Book of Fate," and began reading a list of victims. Printed papers of exemption were given to the senior line officers, the remainder being subjected to a merciless fire of cross questions by the King and Prince Porpoise, and, in the cud, heavily assessed. Nothing could exceed their good nature, and they submitted with such grace and paid tribute so promptly, that Neptune was delighted, and swore by his old boots that he had half a mind to take a few of them below to improve the etiquette of his Court.

Having thus vindicated his majesty on the quarter-deck, the old monarch now gave his attention to the crew, ordering the Prince of Whales to rig the "Royal barber shop" forthwith. With the assistance of the main-topmen, a large canvas awning was inverted and filled with water by the steam pumps, and, a rude chair being improvised, the scene from this time beggars description. Landsmen, bandsmen, and marines joined in an indiscriminate rush to the hatches, only to find all retreat in that direction cut off by armed sentries, posted on every ladder! Then to the shrouds, where they found the upper ratlines occupied by veterans, who on a signal from Neptune captured and delivered them by scores to the scaly embraces of his satellites. The Court Barber performed his duties with a rapidity truly astonishing. Each victim was lathered, shaved, shampooed, hair, whiskers and face dyed in the twinkling of an eye. Some submitted meekly; some expostulated wildly, and some fought courageously, but all were treated barber-ously! From the chair, each was rolled backward into the "bath," to be grasped by a dozen strong fins, rubbed, scrubbed, and held under water until a wave of the trident proclaimed him an adopted son of Neptune. 

The shades of night were fast closing on this strange scene, when the watchful Pilot Fish reported a strange sail in sight "twenty leagues to north'ard!" On hearing this, Neptune ordered the festivities to close; and, mounting his car, bestowed a parting benediction on the officers and crew of the Colorado, promising us fair weather and a smooth sea for days to come. 

Then arose a great cheer from the crew, and amid the roar of six hundred voices, the Sovereign of All the Seas vanished into the night as mysteriously as he came. His visit was remembered for many a day, the old sailors agreeing that they had never seen the grand fable so aptly illustrated. 

Source: Willis, George R. The Story of Our Cruise in the U.S. Frigate "Colorado," Flagship of the Asiatic Fleet - 1870-'71-'72 (Yokohama, Japan?: 1873?): 24-32.


22 November 1999

Published: Wed Sep 27 13:25:30 EDT 2017