Crossing the Line: One of Maritime History's Oldest Traditions

By | May 22, 2019

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Line-crossing ceremony aboard Méduse on the first of July 1816. Source: (Wikipedia)

Imagine that you are in a cabin aboard a ship when one night you receive a summons from King Neptune to mark your first crossing of the equator. You are to appear before his court the next day. You are not only to be inducted into the mysterious rites of the sea, but you are to answer charges of seasickness, overstays of liberty, and other charges that you know are false. Curious, you come on deck in the morning and find yourself surrounded by Neptunus Rex and his court. Not only is the old sea god there, but Davy Jones and Amphitrite are in attendance, too.

You are not the only person who has been summoned. Every member aboard the ship who is a “polliwog” (sometimes spelled polywog or pollywog) and about to cross the equator for the first time is to be inducted and become a “shellback.” You are about to undergo the venerable line-crossing ceremony, one of Maritime history’s oldest traditions.

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The ceremony of Crossing The Line takes place on board the Cunard liner 'RMS Queen Elizabeth 2', as she crosses the equator, May 1982. Source: (Photo by JDHC Archive/Getty Images)

The earliest verified line crossing ceremony occurred in 1529 in a French vessel named the Parmentier on a voyage to Sumatra. But the ceremony is undoubtedly a far older tradition where seasoned mariners would call upon landlubbers to prove their worth at sea and to show that they can put up with boisterous shipboard humor. It is also possible that the ceremonies hark back to ancient practices where a sacrifice was made to a deity.

The first recorded ceremonies in the 1500s were religious. The rite aboard the Parmentier consisted of reciting prayers, eating a fish, and dropping silver coins into the ocean. By the end of the century, the ceremony had evolved into the familiar tradition of today which included a visit by Father Neptune who demanded a tithe in silver from the polliwogs. If the polliwog did not pay, then he would be shaved and drenched with water (either by bucket or a dip into the sea). A feast and celebration followed.