Monday, September 14, 2009

History: Keeping Things Light Aboard

Things can get pretty monotonous on a long sea voyage, especially back when you had to rely on the wind to get you where you wanted to go. There was always work to do, of course, and storms and the enemy were foremost in the minds of sailors. Excitement didn't come around very often, though, and sailors formed some interesting traditions to keep their spirits up as they faced the vastness of the ocean, sometimes feeling like their little wooden world was the only thing around.

One of these strange but amusing rituals was a hazing of sorts. Those who had never crossed the equator were washed and shaved when their ship did so. It didn't matter which way you were going. North or south, crossing the equator meant you got to mess with the newbies. If no barber was aboard, certain men would be selected to do the shaving. Under what I imagine was almost always a hot sun, the less seasoned hands would come up on deck and queue up for their grooming. The whole business had rather a holiday feel to it and extra grog rations were included. On some ships, the barbers' assistants would drape themselves in sail cloth quasi-Grecian style and be called nymphs or nereids. It must have been quite the spectacle and one wonders how anything got done thereafter.

But don't take my word for it. The following is an excerpt from Captain David Porter's log written aboard the frigate Essex on November 23, 1812. The ship,
commissioned for service against the British during the War of 1812, was off the Canary Islands in the southern Atlantic on her way to the Pacific to destroy the British whaling fleet therein. And boy did she. Here's Dave's "eye witness" account of the shenanigans at the equator:

"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."

I'm sure it was big fun for everyone but the poor guys getting shaved. But then, each man went through it at some point in their sailing career and a break from the usual couldn't be all bad, could it?


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That's a pretty funny post today, if I do say so myself. I presume this washing and shaving was just of the men's faces, correct? I'm just curious. This wouldn't really be a problem for me, as you know. I'd have more of a problem just trying not to be seasick. Also, Captain Porter's log entry reminds me of Type O Negative's "In Praise of Bacchus", which i also find amusing...

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! Yes - to the best of my knowledge - this was more about the shave than the bath (and the potential cutting and nicking that the poor noobs might suffer). And hey, think about it. When was the last time you saw David Porter and Peter Steele together? Never. That's right.