Tuesday, December 7, 2010

EUTERPE - A QUEER SORT OF NIGHT


In the old days of sailing ships there was a great to-do when crossing the equator. King Neptune, the lord of the sea, had to be appeased by anyone, passengers or crew, who had not trespassed on his domain before. The ceremony of crossing the line was a rite of passage, and could involve anything from a splashing of water to no-holds-barred. In the sailing ship Euterpe, on the voyage of 1879, almost no one escaped.

The ship’s newspaper, The Euterpe Times, stuck its tongue firmly in its cheek and declared that several of the passengers were anxious about crossing the line, not on account of any shaving by Neptune or other pranks by the sailors but the consequences to the ship and themselves. Would it, for example, cause the Euterpe to bump violently? Some expressed their determination not to sleep until the line was safely passed, for fear it should be crossed in the night and they should be pitched out of bed. Others expected to actually see the line, “something of the nature of a clothesline we presume”.

At about 9pm on 30 September Neptune was heard bellowing from under the bowsprit, demanding to come aboard. He was dressed in an old coat and long whiskers made of towed flax, and his arrival triggered “a jolly spree at water throwing.” The lifeboats had been secretly filled with water beforehand and everyone on deck, including the captain, got a soaking. “Even the ladies joined in the water fight” wrote one passenger, and only the women who were below decks escaped. A few men who tried to hide in their cabin were hauled on deck for a good wetting.

In the climax of the entertainment the sailors “shaved” three of their comrades who had not crossed the line before, by lathering their faces with tar and dirt and then scraping it off with a large wooden “razor”. If the victim opened his mouth to yell or protest (and who could help it?) he got a mouthful of tar and dirt, and buckets of water were thrown over him. All but one of the passengers were spared this treatment – Captain Phillips would not allow it – but “as for water, we were all thoroughly drenched” wrote one.

The unlucky passenger was a young man called Peck who had rashly declared that he would “fell the first one who touched him”. A diarist described how three figures emerged from behind the after hatch, seized him and threw him violently on his back, and “in less [time] than it takes to write these words he was bedaubed with a compound of molasses and dirt and dowsed with a few buckets of water.” It didn’t end there. “He had returned to the forward part of the ship and was busy cleaning the dirt off his face and neck when someone threw a pailful of tar from one of the boats right on to his head, nearly suffocating him and covering his hair with the nastiness.”

At the end of the festivities there was dancing on deck and “altogether a night of a queer sort was enjoyed very much” by crew and passengers – except possibly young Peck.

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