29 December 2022 — From "Slimy Wog" to "Trusty Shellback"—A Centuries-Old Tradition Continues


We have crossed the Equator, & I have undergone the disagreeable operation of being shaved. About 9 oclock this morning we poor "griffins", two & thirty in number, were put altogether on the lower deck.—The hatchways were battened down, so we were in the dark & very hot.—Presently four of Neptunes constables came to us, & one by one led us up on deck.—I was the first & escaped easily: I nevertheless found this watery ordeal sufficiently disagreeable.—Before coming up, the constable blindfolded me & thus lead along, buckets of water were thundered all around; I was then placed on a plank, which could be easily tilted up into a large bath of water.—They then lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. —a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me. —at last, glad enough, I escaped.—most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces.—The whole ship was a shower bath: & water was flying about in every direction: of course not one person, even the Captain, got clear of being wet through.



Diary of Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle, February 1832


In his diary entry of 17 February 1832, Charles Darwin notes that the exploration ship HMS Beagle had reached the equator. As a “griffin”—someone crossing the equator at sea for the first time—he was not spared the rituals of discomfort and embarrassment to which the members of the ship’s crew were subjected by “King Neptune” and his court. The ritual initiation of transforming newbie “griffins” or “pollywogs” into “shellbacks” (seasoned sailors who had crossed the equator at sea) dates back to at least the early 16th century; the first known account of such a ceremony is found in the travel memoirs of Jean and Raoul Parmentier, who sailed aboard a French ship to Sumatra in May of 1529. On that journey, fifty sailors were “knighted” in an onboard event involving the celebration of a solemn mass, hymn singing, and a seafood feast. The practice, in some form, seems to have been carried out under most European seafaring flags in the Age of Sail. 

certificate attesting that bearer is an official shellback

"Trusty shellbacks" who have successfully completed the ceremony of crossing the line typically receive a certificate. Often they are adorned with likenesses of His Highness, King Neptune, and fetching mermaids. Photo: Lou Sander via Wikimedia Commons.

Over the years and aboard vessels of many types flying a variety of national flags, observances of “crossing the line” have taken many forms, although they have evolved to feature some common threads. Typically, a vessel will be taken over by “King Neptune’s court.” The cast of characters comprising the court, portrayed by senior shellbacks, are a mashup of myth and maritime lore. Neptune, of course, is found in Roman mythology as god of the seas; his consort in this shipboard “court” is Queen Amphitrite, a character found in Greek literature as queen of the seas and wife of Poseidon, Neptune’s Greek counterpart. Typically they are accompanied by Davy Jones, a nautical character of murky heritage, aptly described by one 18th-century author as “the fiend that presides over all the evil spirits of the deep.” The court may also include such characters as a barber, a surgeon, and even a “Royal Baby”—typically the plumpest member of the crew, clad in a diaper. Some form of henchmen often round out the crew; costumes would be fashioned from rope and other materials that were readily available. The proceedings might last anywhere from an hour or two to two days; in the longer iterations, the lowly pollywogs (or simply “wogs”) would receive summonses on the eve of the ceremony, bidding them appear in King Neptune’s court for their “crime” of being unseasoned and unworthy to enter his domain. The main event is a series of trials to determine the candidates’ worthiness, typically involving drinking noxious concoctions, getting covered with gross substances like garbage and/or grease, crawling along a gauntlet while being hit by shellbacks with rope or rubber hose, and receiving either a real or ceremonial shave, or an embarrassing haircut. The final step would be a dunking or dousing in salt water as a form of baptism as a "shellback"—worthy of King Neptune’s realm, and entitled to assume the role of tormentor in any later cruises across the equator when new pollywogs would be initiated. 

satirical document summoning sailor for line crossing ceremony

Some scribes of King Neptune took their duties very seriously. Photo: USS Blue Ridge LCC-19 | Ship's Store 1971.

The tradition has always had its detractors; author Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) reported on his impressions in Following the Equator:


Afternoon. Crossed the equator… We had no fool ceremonies, no fantastic, no horse play. … In old times a sailor, dressed as Neptune, used to come in over the bows, with his suite and lather up and shave everybody who was crossing the equator for the first time, and then cleanse these unfortunates by swinging them from the yard-arm and ducking them three times in the sea. This was considered funny. Nobody knows why. No, that is not true. We do know why. … One is often surprised at the juvenilities which grown people indulge in at sea, and the interest they take in them, and the consuming enjoyment they get out of them. This is on long voyages only. 



Other detractors are concerned that on some occasions the treatment of the pollywogs has crossed the line into hazing.

Male sailors dressed as King Neptune, mermaids, and royal court attendants

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was aboard USS Indianapolis for a memorable ceremony in 1936.

Voices raised in defense of the shenanigans often agree with Twain, that they are useful in allowing a tired and perhaps bored crew to let off steam, as well as providing a safe space for a little rebellion against the rigid power structure aboard ship. Those defenders also say that the common experience of the initiation process builds cohesion among the crew. The process was so valued that in 19 May 1936 commander-in-chief of the US Fleet, Admiral Joseph M. Reeves, diverted the vessels taking part in an annual fleet exercise off Panama to a point near the Galapagos Islands in order to cross the equator and take part in a mass Crossing the Line ceremony as a morale-builder. It is reported that 29,751 US Navy sailors were initiated into the “Royal Order of Shellbacks” on that day, setting a naval record. 


The distinction of shellback isn’t the only milestone recognized by special ceremony at sea; some of the other recognized honors include: 


Order of the Golden Dragon: crossing the International Date Line

Golden Shellback: crossing the equator at the International Date Line

Order of the Bluenose: sailing north of the Arctic Circle

Domain of the Antarctic: crossing the Antarctic Circle

Order of Magellan: circumnavigating the Earth

Order of the Ditch: passing through the Panama Canal

Order of the Rock: Passing through the Straits of Gibraltar

Order of the Spanish Main: sailing in the Caribbean

King Neptune presides over a present-day ceremony aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class James Evans; courtesy US Navy.

The ritual is carried out today, aboard different kinds of vessels, and often adapted to individual settings. Some cruise ships, for example, offer a strictly-voluntary “King Neptune’s court” with a gentler tone for the amusement of the passengers. Guidelines from the Norwegian Maritime Authority spell out prohibitions against harmful behaviors and pressuring reluctant candidates into participating in the hijinks. The official stance of the US Navy was articulated in SecNav [Secretary of the Navy] Instruction 1610.2, issued 1 Oct. 1997:


Military customs and traditions have long been an integral part of the Navy and Marine Corps. Although in the past some hazing has occurred in conjunction with ceremonies, initiations or rites of passage, these activities, if properly supervised, can be effective leadership tools to instill esprit de corps, unit cohesion and respect for an accomplishment of another Sailor or Marine. While most ceremonies commemorate the many selfless feats of bravery of our military men and women, they also commemorate significant events. These feats and events form the basis upon which our Core Values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment were founded. Graduations, chiefs' initiations, "crossing the line" ceremonies, and others are only meant to celebrate and recognize the achievements of individual Sailors or Marines or those of entire units. Service members must be able to work together, building-up, encouraging, and supporting their shipmates. Hazing behavior that is degrading, embarrassing, or injurious is unprofessional and illegal. 


Hopefully, the transition today from pollywog to trusty shellback—whether it be aboard a scientific research vessel, a merchant vessel, a cruise ship or naval vessel—is a memorable day of fun.


Extra Credit



The website greatwhitefleet.us has a wonderful collection of photos from the turn of the last century on this subject.



 

Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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