Darwin crosses a line

On 17 February 1832 – at the bidding of Neptune, god of the sea – Charles Darwin was blindfolded, his face covered in paint and pitch, and he was dunked into a water bath. He had crossed the line for the first time.

Darwin crosses the line
Thomas Landseer, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Darwin spent the 16th of February, 1832, clambering around a geological outcropping known as Saint Paul’s Rocks. He was looking for life, as any good biologist should, and found a lot of seabirds… which he then proceeded to kill with a hammer. Presumably, this was so that the crew of the HMS Beagle could have a nice seabird dinner.

(Funnily enough, in Darwin’s diary he confesses to killing the birds: “We knocked down with stones and my hammer the active and swift tern. — Shooting was out of the question, so we got two of the boats crew and the work of slaughter commenced.” In his book The Voyage of the Beagle, however, he merely says that “I could have killed any number of them with my geological hammer.” I assume that he cleaned up his narrative for the audience.)

Anyway, this small set of islands is right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, just north of the Equator. That same evening, the crew of the Beagle witnessed a strange scene. A boat was sighted; the ship heaved to; Captain FitzRoy had a shouted conversation with the boat’s occupant, who identified himself as Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. Neptune was to come aboard the next morning.

That figure was not the real Neptune. The boat had come from the Beagle itself, and this was the first act in a ceremony that persists into today. The ship had crossed the Equator, and it was time to celebrate all those sailors who had crossed the Equator for the first time.

The specifics of the line-crossing ceremony vary depending on the time and the nationality of the participants. Sometimes it can be quite brutal, a hazing rite-of-passage, but Darwin’s experience was fairly tame in comparison. He and the other neophyte sailors were stripped, blindfolded, and led up onto deck one by one. Darwin’s face was covered in paint and pitch (tar, essentially) and scraped off with an iron hoop from a barrel – the roughest of rough shaves. He was then dunked in water while the crew cheered.

Other long voyages had similar line-crossing ceremonies. Captain Cook’s line crossing involved both the human crew and the ship’s cats and dogs; the US Navy continues this tradition today and even issues certificates for successfully crossing the line.

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