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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Rose de Freycinet crosses the line

In September 1817 twenty-two-year-old Rose de Freycinet dressed in men's clothes to stow away on the corvette Uranie to sail with her beloved husband, Captain Louis-Claude de Freycinet, on a discovery expedition to the Pacific.  Her journal, translated and edited by Marc Serge Rivière, was published in 1996.  This is her story of crossing the line.

On 19 November [1817], we crossed the equator. As a large number of men were doing so for the first time, the crew proceeded to organise the traditional ceremony.

To begin the ceremony, the previous evening, a postilion sent by the King of the Line climbed down from the top mast. The messenger's arrival was heralded by thunder, hail and heavy rain. The hail resembled the manna which met our forefathers in the desert; we could have eaten it, as it was nothing more than dried turkey corn. The thunder was in fact the sound of drums and the rain was seawater.

That envoy brought a letter from the King of the Line which stated that the Uranie would not be allowed to pursue its journey if all those not yet baptised did not undergo the ceremony. Louis replied gravely that he would give the necessary orders for His Majesty to be received the next day. At 10 a.m., the King of the Line appeared, accompanied by his consort and his daughter. The two ugliest men among the crew had, on purpose I think, been chosen to play those parts; they were simply hideous. The King was preceded by six sappers and was followed by his chaplain, his attendant and a few other characters. Lucifer, surrounded by eight or ten small devils, brought up the rear; he was dressed in a dark skin with an iron hook on his shoulder. the small devils were completely naked, some wore red paint and others black, while others had rubbed a glue-like substance on their bodies and plastered themselves with chicken feathers.

As soon as the King had sat down, he sent his sappers to cut down the Uranie's rigging, but Louis, crossing the palm of one of the attendants with a few silver coins, begged the King to spare his vessel. The sappers were then recalled and the congregation proceeded to the baptism of the infidels.

Thanks to the payment of a few Napoléons, I was let off during the ceremony.  Almost all the crew had crossed the line already, and only a few officers had to pay their dues as I did. As for those who were unable to exempt themselves or who were less generous, the King of the Line ordered their faces to be daubed with paint; then the poor wretches were seated on a mobile seat and ducked into a tub of water, while at the same time a bucket of water was emptied on their heads. As for those who refused to undergo the ceremony, they were brought back forcibly and soaked according to the degree of resistance which they had offered.

This ceremony lasted all morning. The King and his retinue, having gone round the ship twice, went off to drink the double rations which Louis had granted them.

We dined that night in the officers' mess. They gave us a splendid meal and a very pleasant one, after which I watched the crew dance in masks and behave in an extravagant manner.

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