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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lady Maria Nugent crosses the line

Lady Maria, the wife of Lieutenant-General Sir George Nugent, sailed to India on the East Indiaman Baring in 1811. No hardy traveler, she spent most of the voyage praying in her cabin. However, she did venture out on deck to watch the festivities as the ship crossed the line on 16 September -- maybe because she had no choice -- and this is what she wrote about it.

The ceremonies customary on passing the line took place about 9 o'clock this morning, and lasted till 10, and that I am sure was long enough; as in many respects it is a cruel sort of business.  To keep clear of scrapes, it was first agreed, that the soldiers and cadets should be exempt from the ordeal, on paying a dollar each to the crew. -- at 9 A.M. everything being ready, the ship was hailed from the forecastle (as if from the sea) by Neptune, and answered by Captain Templar. Neptune asked what ship it was, and said he wished to come on board. -- Orders were accordingly given to hoist in his car and attendants, and they all immediately came on deck, Neptune and Amphitrite, with their son, in a car drawn by six sea horses, and driven by a sea god. -- Several sea gods were in attendance, as well as the barber and his mate, with a long pole, and instruments for shaving; there were two large tubs near the gangway, filled with salt water, to which Neptune and his people proceeded. Some of the attendants were then ordered to bring every seaman in his turn, who had not crossed the equinoxial line before -- they were taken to the tub blindfolded, and seated there, when the barber and his mate rubbed their faces with tar, asking them at the same time some questions -- the instant they opened their mouths to answer, the mate stuffed a large lump of tar into it, and the barber began shaving them with something that looked like a small saw; then, while the poor man was attentive to these proceedings, he was suddenly ducked, over head and ears, in the tub, and escaping from that, and running towards the forecastle, he was half drowned by buckets of water, thrown by those of the crew who had passed the line before, and were stationed for that purpose to waylay him. All the poor midshipmen underwent this watery trial, and it was astonishing to see how much the soldiers, sailors, &c., seemed to enjoy the fun; but I could not help thinking of the frogs in the fable. Captain Templar, however, very properly forbid an cruelty or severe ill treatment, as is sometimes the case if the men are not restricted; for the sailors have been known to revenge themselves upon the officers, &c., that they disliked, by shaving the skin off their faces, &c. No accident, however, happened on board the Baring, and the day ended in perfect good humour on all sides. The soldiers and sailors continued to amuse themselves till sunset, with dancing and leaping about, &c., after which they assembled near the lee gangway, and sung songs till the hammocks were piped down. -- There was a young sailor, and a serjeant, in particular, who sung really extremely well, and some very pathetic songs, and a Frenchman who sung about his chaumière.

The fable about the frogs is presumably Aesop's parable about the frogs who asked for a king.  Jove, as a joke, dropped a log into their pond, and for a while they were perfectly happy with King Log.  Then one frog who was more daring than the rest jumped upon the log and danced up and down.  Seeing the trick, the frogs demanded a proper king, so Jove, becoming irritated, sent them a stork, which ate them up one by one.

A chaumière is a cottage.

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