Friday, July 19, 2013

Sepia Saturday: The Neptune Party


Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.




This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt featuring a costumed woman warrior reminded me of a puzzling collection of photos that had belonged to my maternal grandmother’s brother Ray Rucker.  Every time one of them came into my field of vision, I wondered what these sailors in the most powerful Navy in the world -- the defenders of freedom -- were doing in those crazy costumes.

Line Crossing Ceremony Ray Rucker 1920s
Neptune Party:  The Royal Family
Click to enlarge

So, it turns out these were some of the main characters in a naval tradition that dates back over 400 years in the western seafaring world:  the line crossing ceremony.  Which line?  Why, the equator, of course.

Whether a test of a sailor’s ability to withstand a long and rough voyage or merely a way to boost morale, the tradition of the Neptune Party has been a rite of passage for many a sailor transforming from a “Slimy Pollywog” (a sailor who has never crossed the equator) to a “Trusty” or “Honorable” Shellback. 

Ray was a sailor onboard the USS Colorado when this particular ceremony took place, but his photos do not clearly reveal whether he was among the experienced Shellbacks or if he was being initiated into the “mysteries of the deep.”

The festivities varied from ship to ship, but no doubt Ray experienced the standard features of the Order of Neptune.

1.  Typically the ceremony began with King Neptune, the mythical god of the sea, coming aboard to exercise his authority over the seas and the ship.  With a trident in hand, he served as judge ruling on charges that the Pollywogs were not real sailors at all, and that furthermore they had not shown proper respect to the god of the sea.  King Neptune was often portrayed by the ship’s commander or other high ranking officer.

Line Crossing Ceremony Ray Rucker 1920s
The Royal Police
Click to enlarge

The most experienced Shellbacks dressed in costume as members of King Neptune’s Royal Court.  Usually the characters included King Neptune, Amphitrite (Neptune’s wife), Davey Jones (Neptune's scribe), the Royal Baby, and the Royal Barber.  

Other appropriate characters could be included as well, and  some Trusty Shellbacks might have dressed as pirates as part of the Royal Police.


2.  Pollywogs entertained the Royal Court with a talent show or even a beauty contest with sailors dressed as women. 

3.  Davey Jones presented subpoenas to the Pollywogs to appear before the Royal Court and answer charges lodged by the Shellbacks.

4.  Court was held after breakfast which had been rendered inedible by the addition of hot sauce or other spices.  King Neptune assigned punishments that included wearing clothes inside out or backwards, crawling on hands and knees through garbage, being swatted with pieces of fire hose, being pelted with rotting fruit, and being treated with “truth serum” (hot sauce rubbed on the face following a shave).  The Royal Barber used hand clippers to cut the Pollywogs’ hair in various directions – never intending the results to be worthy of a tip.


The Royal Baby of the Neptune Party Ray Rucker 1920s
The Royal Baby
Click to enlarge
5.  Next the Pollywogs knelt before King Neptune to kiss the Royal Baby’s belly which was covered with grease.  Often the Baby grabbed the Pollywog’s hair and rubbed his face all over his belly to make sure the sailor was duly covered.  In some cases, the Baby flung mustard in the Pollywog’s face.  The “honor” of being the Royal Baby was usually given to the ugliest guy on the ship.  Some honor!


6.  The final step in the transformation to Shellback was a royal bath in sea water often contained in a canvas pool on deck, a “baptism” of sorts.  The new Shellbacks received a certificate, and the event was recognized in their service records with date, time, latitude, and longitude.

Line Crossing Ceremony Ray Rucker 1920s
Pollywogs go head-first into the Royal Bath.
The caption on the photo is difficult to read, but it says:
USS Colorado Neptune Party



Line Crossing Ceremony Ray Rucker 1920s
The latest crop of Shellbacks in the "royal bath"


The Neptune Party was a fun time, according to many sailors.  In recent years, however, there have been reports of unspeakable abuse during the line crossing ceremony.  In the early 1920s when Ray was a Pollywog, the ceremony likely was a highlight in a sailor’s memories of life at sea.

Sources:
“Line-Crossing Ceremony.”  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2013. Web. 9 July 2013.

Moore, David.  “Pollywog or Shellback: The Navy’s Line Crossing Ceremony Revealed.”  Veterans United Network.  Veteransunited.com.  2013.  Web.  9 July 2013. http://www.veteransunited.com/network/the-navys-line-crossing-ceremony-revealed/

“Pollywog to Shellback.” Destroyer Escort Sailors Association.  DESA.org. 2011. Web. 9 July 2013.  http://www.desausa.org/pollywog_to_shellback.htm

For more stories and photos of costumes, warriors, and theatrics, head on over to Sepia Saturday.  I promise you won’t have to kiss any bellies. 




© 2014, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.

37 comments:

  1. I've heard of the line-crossing ceremony, but not the full story, so thanks for both that and the photos - very entertaining. It reminds me a little of the "screeching" ceremony I had in Newfoundland many years ago.

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    1. You sent me off to Google that. I could handle the shot but not kissing the cod.

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  2. How interesting, as is the name Pollywogs!

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    1. I'm noticing several people commenting on that word. It's fairly common, I thought. Kids like looking for pollywogs in puddles and such.

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  3. Sounds—and looks!—like fun. I'd never heard of this ceremony before.

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    1. I knew there was some big deal about crossing the equator, but I thought everyone just got a tattoo.

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  4. A wonderful story and collection of photos and like Brett, I knew about the ceremony but not the detail. Loved the name Pollywogs - would that be "politically incorrect" now? As ever you write such witty endings.

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    1. I need to Google the term - I never thought of it as associated with anything negative. I assumed it was just a reference to the baby form of frogs and Shellbacks to turtles, both water and land animals like the sailors themselves.

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  5. Initiations seem to bring out the sadistic side of people. I think I'd jump overboard to avoid the belly rubbing indignity or happily remain a Slimy Pollywog. Very interesting read.

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    1. I never went in for initiation activities either. Even in school when Seniors initiated the freshmen, it was silly and harmless things like making them carry their books or push a pencil down the hall with their nose. Now people get very reckless with their ceremonies.

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  6. I'd heard of the ceremony but not the term Pollywogs!
    I can see how this type of ceremony could degenerate into the sort of initiation ceremony that gets Uni students into trouble :)

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    1. A few years back a college band student died from some initiation ceremony. Terrible!

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  7. It doesn't sound like much fun to me...especially the belly rubbing and the hot sauce on the newly shaved face. Not to mention the pelting with rotten fruit! And how about the poor ugliest guy? Although he does get to get back at them for choosing him.
    I wonder who in the world thought this all up?
    Barbara

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  8. I know a pollywog as a tadpole, a "baby" version of a frog. Perhaps that's the pollywog they were thinking of as opposed to the racial slurs. I have to agree with barbara and nancy, I don't think it sounds like fun at all.

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    1. It's a racial slur, really?? I have never heard the term used other than for tadpole, like you said.

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    2. I think perhaps it's being confused with the word that starts with a "G" instead of a "P"?

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  9. What amazing photos. Thanks for sharing this. I think I have a certificate somewhere that I crossed the equator but I'm sure my initiation was just a dunk in the pool. I was only 3 at the time.

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    1. A dunk in the pool would be enough for me. Interesting that you got a certificate. I read that such ceremonies are often part of cruise ship activities too, but probably not so unappetizing as pelting the guests with rotting fruit.

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  10. This Rite of Passage is a 'Riot'. Never heard of this particular one, and my Dad was a Sailor...maybe he never crossed the equator. Surprising what grown men will do for entertainment and then allow it to be recorded for all time. Hmmmm, I have a photo of 'self' slathered with unspeakable stuff as a 'Rite of Passage' into the world of 'Higher Education'...it made the SRSU yearbook. Yikes!

    Good job on the story telling.
    Sue CollectInTexasGal~Today's Post~
    Hawaii Cardstock Sticker Shocker

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    1. Pictures! We need to see that yearbook!

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  11. I'm with Barbara and Kristin on this one; it's the sort of initiation ceremony I'd go to great lengths to avoid. I knew a little about it and I've seen short film clips but never knew so much detail so thank you for that. A nice twist on the theme Wendy.

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    1. Yeah, I'd just as soon not cross the equator if I have to go through that. But apparently sailors LOVED it and I read several accounts claiming it was the highlight of time in the Navy.

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  12. I've never crossed the equator, not even in a plane. Ceremonies like this look fun as long as I'm watching and not taking part.

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    1. I haven't crossed it either. And I'd just as soon be a spectator like you.

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  13. You just know they all had the time of their lives! What great photos you shared, thanks. I could feel the laughter between the shots!

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  14. Gosh, Wendy, I think this completes the Naval Historian merit badge to add to your long collection of life skills. I think many ships had a sailor assigned to photograph events onboard and he may have produced copies of these snapshots for all the Shellbacks.

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    1. HA Mike, so true. What will I ever do with all this knowledge about the Navy (and Coast Guard and Marines)??

      I thought a couple photos had to have been done by the ship's photographer since they had printed captions on them. But the idea that maybe they were given to the new Shellbacks might be a clue as to whether Ray had to kiss the Royal Baby's belly on that trip!

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  15. I am another who has never crossed the equator - something I hope to remedy before 12 months is out. Fascinating information about a ceremony I had heard of, but never knew the full details of.

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    1. If you're going on a cruise, look out. I hear cruise ships do some kind of ceremony too. I doubt there's any belly-kissing involved though.

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  16. Glad you were able to make sense of Ray's pictures. I would have never known of any of this! You are so clever and smart.

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    1. Let me know if there is ever a Line-Crossing category on Jeopardy.

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  17. While there'll always be a jackass to ruin it for everyone by some excesses...these looked like fun time!!
    The Royal Baby?!?
    Oh please, no!?!?!
    :D~
    HUGZ

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    1. I'm sure there were lots of laughs when King Neptune held court. The belly-kissing probably shook the ship.

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