Posted by: Rob Viens | February 17, 2012

Darwin Crosses the Line

On February 17th Darwin crossed the line.

It wasn’t some seminal moment in his development, or a giant faux pas that got him thrown in the brig.  It was merely the fact that for the first (and virtually only) time in his life, Darwin crossed  the equator into the southern hemisphere. It would be more than three years before Darwin was back in the northern hemisphere (at the Galapagos Islands), after which he would bob back and forth across the line for another year before returning home to England.

But this wasn’t just any crossing – this was Darwin’s first – and tradition held that regardless of your social class or rank, anyone crossing the line for the first time had to be initiated into the house of Neptune.  So what does a boatload of 20-something men (the average age on the ship was 25) do when given free rain to initiate newbees (“griffins” as Darwin called them) into a new fraternal order?  Some serious hazing, of course.

Crossing the line, by T. Landseer after A. Earle:

Crossing the Line

The “line-crossing ceremony” is a long-standing tradition that continues (to some degree) today. In Darwin’s time (and up until a couple of decades ago) this initiation into the “Kingdom of Neptune” was pretty intense and involved the experienced crew members (called shellbacks in the Navy today) humiliating the “griffins” (called pollywogs today) by doing things such as shaving them, “baptizing” them in the ocean (i.e., throwing them overboard or dragging them behind the ship) or spreading them with fish guts.  In some cases it was so intense that sailors where known to have been killed. FitzRoy didn’t think too highly of the tradition, but for the sake of moral he honored it none-the-less:

“Next morning we crossed the Equator, and the usual ceremonies were performed.

Deep was the bath, to wash away all ill;
Notched was the razor—of bitter taste the pill.
Most ruffianly the barber looked—his comb was trebly nailed—
And water, dashed from every side, the neophyte assailed.

The disagreeable practice alluded to has been permitted in most ships, because sanctioned by time; and though many condemn it as an absurd and dangerous piece of folly, it has also many advocates. Perhaps it is one of those amusements, of which the omission might be regretted. Its effects on the minds of those engaged in preparing for its mummeries, who enjoy it at the time, and talk of it long afterwards, cannot easily be judged of without being an eye-witness.” (FitzRoy’s Narrative, Feb 17)

You can tell from his diary that the crew must have been teasing Darwin about the terrors of crossing the equator since before he left England.  The anxiety practically bleeds through the page as the big day gets closer:

“They amused themselves with giving most terrific accounts of what Neptune would do with me on crossing the Equator.” (Oct 29, 1831)

“We crossed the Tropic this morning, if our route did not extend further, Neptune would here celebrate the aweful ceremonies of the Equator.” (Jan 10)

“Every body is alive with the anticipation about Neptunes appearance, & I hear of nothing but razors sharpened with a file & a lather made of paint & tar, to be used by the gentlest valet de chambre.” (Feb 14)

On the night of the 16th, the crew starts the big build up to the ceremony.  I can picture Darwin asking the captain if he really had to participate in these crude antics, and then lying  awake half the night, worried about what was to come.

“In the evening the ceremonies for crossing the line commenced: The officer on watch reported a boat ahead. — The Captain turned “hands up, shorten sail”, and we heaved to in order to converse with Mr Neptune. The Captain held a conversation with him through a speaking trumpet, the result of which was that he would in the morning pay us a visit” (Feb 16)

As it turned out, although he was “honored” with a crossing ceremony, he probably got off lightly. He devotes the entry of the 17th to the event and it is interesting enough that it is worth repeating in its entirety:

” 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.” (Feb 17)

All I can say, is that there is something surreal about listening to one of the greatest scientific thinkers of all time describe how he was shaved, painted and dunked in the water by a bunch of rowdy sailors.  Considering the social strata of Victorian England, I’m sure Darwin found this behavior very much beneath him.  But I have to say, he was a good sport and when through with it anyway.

I welcome any comments from friends, colleagues and readers who have actually crossed the line.  I’ve only just barely crossed it in a plane, and luckily they didn’t throw anyone “overboard”! (RJV)



  1. Darwin crossed the line while Johnny Cash walked the line…

    In majors biology, I liked to teach the science but also familiarize the students with key scientists at key junctures, warts and all. I also liked to have students reflect on their lives, given whatever station in life they were at, and think of the five most key events in their lives. For many, marriage and birth of children were the most memorable, but for the very young, getting a driver’s license and turning 21 were significant. Pondering about Darwin at 23 or so, I wonder if “crossing the line” would have been a key event in his young life? Travel of any kind can be exciting and challenging, even if one is just taking a road trip and crossing state lines (“Wow, we just crossed into Montana!”). However, for many others, travel is about the unknown and can be frightening and for them, “there is no place like home.”

    I think about Darwin as a young man embarking on a five-year voyage around the world. How did he wrap his brain around that? Did he ever question whether he was up to the task? What about leaving family and friends? I have to think that Chuck was already very mature for a young man…

    • Thanks Jim! I do think (partly based on the entry the next day that seems a little reflective) that this was a big juncture for Darwin. Now he was in a entirely different world – even the sky was different.

      I haven’t delved into it in great detail, but I think that when the offer to join the voyage was made in August he said “yes” without thinking about the full impact (though he had to convince his father first). Then he then had 4 months of waiting arounf before he sailed – and in that time, he must have had time to wonder if he was crazy.

  2. […] ago that Darwin had to suffer the humiliation of the crossing the equator for the first time (see Darwin Crosses the Line).  And here he was in the New World being drenched in water again. What is it with water and […]

  3. […] Darwin crosses the line […]

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