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Crossing the Line Ceremony

Last modified: 2011-12-24 by rob raeside
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[Flag of Pirates] by Antonio Martins

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While doing some research for a page I intend to add to SeaFlags on the ceremony of "crossing the line" (i.e., the Equator), I discovered that it is a tradition in the U.S. Navy, Royal Navy, and other British-descended navies for a ship to hoist the old pirate flag, the Jolly Roger, while King Neptune is aboard. I found it variously reported in accounts of different ceremonies that the flag was hoisted in place of the national ensign, in place of the admiral's flag, at the top of the foremast, or "over the forecastle" (presumably meaning at the jack staff). I also found modern photographs showing it at the yardarm. The flags used are not standardized. Most are either the version with the skull placed on the center of the crossed bones or with the bones crossed below the skull. I saw the skull and crossbones on the center and a white star in each corner--presumably to represent the royal-divine rank.
Joe McMillan, 29 May 2003

In the book I referred several times before Isaiæ: Pomorski obièaji i tradicije, Rijeka 2001, there are reports on the ceremony usual on Yugoslav/Croatian ships, both merchant and naval. The flag is hoisted on the mainmast on since dawn of the day before crossing of the Equator until the sunset of the day after the crossing (presumably only by daylight, as all other flags). The flag is not described, unfortunately. As assumed by the ceremony the flag represent the boarding of the sea god Neptune - so it is logical that it is hoisted in place of the rank flags.

Isaiæ motions that the hoisting of this flag on naval ships is performed with the same ceremony (presumably) as hoisting of other rank flags, i.e. with command: Attention!

I presume that the flag in question is made ad hoc for the occasion, and that there is no determinate pattern.

Isaiæ shows the picture of a printed "Diploma" issued by "Neptune" from 1930's, unfortunately this do not include any flag depicted.
Željko Heimer, 30 May 2003

There is some info on the ceremony from the site of the Associação Nacional de Cruzeiros

An abbreviated translation by me :

The Passage of the Line ceremony is celebrated whenever a ship passes through the equator in a north-south direction, has unknown origins. It is known the Carthinaginians held sacrifices to the gods when they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. The first modern recorded ceremony was in a French ship which in 1529 was bound to Sumatra and where a mass was held upon crossing of Equator. The first account of such a ceremony in a Portuguese ship was in 1666 by two Italian friars that boarded a ship in Lisbon destined to Congo and passing though Brazil. Their description is :

The Portuguese have an old tradition of having some entertainment when crossing the line, and they take that day off to ask God for a safe voyage. Those who have never made the crossing must pay to the others or give them something to eat and drink, to which even the friars are obliged to. Their rosaries and statues of saints made some money for the reading of masses for souls in the purgatory.

If someone doesn't pay this tribute he is tied up by sailors dressed as officers and presented to a court presided by a sailor dressed in a cape. The judge hears him and condemns him to be dipped three times in the sea by tying him strongly in a cable.

In the current days, the navy and some yachts keeps the old tradition while cruise ships have much more carnival-like ceremonies and parties.

The site also offers two accounts of passing of the line in two Portuguese ships in the 19th century, both from the Navy and

The one from the navy, the "Proteu", passing the equator in the strait of Macassar near Borneo confirms that the tradition is indeed that one above and also adds a ceremony in which the God Neptune's guard ( by tradition dressed as Moorish soldiers) appear. It is preceded by a large sailor of mixed race and followed by a judge-writer, a hairdresser and his apprentice, a priest and his helper, four bailiffs, and the Devil with a large tail and dressed in sheep's skins. These characters have task of making the aforementioned court. At the end of the parade appears the Neptune himself and his sons, all mounted in a car. Neptune then takes the captain's seat and starts giving silly orders, while one of his guards takes the elm, the other guards watching over the officers. The priest's helper takes the donations and the judge and the priest take their clothes revealing women's clothes underneath and start dancing silly with the hairdresser and his apprentice to the sound of ridiculous music.

The other description, the Tritão from Lisbon to Luanda in 5 May 1842 gives a more romanticized account of pretty much the same thing.

No flags are mentioned in any of the three pages.
Joã Madureira, 30 May 2003