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The Journal of George Hepburn
Part I - The Journal of George Hepburn, 1850 - Chapter III


He describes some incidents of life on board and the ships they hail in the tropics—He gives a vivid account of the visit of Neptune as they cross the line: "upon the whole it was the relic of a barbarous age."

Monday, March 25th, 1850.—There is an old saying in Scotland that there are many changes in a winter night, but the same saying might also be well applied here, viz., that there are many changes in a mid-summer day at the line. Saturday last was wet and squally; yesterday (Sabbath morning) the sun shone in full splendour with scarcely a breath of wind and the heat very oppressive; but about 1 o’clock a fresh breeze sprang up, and in a few minutes our good ship was laid over and scudding away at eight knots an hour, but it did not last many hours for before the evening we were again laying on our oars. During the night we made a little progress, but to-day again almost becalmed under a perpendicular burning sun. Heat 85 between decks, but once you get a comfortable seat on deck in the shade and a book in your hand you could not desire a lovelier day and sea than before you. But even there the continued noise of children, sailors, and pigs prevents one reading to any advantage.

While speaking of reading I was rather pleased at one of the sailors asking me a few days ago for a read of the life of the Rev. Mr. McCheyne (on the Sabbath) which was readily granted. He said he was from Shetland and adhered to the Free Church. He seemed a sober looking young man. Our progress has been so small these last few days that we are still two degrees from the line, which is quite customary I understand at this stage of our voyage. What we would call a half-way house for eight, ten, or even fourteen days, caused by the falling off of the north-east trade winds, and it being some distance south of the line ere we fall in with...

The home-bound ship did not speak us on Saturday as we expected, although she sailed close past, and it was dark at 8 o’clock. We spoke another brig outward bound yesterday, the Reliance, Arbroath, 30 days from Liverpool. She crossed our bows so close that the captain spoke without the trumpet. At other times they speak merely by hoisting colours, which is explained in a book belonging to the captain. Both Saturday and yesterday there were five vessels constantly in sight. To-day only three. Both yesterday and this morning a shark was seen playing about the ship; nevertheless the captain and a few gents. have gone out a bit from the ship in the gig boat and indulged in a bathe. Perhaps they calculate that the shark will be fully satisfied to-day without them from the feast it would get from the carcass of our milk cow which died here this morning, and its body was committed to the deep. The cow did not seem one suitable for a sea life, being of a heavy make, with little room to lie down, instead of a small light breed. The extreme heat with dry feeding and standing on deck brought on inflammation, and so she died. However Mr. Bowler’s bull still thrives well, but he unfortunately gives no milk. Yesterday we had the usual morning service on deck by the captain, but there being rather fewer in attendance than usual the captain immediately after service ran down the steerage and asked the loungers there why they were not at prayers. We all (our family) make a point of being present and dressed.

Tuesday, March 26th.—We were delighted last night in looking at the brilliancy of the setting sun. He goes down into the sea as it were in the fullness of his strength, and this so rapidly that there is very little twilight. The beauty of the scenery on the sky after he has set is beyond description and far beyond what any painter’s pencil could touch. You can fancy seeing all manner of scenery in such glowing colours, and apparently so much nearer at hand than ever we saw at home, that you are delighted with gazing on it.

But this was certainly not the only enjoyment of last night. For about 8 o’clock we were all taken by surprise when on deck by a visit from the servant of Neptune, who all of a sudden came on board our ship out of a chariot of fire which he left behind him floating on the sea. He had on a long coat and black hat and "wallet" before him, spoke in a strange hard voice, and wished to see the captain, saying he had a letter for him from his master (Neptune) from the line who expected to be with him to-morrow evening. At time he shook hands with many of the "cuddy" passengers on the poop, who flocked around him. He asked where we had come from and how long at sea. Seemed to recognise some old friends, which he had often seen there before, being so very glad to see them. He had a long Jew beard and blackened face. Before leaving us he seized hold on the youngest Mr. Archibald and blackened his face with his beard. All this produced great excitement and merriment. The whole farce was the first trick of the sailors on drawing near the line. They had secretly prepared a large tub with old ropes and tar, which was lowered over the bows of the ship, and as it came along the side one of the sailors dressed up for the occasion came over by the stays unseen, leaving the old tub to burn away out to sea, which it did for a long time. The moon was shining so bright that I saw one lady working fine network on the poop.

It happened that the ship Lady Bruce was so near over our stern that they put out their Neptune Car, and each ship’s company cheered one another. At length they drew so near that the captains hailed each other. Our captain cried: "Lady Bruce ahoy! Answer: "Yes." "You’re bound for Port Natal?" "Yes." "I wish you good passage, and you can report our ship on arrival." They asked: "Are you the Poictiers? "Yes." "How many passengers have you?" Answer: "100." "But I have 300," said Lady Bruce. Answer: "I wish you much luck with them, hurrah ! Are they all well? "Yes." "How is your doctor? Better? "How did you know that he was sick?" But we lost the answer from the noise, and we were all surprised at the question. After this each ship’s company commenced singing songs, viz., "God Save the Queen," "Rule, Britannia," etc., etc., to which each ship replied by clapping of hands and hurrahs. This lasted for about two hours. I really did not expect to see such a scene on the midst of the ocean.

Wednesday, March 27th.—Our progress has been so very small that we are not yet at the line, but were within 30 miles at 12 o’clock, and sailing nicely since. We must now be very near it, so the sailors are busy engaged for some fun to-night.

Thursday, March 28th.—I must now endeavour to give some account of the somewhat barbarous practice still observed by some crews on the passing the line, which I would set down as an excuse for a ball more than anything else. Captain Beal, on this occasion, allowed the seamen to have a little fun, provided they kept moderate and did not interfere with the passengers. Accordingly they had all prepared, and about 5 o’clock Neptune made his appearance in full style, most grotesquely dressed up, cocked hat and a... . . . with his wife (a sailor dressed up in women’s clothes), and straw hat and clean shaved. They were seated together on a car drawn by a number of youths, and followed by a number of attendants dressed in character as policemen, barber, etc., and last by two black bears (two sailors with blackened faces and legs, jet black on hands and feet, roaring aloud to the dismay of the children). The procession came out from the fo’c’sle on toward the cuddy door, where it made a halt, and Neptune addressed the captain, said he was so happy to see him in his dominions, etc., etc. The wife said she had a very numerous family, and she understood some of her children were on board, which they wished to have baptised. Then Captain Beal treated the party engaged to a glass of rum. The procession then moved forward to the opposite side of the deck where they had a barber’s shop erected, viz., the joiner’s bench drawn across the deck with steps up to it, where stood a small tub of tar and grease with a brush in it. Also the barber and doctor with white aprons on. Above the bench . . . was laid across reaching from the . . . to the long boat, on which was seated Neptune and his retinue. Behind the bench and spar was a large tarpaulin hung by the corners and well filled with water. All being seated, and quietness restored by the police, one son after another was taken up on the bench and formally introduced to their father and mother (Neptune), who asked them a few questions, and made them promise to be obedient children when in his dominion, etc., etc. His doctor pronounced them in good health, but recommended them to the barber to have their hair cropped and shaved. After blindfolding his eyes, he is seated on the spar with his back to the sail of water, his chin and mouth then rubbed over with a brush of tar, when the barber with a large knife made of an old iron hoop makes him and he gives him . . . and scrapes then a little more harder, then another touch-up. Then all on a sudden he is pitched over the spar backward into the sail full of water, making a splash, and where the two black bears are standing in the water to the purpose of washing him well in the water, growling all the time. One after another was done in this way to five or six. All being finished here, the procession returned in the same order. On passing the cuddy the captain said to Neptune he would be glad to see him on another occasion when passing this way. In a few minutes the scene was closed by the farce of throwing the sail full of water at each other in pailfuls in a very rude manner, but all passed over in good humour. Afterwards a collection was made through the ship for Neptune and his children, and a jolly night they seemed to have, for we heard them roaring and singing when we went to sleep. Upon the whole it was the relic of a barbarous age.

The follies of Neptune’s visit are all passed away in quietness. . . . and we are sailing on to-day before a better breeze than we have had for some days past, so we are now fairly passed from one hemisphere to another in west longitude about 22 1/2 deg., but still we have upwards of 12,000 miles of sea before us. Thus far, however, we have had little else than pleasant weather with the exception of rocking in or about the Bay of Biscay for one day, so we hope the remainder will be no worse than the past. This is one point passed in our journey, and some day sooner or later we must all pass a still more important stage in our history, not only from one hemisphere into another but out of this world into eternity; but alas, although our present be supposed double hazardous, it seems the least calculated to awaken sinners to a sense of their danger.


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