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.
Born in Lyon in 1799, Francois Auguste Biard was destined for an ecclesiastical career but turned to painting, exhibiting for the first time in the Paris Salon of 1824. Throughout his life the artist traveled extensively, beginning with a trip to Egypt and Syria in 1827-28 and ultimately spending two years living in Brazil from 1860 to 1862. The artist published a book, Deux années au Bresil, in Paris in 1862 which contains illustrations based upon sketches made by the artist during his time in South America.
Biard was particularly well-known for his depictions of life at sea, with complex compositions and a narrative component which was often humorous and sometimes horrific. Many of his works, so interesting as documentary evidence of life at sea, were engraved and contributed to the immense popularity of the artist in his day.
Le baptême sous la ligne (Crossing the Equator) depicts a nautical ritual which took place aboard European vessels when they crossed from the Northern into the Southern Hemisphere. It is an initiation ceremony that commemorates a sailor’s fist crossing of the equator and although the ritual can vary in detail, the basic elements are fairly consistent. In essence, the sailors on board a vessel were either shellbacks, those who had made the crossing, or pollywogs or griffins, those who had not. A veteran shellback would preside over the ceremony as King Neptune, crowned and holding his trident accompanied by his consort, Queen Amphitrite. The neophytes were kept in the hold and brought to the deck blindfolded, their faces lathered with pitch or some other foul substance which was scraped off with a rough instrument as a ceremonial shaving, and then they were doused with water. In the 19th century, the ceremony could be quite brutal and often involved the beating of the pollywogs with boards and wet ropes. Rather than simply dousing the neophytes, it was not unheard of that they were actually thrown over the side of the ship and dragged from stem to stern, an event which sometimes ended in an inadvertent drowning.
Captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle disliked the practice, but thought it was beneficial to morale, writing ‘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, 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 eyewitness’ (R. Fitzroy, Narrative of the Surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, London, 1839, pp. 57-58).
A similar ceremony to that depicted in the present painting took place during the second voyage of the HMS Beagle. The first ‘griffin’ was Charles Darwin, who noted in his diary how he ‘was then placed on a plank, which could be easily tilted up into a large bath of water. They then lathered my face and mouth with pitch and paint, and 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 and ducked me. At last, glad enough, I escaped. Most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths and rubbed on their faces. The whole ship was a shower bath: and water was flying about in every direction: of course not one person, even the Captain, got clear of being wet through’ (R. D. Keynes, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, Cambridge, 2001, pp. 36-38).
In this complex composition, Biard has captured the essentials of the ceremony as well as the pandemonium that must have ensued during its execution. The composition is framed by figures in motion, on the left pouring the water that constitutes the drowning bath and on the right by a figure standing on the gunwale with his arms raising, cheering on the proceedings, while other looks on from a vantage point up the ship’s rigging. Clustered in the foreground, intent on the poor griffin, are the figures of King Neptune, Queen Amphitrite and their court. A blindfolded youth, just brought up from the decks below, waits his turn in utter terror, unable to see what is going on, but able to hear what must have been heart-wrenching cries from the fully clothed man in the bath.
Crossing the line ceremonies took place continuously on board ships as recently as the 1940s, and are still practiced, in a much more benign form, in the present day.