Crossing the Line: Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep

Melissa de Bie, Director of Collections Management & Registration at History Colorado

Several weeks ago, I was giving a behind-the-scenes tour and randomly opening some of our map cabinets, when I spotted this certificate. The imagery and some of the verbiage caught my interest, and I made a mental note to return to it. What I found was an interesting little bit of maritime history that is now part of the History Colorado Collection.

So you can better appreciate this certificate, here’s the text:

To All Sailors Wherever Ye May Be: and to all Mermaids, Whales, Sea Serpents, Porpoises, Sharks, Dolphins, Eels, Skates, Suckers, Crabs, Lobsters and all other Living Things of the Sea
Greeting: Know ye: That on this Twelfth day of November 1942 in Latitude 00000 and Longitude Censored there appeared within Our Royal Domain the U.S.S. Colorado bound South for the Equator and for War Service in the Southwest Pacific
Be it Remembered That the said Vessel and Officers and Crew thereof have been inspected and passed on by Ourself and Our Royal Staff
And Be It Known: By all ye Sailors, Marines, Land Lubbers and others who may be honored by his presence that William F. Bennett U.S. Navy having been found worthy to be numbered as one of our Trusty Shellbacks he has been duly initiated into the Solemn Mysteries Of The Ancient Order Of The Deep
Be It Further Understood: That by virtue of the power invested in me I do hereby command all my subjects to show due honor and respect to him wherever he may be
Disobey this order under penalty of Our Royal Displeasure.
Given under our hand and seal this November 12th 1942
Davey Jones His Majesty’s Scribe
Neptunus Rex Ruler of the Raging Main By His Servant Woodside Capt. USN.

The certificate refers to a maritime ceremony called “Crossing the Line.” This is a time-honored tradition to mark crossing the Equator in initiation with a series of tests and trials until sailors are accepted by King Neptune as one of his trusty shellbacks. A “shellback,” or a Son of Neptune, is a mariner who has sailed across the Equator and taken part in the Crossing the Line ceremony. A “pollywog” is someone who has yet to cross the Equator. And a “land lubber” is someone altogether unfamiliar with the sea or seamanship.

Rooted in history, these ceremonies are practiced in several countries. They were first thoroughly documented in the early 1800s and likely boosted morale, serving as proof of endurance. Over time, it appears that the intention of these ceremonies changed slightly, and in the later 1900s they were controversial for having elements similar to hazing. But the ceremony is still practiced today and is usually orchestrated in a controlled manner. Commercial liners like cruise ships and students with Semester at Sea have even adopted Crossing the Line.

After successfully Crossing the Line, a sailor received this certificate. The events of the ceremony are mysterious, as is often the case with rites of passage (there’s no secret handshake that I know of…though I’m just a land lubber!). The certificates are unofficial, so the U.S. Navy keeps no record. But as with many other milestone events, they are likely treasured and a sign of honor, which explains how this one ended up in the History Colorado Collection.


Originally published at historycolorado.org on December 23, 2014.

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