“Please, Mother, pleease.” Richard tugged at Ann’s arm hoping it might encourage her to change her mind. Ann, scraping the porridge pot ready for washing up, pulled her arm away from his grip. Mary Ann looked on, hoping for a positive answer. Richard’s new friend James Thomas was nearby, also anticipating Ann’s reply.
“No, you got absolutely soaked last night in that foolish nonsense. ‘Tis a wonder you haven’t woken up with a fever. Lord only knows what could happen to ‘ee today. You could come back bald as a coot.”
The previous night, Richard had been on deck with James, driven there by the warm, oppressive air below. The days and nights were getting hotter. Some passengers resorted to dragging their straw mattresses onto the deck and sleeping there in their clothes.
As they stepped in amongst the temporary beds of other passengers, Richard and James pondered on what they’d seen during the day.
“What do you suppose they are going to do with all that stuff?” Richard asked James.
His friend shrugged.
The actions of some of the crew mystified them. The sailors had been gathering dresses and wigs from below and storing them in the fo’c’stle. Razors, lather and pill bottles joined the booty. When the boys stole glances at the stash in the sailor’s den, the secretive crew chased them away.
“Ain’t nothin’ here for you.”
The night was dark and moonless. A figure appeared in the starlight.
James, seeing it was the vessel’s master, said, “Evenin’ Cap’n Buckley.”
“Good evening, boys.”
A few minutes later, Richard and James jumped as one when a voice boomed from the dark of the poop deck. “Ahoy, William Money.”
Captain Buckley shouted back into the void. “I am the captain of the William Money. Who are you?“
“It is King Neptune. I’ve been told you have some pollywogs aboard who need an equatorial baptism.”
“Welcome to my ship, King Neptune. Yes, it is true. There are several sailors here who haven’t crossed into your latitudes before.”
“Very well, I will return in the morning at 9 o’clock to conduct the ceremony.”
Some of the passengers, including Richard and James, rushed to the quarterdeck to see the owner of this voice. Before they could catch a glimpse of his marine majesty, a sudden gush of water from the poop deck above saturated them. Once Richard got his breath back, he looked up to see the source of the water just in time to get another pailful in his face. James laughed, but he, too, was greeted by a further dose. The crew enjoyed the hilarity standing on the poop deck giving the passengers a shower.
“Come back tomorrow when Neptune is here, if you dare,” a sailor had said.
Looking forward to seeing King Neptune, Richard looked up at his mother, his eyes pleading with her.
“Tis only a bit of fun, Ann,” said Richard’s father. “Captain Buckley has said no passengers are to be touched. Let the boy go.”
Ann resigned herself to the inevitable. “Yes, all right, but Mary Ann stays. There have been too many problems with the crew and the single women. The doctor has put some girls on bread and water for talking to the sailors.
Richard looked at Mary Ann and mouthed the word “sorry” before he signalled to James, and both boys scurried up the ladder to the main deck.
Once there, they pushed their way through the gathered crowd. A blindfolded man was sitting on a wide plank on top of the harness cask. ‘King Neptune,’ in all his regalia, and his ‘wife,’ complete with ginger whiskers, were seated, watching the proceedings. Various ‘shellbacks,’ those experienced mariners who had crossed the equator before, stood by as constables, ready to help in the activities.
“What is your name, and where are you from, you slimy pollywog?” asked a crewman of his fellow seafarer. When he opened his mouth to answer, the unfortunate man had a brush-full of tar and froth put into it by one of Neptune’s crew. The ‘doctor’ stated that he thought the man looked poorly and called for the smelling salts. This consisted of a cork stuck with needles that were poked into his nose. His face was then lathered with tar and froth, and he was shaved with a piece of notched tin. To finalise his rite of passage, the inductee was tipped head first into a tub of water and proclaimed one of Neptune’s trusty shellbacks.
The rest of the day was spent in good-humoured jostling between passengers and crew. Captain Buckley refused to sell the crew any extra rum, so the sailors only became tipsy at most. An abundance of water was thrown about, and Richard was soaked again. He waited well into the evening to dry off before returning to his mother below.
Richard loved stargazing on those moonless nights of late October 1848. He spent night after night on deck, searching for the Southern Cross.
Book of Memorandum – By James Menzies 1848 http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/BSA/1849WmMoneyDiary.htm
Account of a voyage to the western coast of Africa: performed by His Majesty’s sloop Favourite, in the year 1805 – by Francis B Spilsbury