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Crossing the Equator

2 June 1607

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I am not sure why we did all this and the officers said we had to be quiet about it and will not put it in their books as the company in London would be cross to know we have done this thing. The General, who is very clever, has said it is good for the men but I am not sure why and my head hurts. I am trying to go to sleep now but the room is spinning and the sailors are snoring even louder than usual. This is a strange place.

Ship's boy

Morning:
It is a long time since we saw land, and people are arguing about where we are. We can use instruments to measure our ‘latitude’ (how far north or south we are), but it is more difficult to find out our ‘longitude’ (how far east or west we are), so we are not sure how close we are to the Americas, which is a big land on the other side of the ocean found out around 100 years ago, I am told. Some of the men have been there before and say they do not want to go back. We are going around the bottom of Africa, but we go near America because the winds are better there. We are getting low on food and water and the winds mean we cannot get further south, so I am worried. But now we are about to cross the equator, which is the line in the middle of the world.

A 17th century map showing the latitudes of the Eastern hemisphere

Map showing the latitudes of the Eastern hemisphere

Evening:

I do not feel very well. When we crossed the line some of the sailors who had been on French and Dutch ships said it was a special thing and they became the officers and the officers became the men and it was strange and then they poured water on me and said welcome to the Kingdom of Neptune who is the god of the sea and then we all ate a lot and I was given lots of beer and sack and now I feel sick. 

Sources

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Although some scholars have concluded from […] early French sources that the line crossing tradition originated in France, often overlooked is a Dutch traveler account by Jan Hughen van Linschoten of an ‘ancient custome,’ as he called it, upon crossing the equator on Whitsuntide in 1583. He describes ceremonies at the line on the way to the East Indies, at which point the officers were replaced by sailors in a symbolic inversion, followed by a rowdy feast with abundant consumption of alcoholic drinks. In 1598, another Dutch ship on the way to the East Indies recognized crossing the equator with the issuing of wine, as do many Dutch accounts through the seventeenth century.

Simon J. Bronner, Crossing the Line: Violence, Play, and Drama in Naval Equator Traditions (Amsterdam University Press, 2006), p. 35

A. M. Mallet. 1683: Map of the latitudes of the Eastern hemisphere