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Experience: 18th-Century Sailors Get Baptized at Sea

By Jean-François-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: February 20, 2013 
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A seaman gets doused in a "baptism" presided over by a sailor dressed as King Neptune. (Library of Congress)
A seaman gets doused in a "baptism" presided over by a sailor dressed as King Neptune. (Library of Congress)

For sailors, baptism is a ritual altogether different from that found in churches. Here, a lieutenant in the French army in 1719 describes the ceremony on board his ship en route to fight the Spanish in Louisiana. Historians say it is one of the best descriptions of baptism at sea for early modern Europeans—and of the punishment for those who make a skimpy offering of gold to the sea god.

 

WE ARRIVED AT THE TROPIC OF CANCER, where ordinarily a baptism is given to all those who have never before passed under that line. It should be known that this ceremony is practiced in three places: at the banks of Newfoundland, under the line of the tropics, and at the equator….

Two or three days before arriving at these places, the navigators alert those who have already been baptized to prepare all that is necessary for the festival, for their greater amusement. On the leeward deck is a large tub filled with water, which is used on these occasions as the baptismal font. The canteens are filled from it. On the tub is placed a plank as a seat for the adults who must receive their baptism.

A god appears—or rather, a sailor disguised as a venerable old man, seated on the shoulders of his slaves

Finally, on the day when the line is reached, as soon as Mass has been said (assuming there is a priest) and dinner is finished, a cry is heard from the mainmast, the complaints of an ancient and venerable god, known by the name of the Bonhomme Tropique. His cries are accompanied by those of his retinue, played on whatever instruments are available on the ship. If there are none, they pound on mess bowls or wooden boards, on kettles or pans, whatever can be found to make music to announce his arrival.

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A moment later, you see this god appear, or rather, a sailor disguised as a venerable old man. He wears a large beard made of white oakum and is festooned with patchwork clothing of many colors, a big hump on his back, a feathered bon­net, and stockings, one pinned up, the other loose. He is, in a word, an appealing, agreeable, and horrible man, seated on the shoulders of four of his slaves, who with difficulty help him climb down from their shoulders along the shrouds. This descent is accompanied by the laughs and cries of the sailors and all the rest of the crew. The venerable god holds in his hands a trident, like a god of the sea, a prince of the court of Neptune, who no doubt conferred this office upon him, and with it certain rights that have not yet been revealed to the knowledge of mortals.

When he has arrived on the bridge…he asks for the number of adults or catechumens who are to receive baptism. The larger the number, the happier he appears and the more he jumps for joy. As soon as he is given the catalog of names, he takes a position next to the baptismal font, otherwise known as a tub, and he appoints his officers and officiants, then calls out, one after another, the names on the list.

The first one named is, as you might expect, the one from whom the god of the tropic hopes or expects to get the most money. The one named comes forward and salutes the god of the tropic and takes a seat on the plank over the tub. Right away, he is presented the collection plate and puts one or more [gold coins] on it….

Once the offering is given, the god of the tropic simply pours a little water over the wrist of the one being baptized and makes him swear to do the same to all those who pass these lines and have not yet been received as he has; to never make a cuckold of another sailor; in short, to hold to these rules as do all his subjects.

Once those who give much have been dealt with in this manner, only then are summoned those who are destined to be the subjects of amusement. When these are called, they are asked to take the same vows, and each is given the name of an island. They are asked, as they sit upon the plank placed over the barrel, whether they have ever known any seamen who told them what is done on this occasion, to which they reply yes or no. Then the plank is pulled back, and with a little push, the victim falls butt-first into the tub.

From then on, it's a free-for-all; from the top of the masts, from the lifeboats and the shrouds, from everywhere on the ship come torrents of water, on his clothes, his face and head, everywhere that he can be hit. Those among the baptized who have their wits about them grab a flask or bucket and throw water back in the faces of those who are soaking them. Rather than blows of the fist or words, it is water that serves as the weapon, both offensive and defensive. Since the climate is warm, it becomes a big bath.

A new ship or shallop or dinghy that has never before passed through these places is also baptized, and in this case, it is the captain in command who makes the offering, large or small. If he is a miser and does not give enough, the sail­ors perform a similar ceremony, and especially if they are quarreling and waging battle, they will go cut off the nose of the figurehead, which is carved on the bow of the ship, or cut a piece off of the bow of the shallop or dinghy.

This is the cost of the avarice of the captain. No captain wishes to take the risk of acquiring such a public, visible renown. After these operations, the Bonhomme Tropique, by his divine and immortal powers, suddenly disappears, or at least he is never seen climbing back up the path by which he came. 

 

Adapted from The Memoir of Lieutenant Dumont, 1715–1747: A Sojourner in the French Atlantic, by Jean-François-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny. Translated by Gordon M. Sayre, edited by Gordon M. Sayre and Carla Zecher. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu.


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