Thomas Lowe Crosses the Equator

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

In 1841, Thomas Lowe sailed on the HBC ship Vancouver, on his way to the HBC’s Pacific coast headquarters, Fort Vancouver. He did not reach that post — but that is a story for the future. Right now, in this blogpost, young Lowe is sailing though the trade winds south of the Cape Verde, hoping to cross the equator without difficulty. Cape Verde is a country off the coast of Africa consisting of ten rocky islands, the highest point being about 7,400 feet above sea level. So, from the last blogpost, found at we will continued onward from the last words he wrote in his journal:

Owing to the excessive heat of the Weather, I wrapt myself in my Pea Jacket and slept in the Pinnace, where I contrived to pass the night more comfortable than I could have done below… 

8 Friday [October] This is now the fourth Saturday since leaving the Downs, and we have hitherto had a comparatively pleasant voyage. From 7 to 11 p.m. the lightning flashed incessantly and I never before saw it more vivid; it is occasioned, of course, by the intense heat during the day, and we have had it more or less ever since entering the Tropics. The Sun sets about 6 and the nights are generally clear and cool. 

10, Sunday. The wind has failed us, and we are dodging about, sometimes with a light breeze, and at others becalmed — most part of the day we have been in sight of other three vessels (all British — two Scottish), and although we were within two miles of each other, scarcely one was with the same breeze as another at the same time. We were all outward bound, and ought all to have stood nearly the same way, but so very inconstant are the winds here that, while the Vancouver was running with a favourable breeze, another within half a mile of us was striving against a head wind. At 7 p.m. a large black cloud burst right over us and discharged its cargo, a complete torrent of rain, upon us, accompanied with vivid flashes of lightning. Made 103 miles today.

As Thomas Lowe said, this was Equatorial weather, and he “heartily wished we were across the Line into the S.E. Trade Winds.” On Monday October 11 they discovered a large American Ship that had been far ahead of them, now within musket range and “sailing with the same wind as we were; kept within sight all day.” That night there was another violent Thunder Storm which continued most of the night, and they made little progress, never exceeding 3 1/2 Knots. On Tuesday they were once again becalmed, “until sunset, when a light air sprung up, carrying us two knots an hour, which was certainly better than being stationary altogether but still far from satisfying us…

Saw immense numbers of Porpoises and Bottle-nosed Whales, snorting and blowing around the ship, and droves of Bonitos pursuing the unfortunate Flying Fish, which are so numerous hereabout. Running a Southerly course…

At present night and day are equal, the sun setting at 6 and rising at 6.

Thursday 14. Saw the same Brig again this morning which we saw yesterday, but now considerably ahead of us. Put the Ship about and now steering S.W. As the cargo  is not so very well arranged as it ought to have been (the heaviest goods being uppermost) the Vessel is very crank and renders it somewhat difficult to keep our legs. Made 27 Miles of Latitude.

On Friday they sailed with the wind blowing fresh from the S.E., Large numbers of petrels, “or Mother Carey’s chickens, as they are generally called, are following the Ship. . . Sailors have a strange superstition concerning these birds and dislike their appearance, as they have a notion that they are the harbingers of foul or squally weather, and they positively affirm that if any of them are either killed or molested, we will infallibly meet with some awful calamity.” 

So I googled Stormy Petrels, which is a phrase I am familiar with, and learned that they are “a person who brings or portends trouble.” That fits with Thomas Lowe’s description, of course, but the bird he refers to is actually called the Storm Petrel. These are the smallest of all seabirds, the size of a lark in fact, with a flight that is fluttering and somewhat bat-like. They are found in all oceans and are pelagic, which means they hardly come to land except for breeding and nesting. They feed on planktonic crustaceans and small fish plucked from the surface of the water, typically while hovering. 

The Storm Petrels nick-name, Mother Carey’s Chickens, was first used in Philip Carteret’s book, An Account of a Voyage round the World, published in London in 1773. He says that the petrels frequently seem to be walking on the water, and that “sailors have given the name of Mother Carey’s chickens,” to the petrels. According to the Word Histories site, the name “Mother Carey” is probably a mis-translation of the Latin Mater Cara, or Italian Madre Cara, meaning “dear mother,” and used to refer to the Virgin Mary. “The storm petrel was thought by sailors to be a harbinger of bad weather sent by the Virgin Mary,” according to  

So now we know! Thomas Lowe’s journal continues, and within two days his ship is sailing across the equator!

Immediately thereafter the Sulphur, which had been placed previously along the sides of the vessel, was then set fire to from stem to stern, and from the midst of the flames we heard the gruff voice of Neptune hailing us, demanding who we were, from whence we came, whither bound, and if there were any youngsters on board, who had never before been within the circuit of his dominions. After the captain had satisfactorily replied to the Old Gentleman’s inquires on these points, assuring him (through a speaking trumpet) that he had 10 of the said youngsters with him (although some of them were pretty old men but unfortunately for themselves, landsmen) he [Neptune] informed us that he and his Spouse would pay us a visit tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock. He (or at least his representative) then departed in his fiery Chariot (a bucket filled with Tar and Oakum [shredded rope] and several other Combustibles), leaving us enveloped in complete darkness. The effects of the whole was indeed beautiful, heightened by the extreme darkness of the night and the reflection of the red and lurid flames upon the surface of the water. Of course, we who were destined to undergo the operation of shaving on the morrow look forward to his visit with the most entire satisfaction.

Well, that doesn’t sound bad, does it? I think, however, Lowe was being sarcastic! The next morning “Neptune” boarded the ship and the ten men who were to be “shaved” were taken to the Forecastle and “left to our own Meditations, no doubt pleasing. Some of the party affected to laugh at the thing as a good joke, but there was an expression upon every countenance not to be mistaken, which explicitly told that they scarcely expected it would prove so. 

When all was ready, the oldest man was called up first and blindfolded, this was all we were allowed to Witness, as the Hatch was again immediately closed over us. One by one they were called, and we only heard the distant noise, the boisterous mirth of the operators co-mingling with the screaming and yelling of the unfortunate victims, but were not allowed to participate in the sports. At length my turn came . . .

After being divested of everything but my shirt & trowsers, I was led barefooted and blindfolded though a long file of men, each of whom . .  dashed his share with all his might in my face, or any part of my body where he thought I would feel it the most. Having arrived at the scene of operations I was placed upon the top of a short ladder near the Gangway, and immediately afterwards I felt my face and neck plentifully besmeared with a composition of Tar, Grease, and sundry other offensive simples. I was asked several questions in order to induce me to open my mouth and thus allow of the insertion of some of the composition, but rightly guessing their intention I had the sagacity not to answer. After being duly but not gently scraped with a piece of bent iron hoop I was tossed into a sail filled 3 or 4 feet deep with water, and there rolled about by a fellow in the representation of a Bear ready to receive me. After passing through this man’s hands I was allowed to scramble out of the Sail the best way I could, and received the Kiss of Congratulations from Amphitrite, Neptune’s wife. She had that morning, however, in honor of the occasion, eaten heartily at breakfast, and it was no difficult matter to perceive that Onions had formed the principal ingredient. . .

Poor Thomas Lowe, and poor all the other landsmen on that voyage! Lowe said that remonstrance in such circumstances was not only useless, “but added to their unnatural and brutal amusements.” Some of those who were resistant to the ceremony “met with no very gentle treatments.” But the good thing about this ceremony being over, is that:

We are now considered as the licensed and adopted children of Neptune, and can never afterwards be liable to the same operation. I am glad it is all over, as we have been constantly bantered and jeered about it for the last fortnight. This statement is not in the slightest degree overdrawn and I have stated the facts exactly as they occurred. It is a custom which is fast getting into disuse, and deservedly so, for I believe serious accidents sometimes occur, but the Crew always look upon it as one of the greatest privileges they have, and it will never be with their consent, that it will be done away with.

Can you imagine being coated with tar and grease while at sea, when there is such a shortage of water with which to wash it off? This is something that would last the rest of their journey, I believe, and it would not be before they reached the Sandwich Islands that the men could bathe and get rid of it. This would probably be the most unpleasant part of this unpleasant “tradition.”

I first read Thomas Lowe’s journal some years ago and didn’t pay a lot of attention to this story. Then I found this tradition in the fur trade: not everywhere in the fur trade, but at one particular spot — the crossing of Portage La Loche! In the book, The Early Northwest, edited by Gregory P. Marchildon [University of Regina Press, 2008], there is a chapter on Methye Portage (the old name for Portage La Loche), titled, “Some Logistics of Portage La Loche (Methy),” by C.S. Mackinnon. On page 109 of the above-mentioned book, I found this:

On the way in, he [Governor Simpson] respected voyageur Methy Portage tradition which required each new Bourgeois to give a dram of rum to the men or be “subject to the unpleasant process process of shaving (as practised on board Ship in crossing the line). . .”

So, this is a tradition that the Hudson’s Bay Company inherited from the North West Company! After all, all one needed to re-create this tradition was grease, and tar. Grease is found everywhere in the fur trade, but tar is not! But it is found in the Athabasca District, where there are tar sands, as well as streams of tar that run into the Athabasca River, and the Clearwater! And both of these rivers are just north of Portage La Loche!

When the next section of Thomas Lowe’s journal is published, it will appear here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.