At Sea to Java, 9 April 1893

At dawn we hoisted the anchor to leave the harbor of Singapore. First the course was set for the Rio strait between the islands of Batam and Bintang.  Everywhere there were smiling islands visible as if we were driving in a very wide stream. In the distance one could see the coast of Sumatra with high mountains. The pleasure of the journey was boosted by the smooth and calm sea and by the fact that the heat was not excessive, the cabins excepted. As beautiful the journey seemed for the passenger, as difficult it was in terms of navigation, because in the narrow strait of our course there were not only currents that were at times quite strong but also sand banks and shallow areas that had to be carefully evaded. But thanks to the experienced leadership of our commander and that of ship of the line lieutenant Gratzl, an excellent navigator, two gentlemen who spent day and night almost without a break on the bridge without regard for their health and keenly doing their duty so that we drove safely through the most difficult passages.

After the end of church service I found myself just with the staff on the afterdeck when it seemed as if a loud shout of „Ship ahoy!“ rang out from outside the ship which was answered by the commander with „Empress Elisabeth“. Then a pilot of Neptune came on board, approached us and asked about the commander of the ship and informed him that „Elisabeth“ had arrived at the kingdom of the god of the seas and that in the afternoon during the crossing of the equator Neptune himself would come on board to perform the naval baptism of all greenhorns. Then the pilot had the navigator come and compared his map with his own and showed him a spot where Neptune would be awaiting our ship. The pilot which we only recognized as the honorable bosun Zamberlin when he started to talk looked pretty uncanny. He was wearing black clothes, a large Sou’wester on his head and a mask with a long beard. The pilot talked with the navigator and then disappeared as quickly as he had appeared in the direction of the ship’s bow.

During the morning, a stand decorated with flags was built between the boats on the afterdeck on which I in the company of the commander and the gentlemen of my entourage sat down while the whole staff assembled in front of the stand. Already at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the signal „All hands on deck“ was sounded. Exactly at 3 o’clock and half an hour, „Kaiserin Elisabeth“ crossed the equator at 105° 3′ 30″ Eastern longitude.

At that moment the machines stopped. The crew assembled in line. The entrance of the god of the seas began and namely from the lower castle towards the stand on which we were standing. In front marched the music band whose members were dressed in all kinds of folk costumes: There were Indians, Negroes, highland Scots, even a typical Bohemian musician marched in front of the ceremonial carriage which was drawn by four sea monsters.

On the carriage, a splendidly decorated gun carriage, sat on his throne in a purple cloak with crown and trident the ruler of the seas. At Neptune’s side sat his wife with chastely reddening cheeks, the sea goddess Amphitrite. The god of the seas was played, as was natural, by our bosun. A mighty figure, he looked awe-inspiring, decorated with Neptune’s attributes and the head covered with a snow-white mustache and beard made out of flax tow. A charming figure was Amphitrite. This role was played, as chosen by the organizers of the feast, by a small Tyrolean whose chubby face with large blue eyes in combination with a blond wig, a low-cut dress and all kinds of ribbons and jewelry which created the illusion of Amphitrite  being played by a young pretty girl. A huge wet nurse carried in her arms the already rather grown-up child of the divine couple. The child behaved rather naughty and cried and shouted without break. This group was proof of the goofy natural humor of our crew and made me smile most vividly. The group’s creation shows again in admirable way how our sailors, as soon as one lets them act out their natural merriness, will with the most simple tools produce most comical effects.

Behind the ceremonial carriage marched Neptune’s retinue. The astronomer, the physician, the barber, pitch-black wild men and their wives, Tritons etc. Now Neptune left the wagon and mounted on a small stand, demands silence and asks the commander the usual questions: Where was he coming from, who has sent him and who was the owner of the ship. Then Neptune commands the physician and the astronomer to perform their duties. The former asks for the chief medical officer of the ship, assures himself that the ship has a clean health bill and no contagious diseases, while the latter one comically simulates astronomical procedures and measurements, a merry show appreciated by all.  The deceptively real-looking astronomical instruments used were all made out of wood.

At the end of the procession, the astronomer who knows English draws a large telescope out of a pocket and reports to the god that the equator is already visible and we were now very close to it. Now Neptune sends his wife to me on the stand. With a deep bow and paying homage with a few words, Amphitrite handed me a artfully constructed sea poodle while some of the kneeling black wives of the wild men offered me various fruits in sea shells.

Then Neptune turns to me and, having calmed his incessantly screaming child with a few sailor’s curses, gives a short talk in which he highlights how happy he is and how pleased he is to perform the fourth equator baptism of a member of the Emperor’s family within a few decades. Then he wished the ship a safe journey and declared that the hideous monsters Monsunia and Taifunia, which were represented in his entourage with masks would not be capable to harm „Elisabeth“. The god ended his talk with an order to the Tritons and the barber to perform the baptism.

Then they rush upon some of the younger staff members, especially the cadets, place them upon planks that cover water barrels, lather the greenhorns with a thick flour paste and start to shave their beards with large wooden knives. At the right moment, the plank under the barber’s victims is torn away so that the baptized disappears in the barrel while buckets of water are emptied over him.

Now Neptune took a large vessel filled with water and  spilled it over the commander. This was the signal for the general baptism. Immediately all water locks, all pumping hoses as well as the two steam injectors were manned and the big water battle began. Everything that could hold water such as buckets and other equipment was used in action and baptists and baptized fought doggedly. The comical scenes that one could observe can not be described. All distinction of rank, etiquette and consideration ceased. Everybody just wanted to fill their bucket with water as fast as possible and splash it over the next victim or even put the bucket on the victim’s head as a hat.

With a terrific force performed the steam injectors. Anyone caught by their stream was pushed back by the impact as if the man had been turned into water himself. Father Neptune guided the hose of one steam injector and targeted mostly me and the commander so that we were exposed to a heavy crossfire, especially as the officers and the crew with their buckets fairly assisted. Soon everything was swimming on the deck just like after a heavy downpour.

In the midst of the dunking I opened my eyes in order not to miss the scenes that played themselves out on deck. Here pretty Amphitrite was fleeing, holding in one hand her endangered wig and with the other holding the fragments of her low-cut dress together. The child has lost his cap and bib and has been transformed back into a  k. und k. sailor; the bombardon player has found his instrument completely filled with water and splashes the content over an unsuspecting comrade. A pitch-black wild man has turned into a piebald as one side of his body has been treated by the steam injector while the other one is still shining in black. Everybody is running around, splashing around while the water flows.

Here too, in the midst of this carefree joking, we as faithful sons of our country thought about our most gracious majesty. Suddenly, Neptune ordered silence and the commander led a cheer for Our Majesty the Emperor which was answered under the sublime sounds of our anthem by a hundred voices with three enthusiastic thunderous hurrahs. Then Neptune mounted the totally wet stand and handed me with a few solemn words a lovely certificate in which the god of the seas confirmed that I had crossed the equator. This artfully designed certificate was signed by Ramberg and decorated with fitting emblems and ornaments.

Again the water battle was raging which took place mostly among the sailors as many of the officers had retired to their cabins to change their clothes. Around 30 men had namely hidden themselves to evade the baptism. The comrades, however, did not accept such outsiders. The whole ship, every nook and cranny, was searched, the victims finally fetched out of their hiding places and their heads held directly under the pump for minutes as a punishment. Some were discovered in the boats, others under the guns or between boxes and baggage in the storage area. As soon as a joyful shout rang out of having found one of the refugees, a  whole swarm rushed upon him to perform the baptism. One of the sailors had climbed to the top spot of the main mast but this refugee was immediately fetched by three comrades. The scene looked even more funny viewed from the deck as among the pursuers was one of the Negro wives.

I was standing near a group of sailors when suddenly the message was shouted: „Now, we are getting the court cook!“ I too applauded this idea and I was expecting fondly to see thick Bussatto being held under the pump. But soon the people returned with the message that the smart Italian had locked himself in his cabin. The well-meant advice to break open the door was met with shouted approval and after a few moments  Bussatto appeared reluctantly on the stairs, half pushed, half carried. But in what state! His snow-white dress displayed the unmistakable signs of full menus. Covered with the most diverse blots of color, the cook was sent under the pump where he was baptized by the sailors with a special satisfaction.  The damage to his dress is explained, as I later learned, by the fact that Bussatto had taken a picturesque posture when the sailors had finally pushed in the door of the cabin,  and picked up a large kitchen knife and uttered a stream of curses against his tormentors. These were not idle and stopped his speech by putting a bucket of apricot ice that was ready to be served over his head, followed by multiple sauces and then carried him up to the deck.

Finally a horn signal ended the funny activities. Only late in the evening could Bussatto provide us with a meal as he flatly declared that all prepared dishes had been ruined partly in contact with his person, partly contaminated by salt water. It is a fact that there was hardly a spot on the ship that had not become wet. Even the prepared bird bodies  had received their share by the key hole.

For a long time we sat together on the iron deck with the gentlemen of the staff some of whom ate with me and we discussed the happy events of the day.

Links

  • Location: At Sea to Java (equator)
  • ANNO – on 09.04.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing the comedy „Krieg im Frieden“, while the k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is performing the ballet „Die goldene Märchenwelt“.

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