Taissumani, Nov 25

May Day on a Whaler


A tradition developed on Scottish whaling ships to the Arctic that crew members making their first trip – green hands as they were called – had to be initiated to the rigors of the north.

A similar tradition existed on merchant ships crossing the equator. On Arctic ships the ceremony — which for some curious reason lost to time was knows as “the double mess pot” — took place on the first of May. The ships had usually left Scotland in April and by May 1 they were usually at or near the ice edge in Davis Strait. Whether they were or not, that is the day the ceremony was celebrated.

On May Day sailors would open small packets of ribbon that their sweethearts had given them when they left their home port. The ribbons were knotted and each knot represented a whale that the loved one back home hoped her man would help to catch. The men would count the knots. But to open the package and count them before May Day would bring bad luck to the entire ship.

On the same day, men would produce bits of ribbon that they had snipped from the hats and dresses of women back home, and fashion these into garlands, in the centre of which they would add good luck charms, even small models of the ship. These would be raised to the mast where they would remain until the vessel returned home, by which time the garlands were bleached white.

The initiation ceremony for the green hands was often gruesome, even cruel, and green hands often lived in fear of it until the day it happened. Alex Trotter described part of it in 1856:

“This morning, immediately after 12 o’clock, a curious ceremony was gone through on board… About 10 minutes past the midnight hour, although it was clear as mid-day, I was startled by the sound of a horn blazing three loud blasts and on looking up I beheld two strangely-attired figures leaping over the bows of the vessel, not however, before a voice had thundered, “’Ship ahoy,’ which words had been set to music by the ringing of bells.

“The one figure was the great Neptune; the other was his wife. Their appearance was very remarkable. Let me describe the nobler animal first: his headpiece bore a striking resemblance to a red nightcap such as human beings wear; his face was covered with a beautiful veil which, however, allowed his beard, white as the coat of polar bear, to fall gracefully down on his breast; his habitments were first, covering the crown of his head to the waist and including his arms, an Esquimaux coat made out of seal skins and sewn together with sinews of the whale; second, his inexpressible or trousers were also made of sealskins, which is very natural as what else could the so-called God of the sea get to clothe himself with? In one hand he carried a trident, an emblem of his authority, and in the other the trumpet through which he had summoned our vessel. His beloved loving spouse was attired in a pair of moleskin trousers and was otherwise wrapped up in a large green shawl.

“These two crewmen, dressed up as Mr. and Mrs. Neptune were accompanied by burly servants carrying long lances. The green hands were blindfolded and subjected to a cruel ceremony. First each was asked to kiss Mrs. Neptune. But, unknown to them, a mixture of gunpowder and flour was placed in front of them, a lighted candle beside it. As Mrs. Neptune blew her kiss, this mixture ignited and set fire to the green hand’s whiskers. Then a frothy mixture of oil, soot and grease would be shoved in his mouth and lathered onto his face. His burned chin would be shaved with a primitive razor made from a hoop saw. Properly humiliated, he would then be saluted as a freeman of ‘Greenland’.”

Some reports say that Mrs. Neptune sometimes kissed the blindfolded sailors while wearing a moustache made of nail points.

There was one way out of this barbaric rite, but common sailors could not afford it. It was to bribe the royal sea couple with a suitable gift, and nothing was more acceptable than a bottle of rum. This was what the ship’s surgeons and visiting explorers usually did. Arthur Conan Doyle, who travelled as surgeon on the Hope in 1880, successfully bribed his way out of the ceremony.

Shipboard etiquette was often suspended for May Day. The royal couple, nothing more than crew members in costume, could address the captain directly and even demand a cup of grog in his cabin. The day usually ended with a “mollie,” as the Dundee whalers called it — a party with singing and dancing and music from bagpipes or a melodeon.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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