This week’s entry: Ship’s Cat
What it’s about: Cats have been sailing with humans for nearly as long as they’ve been with us. The ancient Egyptians first domesticated the feline around 7,500 B.C., and soon after were taking them up and down the Nile. As their trade network expanded around the Mediterranean, they found cats were useful sailing partners, as they killed rats and other pests. Other nations adopted this anti-vermin strategy, and thus cats spread across the world, adapting into different breeds to suit different climates.
Strangest fact: Cats often figured into sailors’ superstitions, and not without reason. Emmy never missed a voyage on the RMS Empress Of Ireland, until one day in 1914, when she could not be persuaded to board by any means. The ship sailed off and the cat watched from the pier. The next morning, the Empress crashed into another ship and sank, killing over 1,000 people.
Biggest controversy: Sailors have taken cats to every part of the globe, even to places that they probably shouldn’t have. Ernest Shackleton brought a ship’s cat, Mrs. Chippy, on board the Endurance for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, in which the explorer intended to cross the continent overland. The mission was a failure, but an impressive story nonetheless. The Endurance became trapped in ice and destroyed, leaving the crew marooned on an iceberg for months until they reached Elephant Island, an uninhabitable ice-covered mountain off the coast of Antarctica. Shackleton and five others travelled 800 miles in a lifeboat to find help, and were able to rescue the entire crew without a single (human) casualty. However, upon the Endurance’s sinking, Shakleton ordered Mrs. Chippy and the expedition’s sled dogs shot, reasoning, “We could not undertake the maintenance of weaklings under the new conditions.”
Another ship trapped in ice—the Belgian Antarctic Expedition’s Patria—fared better, as both ship and crew survived what must have been an unimaginably harsh winter, and then escaped the ice after several months. Most of the crew returned to Belgium the first men ever to spend the winter on Antarctica, but the ship’s cat, Nansen, did not survive and was buried on the frozen continent.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Some cats have found fame and fortune as ships’ mascots. Simon was the ship’s cat on the HMS Amethyst during the Yangtze Incident, in which the British warship was trapped on the Yangtze River during the Chinese Civil War after being damaged by fire from Chinese Communists. The casualties included 22 dead, 31 wounded men, and one wounded cat. After more than three months trapped on the river, the damaged ship managed to slip away under cover of darkness, making it safely to Hong Kong. Simon made a full recovery and was hailed as a hero. The crew promoted him to “Able Seacat,” and when he died, he received an obituary in the Times of London and the Dickin Medal, for animals that have shown gallantry while serving with the British armed forces.
Simon isn’t the only cat to find fame at sea. Chibbley circumnavigated the globe five times aboard the Picton Castle, receiving her own fan mail; and Blackie got the photo opportunity of a lifetime when her ship, the HMS Prince Of Wales, was chosen to convey Winston Churchill to a secret meeting with Franklin D. Roosevelt during WWII. After the two leaders signed the Atlantic Charter, Churchill stooped down to bid the cat farewell, and a photograph of that moment was a nationwide sensation.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Just as it is for human sailors, life at sea can be dangerous for cats. The HMS Hermione’s cat, Convoy, was listed on the official crew roster and given a tiny hammock in crew’s quarters, but was killed when a German U-Boat sunk the Hermione in 1942. Jenny was a ship’s cat who gave birth to a litter of kittens a week before her ship set sail. Alas, the ship was the Titanic, and neither she nor her kittens survived when the boat sank.
Also noteworthy: Dangerous as seafaring life may be, cats have a way of landing on their feet. U-Boat was a cat on a British vessel in WWII who took shore leave with the crew, instinctively returning to the ship just before it was time to set sail. On one journey, the cat returned late, moments after the ship moved away from the dock. U-Boat ran down the dock, made a leap across open water onto the deck of the ship, and safely continued on another journey.
The German battleship Bismarck’s cat, Oscar, was renamed Unsinkable Sam when she survived the sinking of the Bismarck (most of the 2,200 crew members did not), was rescued by the HMS Cossack, and survived the torpedoing of that ship. After a stay on Gibraltar, Sam was given a berth on the HMS Ark Royal, which was also torpedoed, but the cat survived again, finally retiring to dry land, catching mice for the Gibraltar governor.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: A number of stories set far in the future have adapted the ship’s cat to spaceships. Wikipedia gives several examples, from Data’s cat on Star Trek: The Next Generation to Jones from Alien, and links to the broad category science fiction.
Further down the wormhole: Besides having a practical position on board a ship, cats were also valued by sailors for superstitious reasons. Some believed cats could control storms with their tails; some believed they could predict the weather (correctly, in fact, as cats’ sensitive inner ears makes them respond to changes in barometric pressure that would go unnoticed by humans). Whatever the reasons, to this day ship’s cats are seen as a good luck charm. We’ll explore the concept of luck next week, and then go hit the slots.