Let’s start with a fun but weird aside: Before the 20th century, it was common for sailors on expeditions to be punished with a whip, commonly called “the cat-o’-nine-tails.” As far as I could find, despite the presence of the word “cat,” the whippings had zero relation to the millennia-old tradition of keeping a feline on board a ship to snatch up all the rodents.
Stalking ships for prey is arguably the cat’s oldest occupation. They’ve been doing it at least since ancient Egypt, only back then, their prey consisted of birds and rodents along the Nile. Of course, thousands of years is a long time. And when humans do anything for more than a handful of turns, lore and superstition have a way of creeping into the proceedings. So the habit of bringing cats aboard boats has accrued a rich tradition of myth and paranoia. Cats have been blamed for sea storms; they’ve been credited for warding them off, too. Some captains throughout history have kept a watchful eye on the ship cat’s behavior: A feline’s slightest glance this way or that was read as a literal blessing or curse on the voyage.
Somehow, perhaps by luck that certain magical seafaring cats bestowed upon themselves, a handful of felines have distinguished themselves among the thousands, if not millions, of ship’s cats throughout history. A chronological look at a few of these cats-at-sea seems a good way to honor the lot.
Much of what we know about Trim was preserved in a loving essay by his owner, Captain Matthew Flinders, written in 1803 but not published until 1973. Flinders was a British cartographer whose ship, the Reliance, was the first to circumnavigate Australia.
The tuxedo cat was named after the loyal manservant in Laurence Sterne’s satirical novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, who was nicknamed “Trim.” Flinders’ essay records the habits of a curious cat who kept close watch on all manner of the technical ins-and-outs of sailing, from hoisting the sails to tracking the position of the stars at night.
The story of the first cat to venture to Antarctica isn’t a particularly happy one, but it lends shape to the lore of the ship’s cat by reminding us of the very real dangers both cat and crew confronted on these expeditions.
Nansen, named for Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, lived aboard the Belgica, a Belgian ship that set sail for Antarctica during the winter of 1897. When the ship got stuck in ice, Nansen apparently became despondent. He began to eat less and less and sleep excessively until he died in the middle of the voyage.
In the near century that has passed since British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated trans-Antarctic expedition, this handsome tabby has come to symbolize her owner, a carpenter named Harry “Chippy” McNeish. Mrs. Chippy was actually male, but by the time McNeish discovered this, everyone aboard the Endurance had grown used to calling him a lady.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Chippy and some of the sled dogs were shot after the ship became trapped in pack ice. Today, Mrs. Chippy’s fame has arguably surpassed McNeish’s. A bronze statue of the tabby was unveiled at his New Zealand grave in 2004.
Three ships, one extraordinary cat. In the early 1940s, during the Second World War, Sam was the ship’s cat aboard the Bismarck, a German battleship. After the Bismarck was sunk by a British destroyer, the HMS Cossack, the black-and-white cat was found floating on a piece of wood and was rescued by the Cossack‘s crew, who named him Oscar.
Five months later, the Cossack went down and again, the cat — now named Unsinkable Sam — survived. This time he was transferred to HMS Ark Royal, which less than a month later was sunk by a German torpedo. Sam spent the remaining 13 years of his life in retirement in Belfast, his legend sealed.
Simon’s career was not nearly as tumultuous as Sam’s, though his sole brush with armed conflict in 1949 aboard HMS Amethyst during the Chinese Civil War, when communists shot at the British frigate, made him a global celebrity. Simon was perhaps the most famous of the wounded.
When he was discovered days after the contretemps, his whiskers and eyebrows were singed, he was frail, and his fur was caked in dried blood. But within months he had gained strength and continued his career as the Amethyst‘s chief rat-catcher. Simon’s recovery and remaining days were covered heavily by international media, making him arguably the ship’s cat to gain the most notoriety in his lifetime.