Cats have been taken aboard ship since at least Viking times and possibly well before that. It was not unusual for ships to be infested with rats and mice, causing obvious problems to on-board supplies of food. The ship’s cat was a hard-working and essential member of the crew, highly valued for the benefits it brought. However, on long voyages and with little to do other than work, it was not surprising that sailors began to value the ship’s cat for other reasons than its ability to keep down the rodent population.
Mousers and Companions
Going anywhere by sailing ship in the eighteenth century was a hazardous business; even more so on a long voyage much of which would be out of sight of land. Everyone in the group, from the captain downwards, must have been constantly aware that disaster could strike at any moment. Tides, winds and waves were not the only dangers, though they might frequently conspire to force a sailing ship onto dangerous shoals or rocks. There must have been many times when the crew felt helpless in the powerful grip of storms and adverse winds.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that sailors were, in general, a superstitious bunch. Anything that might help them to predict or avert bad weather and give them a measure of control over unfavourable situations was important. It’s easy for us today to sneer at their ignorance, but I imagine that very few of us have ever experienced a severe storm at sea on a wooden hulled ship.
Cats also had a reputation for being magical creatures — the companions of witches and wizards and even associates of Satan himself. In other circumstances, black cats tended to be seen as harbingers of evil, but amongst British and Irish sailors, having a black cat cross your path denoted good luck. Having a black cat on board your ship would be even better. Sailor’s wives often kept black cats at home, pampering them in the hope that they would use their magical powers to protect their husbands and bring them home safely from a long voyage. Conversely, to harm a cat aboard a ship — or, still worse, to throw one overboard – would inevitably cause disaster to the vessel and bring many years of bad luck to the person who carried out such a dastardly crime.
We all know about pirates and their pet parrots, thanks to Long John Silver’s parrot, “Captain Flint”, in Treasure Island. They also kept cats, giving them the run of the ship and often treating them as pets. The luckiest kind of cat to own was one with extra toes on its feet, since this was believed to make them better mousers and help them deal with the difficulty of moving about on a pitching deck.
Cats as Weather Forecasters
Sailors used to watch out for odd feline behaviour and thought it was caused by approaching storms of wind or rain. When the ship’s cat ran about wildly, it was because she “had a gale of wind in her tail.” Another superstition stated, “Against times of snow or hail, or boist’rous windy storms; she [the cat] frisks about and wags her tail, And many tricks performs”. And a saying of 1710 had it that, “While rain descends, the pensive cat gives o’er her frolicks and pursues her tail no more.” Licking its fur the wrong way was also taken as a sign of approaching rain.
Some of these superstitions, clearly persist for a very long time. When I was a child in the 1950s, we always had cats, and if one of them sat and washed behind its ears, by licking its front paw and wiping the damp paw over its head, I was told this was an infallible sign of rain. And if the cat ran madly from room to room, as cats sometimes do, this was described as “having the wind in its tail”.
“Trim”: An Exploring Cat
It wasn’t just the common sailors who showed concern about their cats either. Matthew Flinders, the circumnavigator of Australia, had a favourite cat called Trim. Trim had been born in 1799 on board a ship bound from the Cape of Good Hope to Botany Bay. At one point, the kitten fell overboard but managed to make its way back to the ship and climb up a rope to safety. Flinders and the crew were greatly impressed by this and Trim became a favourite.
The cat went with Flinders on his voyages of circumnavigation in 1801 – 1803 and survived a shipwreck in the latter year. Flinders was even bringing Trim back to England, until he was seized by the French in Mauritius and accused of spying. Trim shared his prison cell until one day he suddenly disappeared. Flinders harboured the darkest suspicions about his cat’s fate, and wrote a touching biographical tribute to the cat, whom he had seen as a faithful and affectionate friend.
A Lucky Spanish Cat
One officer in the Royal Navy even remembered a poor ship’s cat in the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The huge 140-gun Spanish warship Santissima Trinidad, severely damaged during the battle, was seen to be sinking during the terrible storm that followed. At once, the British warship sent out longboats to take off those of the crew on board who were still alive. As the last of these longboats was pulling away from the ship, the lieutenant in charge noticed a cat which ran out onto the muzzle of one of the lower deck guns and clung there, meowing pitifully. At once the longboat was ordered back to rescue the cat. The lieutenant’s report on his return stated that, “Everything alive was taken out, down to the ship’s cat.”