By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 3 January 2012)
Ships have traditionally carried cats to protect food stores from rodents, and a few of these cats made their way into the history books.
Trim – Who Sailed Around the World with Captain Matthew Flinders
Trim was a black cat with a white star on his chest and white socks. Energetic and a bit of a risk taker, he fell overboard from time to time, but didn’t seem bothered by it. Whenever he landed in the ocean, someone would throw him a rope and he’d scamper back up.
Trim ran about with the ship’s men and adopted the habit of sitting in officers’ caps. At dinnertime he stole pieces of meat from forks with such brilliant dexterity that his victims were more inclined to admire his skill than be angered by the theft.
Two months later, ships came to rescue the survivors. Unfortunately, war had broken out between France and England, so when they stopped at the French Island of Mauritius for repairs, they were taken for spies and imprisoned. While the men languished in prison, a French lady adopted Trim, but he soon disappeared and Flinders was heartbroken. Seven years later, Flinders was released and returned to his wife in England but he never forgot Trim.
In 1996, the North Shore Historical Society commissioned a bronze statue of Trim for the window ledge at Mitchell Library in Sydney, Australia, and the library’s cafe has been named after Flinders’ beloved cat.
Mrs. Chippy – Who Accompanied Shackleton on the Endurance
Mrs. Chippy was a tomcat belonging to the Endurance’s carpenter, Henry McNeish. He was called Mrs. Chippy because he followed McNeish around like an over-possessive wife (chippy is a colloquialism for carpenter). Mrs. Chippy was an excellent rodent catcher and popular with the men.
During the voyage, the Endurance became trapped in ice. Realizing that they would die if they didn’t take their fate into their own hands, Shackleton decided they should set out for the nearest land mass on lifeboats, leaving the animals behind. The men bid Mrs. Chippy a loving farewell and found some sardines – his favourite – for a last supper. Shackleton then ordered the ship’s dogs and Mrs. Chippy shot, which provoked McNeish to rebel briefly against his leader. The men survived, largely due to the improvements McNeish made to the lifeboats, but Shackleton spitefully denied McNeish the Polar Medal that he should have received in retaliation for McNeish’s insubordination.
McNeish never forgave Shackleton nor got over the loss of his cat. In June 2004, the New Zealand Antarctic Society commissioned a bronze sculpture of Mrs. Chippy to adorn McNeish’s grave.
Oscar – Otherwise Known as Unsinkable Sam
Oscar acquired the nickname Unsinkable Sam after surviving the destruction of three
- The Bismarck – a German battleship sunk in 1941 with only 116 survivors out of a crew of more than 2,200
- The HMS Cossack – a British destroyer torpedoed several months after rescuing Oscar from a floating board
- The HMS Ark Royal – an Aircraft Carrier torpedoed a few days after plucking Oscar from the ocean
After the Ark Royal sunk and Oscar was again rescued, it was decided that while Oscar was certainly a lucky cat, he was unlucky for ships, and so Unsinkable Sam was redeployed as a rodent catcher for the Governor General of Gibraltar until a courageous ship’s crew eventually transported him to Ireland, where he lived out his life in a home for sailors.
Although there is a portrait of Unsinkable Sam in London’s National Maritime Museum, some scholars doubt the veracity of Oscar’s tale, and debate continues as to whether Unsinkable Sam’s strange luck is miraculous or an urban legend.
Simon – Who Served Aboard the HMS Amethyst
Simon protected the British HMS Amethyst’s food stores from rats, often bringing his kills as gifts to his commanding officer. He slept in the captain’s hat and accompanied him on rounds of the ship.
In 1949, the Amethyst was sent to guard the British Embassy during Mainland China’s communist revolution. When the ship was attacked on the Yangtze River, many crewmen were killed (including the captain) and the Amethyst was badly damaged, running aground on a sand bar.
Simon was badly injured survived the attack. He was taken to the sick bay for treatment, but not expected to live long. To everyone’s surprise, Simon recovered and again took up his duties guarding the food supplies, a critical service given that the ship was still trapped behind enemy lines and its crew in danger of starvation.
When not hunting, Simon spent his time cheering up the injured soldiers in the sick bay and charming the new captain, who had previously expressed an aversion to cats. When the new captain fell ill, Simon sat with him until he recovered.
After two hellish months, the Amethyst escaped one dark night and made its way home. Sadly, Simon died of an infection during the ship’s six-month quarantine in England. He was buried with full military honours and posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal for his gallantry.
- BBC News. (1 November 2007). “Wartime Hero Cat Simon Remembered.” News.BBC.co.uk.
- Griggs, K. (21 June 2001). “Antarctic Hero ‘Reunited’ with Cat.” News.BBC.co.uk.
- Roberts, P. (2010). “Mrs. Chippy, of the Endurance,” “Simon, of HMS Amethyst,” “Matthew Flinders Cat Trim,” and “Cats in Warfare.” Pur-n-Fur.org.uk.
- Stall, S. (2007). 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization. Philadelphia: Quirk Books.