Ship’s Cats (and the sad tale of Mrs. Chippy)

Up until the mid 1970’s it was customary for ships to have a cat on board, this was a common practice on sea-faring vessels since ancient times. Cats were often on ancient Egyptian boats traveling the Nile, and the first domesticated cats were disseminated throughout Europe via Phoenician trading ships. Cats helped keep ships rodent, and therefore pest, free and as highly adaptable creatures they were well suited to ocean-life. In addition, due to the excessively superstitious nature of sailors, many myths and associations sprung up around these animals, especially where weather was concerned. For example if a cat licked its fur against the grain, it meant a hailstorm was coming; if it sneezed it meant rain; and if it was frisky it meant wind.
There are many famous ships cats; feline friends of the crew who weathered hardships alongside of the sailors. These animals provided a valuable source of companionship during the hard months at sea.

One of the more famous ship’s cats was Mrs. Chippy of the Endurance, Shackleton’s ill fated ship of the trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-1917. The ships carpenter Harry McNish, nicknamed ‘Chippy’ brought the cat on-board, and although it was later discovered that Mrs. Chippy was, in fact, a male, the name stuck. The cat was known for impressing the crew with his perilous fortitude; walking thin railings in rough seas, and for his bold, friendly demeanor. When the Endurance was ultimately abandoned in the ice of Antarctica, Shackleton made the decision that Mrs. Chippy, along with some of the sled dogs were to be shot, stating in his record of October 29, 1915:

This afternoon Sallie’s three youngest pups, Sue’s Sirius, and Mrs. Chippy, the carpenter’s cat, have to be shot. We could not undertake the maintenance of weaklings under the new conditions. Macklin, Crean, and the carpenter seemed to feel the loss of their friends rather badly.

‘Rather badly’ was an understatement, McNish never forgave Shackleton. Mourning the loss of the cat as a very old and ill man, McNish was remembered as still saying ‘Shackleton killed my cat’. Although instrumental in modifying the boat the James Caird, which withstood some of the roughest seas in the world during its 1, 300 km journey to South Georgia and which ensured the rescue of the entire crew, McNish’ resentment of Shackleton resulted in increasing levels of insubordination. Due to this Shackleton never recommended him for the Polar Medal, being one of only four members of the crew who were denied this honour.
A life sized bronze of Mrs. Chippy was placed on his grave in 2001.

More ships cats HERE and HERE
and get your very own replica HERE

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