The ship’s cat has been a common feature on many trading, exploration, and naval ships, and dates back to ancient times. Cats have been carried on ships for many reasons, the most important being to catch mice and rats. These rodents aboard a ship can cause damage to ropes and woodwork. Also, rodents threatened the stores the ship carried and were a source of disease, which is dangerous for ships that are at sea for long periods of time.
The natural ability of cats to adapt to new surroundings made them suitable for service on a ship. They also offered companionship and a sense of home, security and camaraderie to sailors who could be away from port for long periods, especially in times of war.
The domestication of cats is believed to date back some 9,500 years, and the practice of taking cats aboard boats and ships began not long afterwards. The Ancient Egyptians took cats on board Nile boats to catch birds in the thickets along the riverbanks. Cats were also carried on trading ships to control rodents, and that practice was adopted by traders from other nations. This led to the spread of cats throughout the world, with the species eventually reaching nearly all parts of the world accessible by ship. Over the centuries their offspring developed into different breeds according to the climate in which they found themselves and the mates they took, as well as deliberate selection by humans. Phoenician cargo ships are thought to have brought the first domesticated cats to Europe in about 900 BCE.
Sometimes worshipped as deities, cats have long had a reputation as magical animals and numerous myths sprang up amongst the especially superstitious seafaring community. They were considered to be intelligent and lucky animals, and a high level of care was directed toward them to keep them happy. Some sailors believed that polydactyl cats were better at catching pests, possibly connected with the suggestion that extra digits give them better balance, important when at sea. In some places polydactyl cats became known as ‘ship’s cats.’
Cats were believed to have miraculous powers that could protect ships from dangerous weather. Sometimes, fishermen’s wives would keep black cats at home too, in the hope that they would be able to use their influence to protect their husbands at sea. It was believed to be lucky if a cat approached a sailor on deck, but unlucky if it only came halfway, and then retreated. Another popular belief was that cats could start storms through magic stored in their tails. If a ship’s cat fell or was thrown overboard, it was thought that it would summon a terrible storm to sink the ship and that if the ship was able to survive, it would be cursed with nine years of bad luck.
Other beliefs included, 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. Some of these beliefs are rooted in reality. Cats are able to detect slight changes in the weather, as a result of their very sensitive inner ears, which also allow them to land upright when falling. Low atmospheric pressure, a common precursor of stormy weather, often makes cats nervous and restless.
The prevalence of cats on ships has led to them being reported on by a number of famous seafarers. The outbreak of the Second World War, with the spread of mass communication and the active nature of the world’s navies, also led to a number of ship’s cats becoming celebrities in their own right.
Blackie was HMS Prince of Wales’s ship’s cat. During the Second World War, he achieved worldwide fame after Prince of Wales carried Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to NS Argentia, Newfoundland in August of 1941, where he secretly met with the United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt for several days in a secure anchorage. This meeting resulted in the signing of the Atlantic Charter, but as Churchill prepared to step off Prince of Wales, Blackie approached. Churchill stooped to bid farewell to Blackie, and the moment was photographed and reported in the world media. In honor of the success of the visit, Blackie was renamed Churchill.
Convoy was the ship’s cat aboard HMS Hermione. He was so named because of the number of times he accompanied the ship on convoy escort duties. Convoy was duly listed in the ship’s book and provided with a full kit, including a tiny hammock where he would sleep. He stood by his ship to the end and was lost along with 87 of his crew mates, when the Hermione was torpedoed and sunk on 16 June 1942 by German submarine U-205.
Emmy was the ship’s cat on the RMS Empress of Ireland. She was an orange tabby cat who never missed a voyage. However, on May 28, 1914, Emmy tried to escape the ship. The crew could not coax her aboard and the Empress left without her. She was reportedly last seen on the roof of the shed at Pier 27, watching her ship sail out of Quebec City. Early the next morning the Empress collided with the SS Storstad while steaming through fog at the mouth of the St. Lawrence river and rapidly sank, killing over 1,000 people.
Kiddo seemed to have stowed away on the airship America, when she left from Atlantic City, New Jersey, in an attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1910. Kiddo was upset at first by the experience, but settled in and evidently, was better at predicting bad weather than the barometer. The airship’s engines failed, and the small crew and Kiddo abandoned the America for lifeboats when they sighted the Royal Mail steamship Trent, near Bermuda. Kiddo then was retired from being a ship’s cat and was taken care of by Edith Wellman Ainsworth, the daughter of the American journalist, explorer, and aviator, Walter Wellman, who made the daring attempt.
Simon was the ship’s cat of HMS Amethyst during the Yangtze Incident in 1949, and was wounded in the bombardment of the ship which killed 25 of Amethyst’s crew, including the commanding officer. He soon recovered and resumed killing rats and keeping up the crew’s morale. He was appointed to the rank of ‘Able Seacat’ Simon and became a celebrity after the ship escaped the Yangtze and returned to Britain. He later succumbed to an infection and died shortly after. Tributes poured in and his obituary appeared in ‘The Times.’ He was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal, the only cat ever to earn the award, and was buried with full naval honours.
U-boat was another ship’s cat aboard a Royal Navy vessel in the Second World War, who would take shore leave whenever his ship came into port. He would spend days on shore, usually returning only just before his ship sailed. One day, U-boat failed to return in time for roll call and his ship was forced to sail. As she pulled away from the quay, U-boat was seen running down the dock after the departing ship. He made a death-defying leap onto the ship and succeeded in making it aboard. He was reported to be undaunted by his experience, proceeding to wash himself on deck. The crew members were reportedly delighted their good luck charm had returned.
Unsinkable Sam, previously named Oscar, was the ship’s cat of the German battleship Bismarck. When she was sunk on in May of 1941, only 116 out of a crew of over 2,200 survived. Oscar was picked up by the destroyer HMS Cossack. Cossack herself was torpedoed and sunk a few months later, killing 159 of her crew, but Oscar again survived to be rescued, and was taken to Gibraltar. He became the ship’s cat of HMS Ark Royal and was torpedoed and sunk in November that year. Oscar was again rescued, but it was decided at that time to transfer him to a home on land. By now known as Unsinkable Sam, he was given a new job as mouse-catcher in the Governor General of Gibraltar’s office buildings. He eventually returned to the UK and spent the rest of his life at the ‘Home for Sailors.’ A portrait of him hangs in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
The Royal Navy banned cats and other pet animals from all ships on the ocean in 1975 on hygiene grounds.