Ahoy kitties! Believe it or not, cats have been an important part of nautical travel since the days of the Ancient Egyptians. The tradition of having a cat aboard began with the ancient Egyptians who used cats to help them hunt birds on their river rafts. Cats were not really thought of as pets, but rather as helper animals that served a specific purpose.
The Role of the Ship’s Cat
As ships became larger and trips became longer, ship’s cats became even more important. Even the ancient sailors knew that cats are very efficient killers of rodents and other vermin. Mice and rats were more than just a nuisance on board a ship – they could sabotage an entire journey. There are 3 good reasons they needed to have a good mousing cat aboard their ships:
- Rodents would chew through ropes, sails, and other important ship components. Anyone who has had rodents get into their attic or garage knows that they will eat through anything. If a rat chewed through a rope significantly enough, then a sail may not be able to be properly raised or moved. Since sails were a ship’s only means of being propelled forward, being unable to raise a sail could be a big problem.
- Rodents could chew their way into food rations which could not be replenished at sea. Keeping the rodent population to a minimum could mean the difference between proper nutrition and starvation.
- Rodents (and their fleas) were known carriers of deadly diseases. As an example, the Bubonic plague was spread by rat fleas. On a ship where everyone lives in tight quarters for weeks to months on end, diseases could spread quickly among the sailors.
Superstitions developed among sailors regarding the ship’s cat. Many believed that cats could predict the weather. It was believed that if a cat meowed, bad weather was on its way. Messing with the ship’s cat could also bring bad weather. If a cat was thrown overboard or locked in a cupboard, a storm was about to hit. Storms were dreaded by sailors as they could lead to devastating damages to the ship and crew. On the upside, it was believed that having a cat aboard was good luck.
The use of cats on ships is regarded as one of the ways domestic cats were spread around the world. Phoenician cargo ships brought the first domesticated cats to Europe around 900 B.C. As cats spread throughout the world, sailors would adopt foreign cats both as souvenirs and to remind them of the pets they left behind at home.
Somewhere around the end of World War II the tradition of ship cats dwindled off. The British Royal Navy banned cats from ships based on hygiene issues in 1975. Before the tradition came to its end there were a number of famous ship’s cats who bravely did their duty. There were several just during World War II alone: Blackie aboard the HMS Prince of Whales who was famous for greeting Winston Churchill, Convoy aboard the HMS Hermoine, Tiddles who was aboard several different Royal Navy aircraft carriers, Pooli aboard a U.S. attack transport, and surely many more.
The original Mayflower’s journey began in England in 1620. There were 102 passengers aboard who were seeking employment and religious freedom. It isn’t known for sure whether or not there were any cats on the Mayflower, but it is assumed that there were because of the traditions held by sailors at the time. After 66 grueling days at sea averaging only 2 miles per hour, the Mayflower reached modern day Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The pilgrims lived through the winter on the Mayflower while they tried to build homes on the land. Only 53 passengers and half of the crew survived until spring time. The surviving crew took the Mayflower back to England and the surviving pilgrims began the colonies that would become the basis for the United States. No one knows what happened to the Mayflower after 1624. People in the U.S. celebrate Thanksgiving to commemorate the help the pilgrims had in surviving that first winter.
The Mayflower II
In the 1950’s England decided to commemorate the solidarity between the Americans and the British by recreating the Mayflower and its journey. From the original Mayflower blueprints, the Mayflower II was handcrafted in the same way the original would have been. The only changes in the design were a modern staircase between the main and lower decks, electric lighting, and a few other minor changes to accommodate tourists who would later visit the ship. The ship had no motor, it was propelled by the wind in its sails.
The Mayflower II set sail in 1957 with a crew of 34 – including the ship’s cat! A little black and white kitten named Felix was brought aboard the only American member of the crew. At first they weren’t sure that the kitten would survive. Even cats take a while to get their sea legs! His fur was matted and he was quite the mess. One day one of the sailors decided to bathe Felix and that was the turning point in his journey. After a little meow, Felix decided he was going to make it and grew strong and healthy from then on. He did have one little accident early on where a sailor accidentally stepped on him and broke his leg, but he healed up very nicely. The sailors took well to Felix and even made him his own life-jacket (which made Felix “semi-mutinous”). Arriving in Cape Cod 2 months after the beginning of the voyage, Felix was quite the celebrity. The Mayflower II is still in Plymouth, Massachusetts with plenty of Felix memorabilia.
Do you know any kitties that have been on a boat?
Sources & Digging Deeper
Cats in Sea Services – US Naval Institute
History of Domestic Cats and Cat Breeds – J. Wastihuber