Listen: Philippa Sandall in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
While the many extraordinary exploits of the seafarers who mapped the world have been well documented, those of their cats have not. Cats have been indispensable pest controllers, shipmates, and mascots for sailors for thousands of years.
In a new book, Seafurrers, Bart the seafaring feline provides us with a cat’s-eye view of maritime history – starting in the Fertile Crescent and Nile Valley and ultimately hopping aboard the ships that set sail for the New World. Drawing on letters, journals, newspaper reports, photographs, and more, Bart acts as both curator and commentator. He is very forthright and opinionated and even has his own very funny and informative blog he describes as being “…for history lovers, cat lovers and trivia quiz aficionados”.
Cats are beloved mascots
With the help of human author Philippa Sandall, Bart the cat has documented 40 tales of cats at sea. The stories include one about Captain Cook (who as 18th century European explorer tended to) “gave” a Pacific island a bunch of rats and the locals thought it only fair to to steal some ships cats. The ship cat is often an important morale booster and much loved mascot as the photos below testify.
The antics of the brave, funny and sometimes naughty cats are wonderfully engaging. It turns out that there were some well know sea going owners too. Cat owners in the book include famous seamen such as Sir Richard Hawkins and John Locke. Cats were written into the law of the sea as well; so never underestimate the influence of a cat!
Robinson Crusoe had cats
Seafurrers outlines the highs and lows of life on the seas for cats; their rat catching duties, the charming pleasures of chasing flying fish, and the fortunes of the cats who went overboard or were shipwrecked. There is the story of how the real Robinson Crusoe found his castaway island overrun by rats and befriended the local cats to make life more pleasant. Another shipwreck survivor was a cat who found an empty barrel to snuggle in and soon had some local penguins for company when the birds decided they might like to cuddle up in the barrel too.
Hope 103.2 is proudly supported by
It is not a cat tale without a bit of naughtiness and some ships cats could not resist snacking on scientific specimens. Sir Joseph Banks may have been an eminent botanist and collector of plants and animals but one of his ship cats was clearly no respecter of important scientific work, gobbling a bird when someone’s back was turned. The crew on an antarctic voyage fared no better when a chunk of ice containing a frozen fish landed on deck. The plan was to thaw it and preserve it for later research. The on board feline had other ideas, running off with the fish for a special “fancy cat dinner”.