originally published June 23, 2013
I try not to pay close attention to how many sets of eyes look at my site every day. Sure, WordPress keeps track of that, and sometimes it’s interesting when a particular article causes a spike of interest, but for the most part I choose my topics based on what interests me.
Still, there are ways of attracting web traffic without sacrificing my desire for a good story. First off, there’s porn. I could write a good history of pornography, pepper it with photos of dinks and butts and boobs akimbo, but I have kids who read this site. I don’t want to trash my PG-13 rating, at least not until I hit day 950 or so. Then shit might get real.
The other sure-fire internet draw is cats. Cats are all over the damn web, like snot on a kindergarten class door handle. As a life-long dog person, I have learned to accept this. Besides, some cats are deserving of their fame. Like the great ship’s cats of history.
Cats have been keeping humans company for the better part of 9500 years, and from the time the first ships dipped their curious wooden hulls into the waiting brine of nautical exploration, a feline presence was perpetually seen as a welcome thing. They kept the rats at bay, caught birds along the shore, and even spread themselves around the globe, populating newly discovered ports and just generally rubbing up against stuff.
Back in the early days of sea travel, cats were seen as deities in Egyptian culture. Some merely saw them as good luck; it made sense to drop one on board a ship, if only to spread a little peace along the underside of the sailors’ minds. Some felt polydactyl cats – the ones with extra toes – possessed a greater sense of balance than other cats. And the species’ weather predicting ability is rooted in more than simple superstition – cats’ inner ears can actually spur them to restlessness when a storm is on the way.
And so a ship’s cat has become an accepted thing. And some of them have even become a little famous.
One of the more famous photos of Winston Churchill shows him bidding adieu to Blackie, the ship’s cat stationed aboard the HMS Prince Of Wales. This was the ship that covertly transported Churchill across the Atlantic to meet up with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to discuss the ugly state of international affairs. This was the meeting that begat the Atlantic Charter, the general agreement of what a post-WWII world should look like.
As Churchill was about to step off the boat for the historic meeting, Blackie walked up to him, perhaps to say “good luck” but more likely because Churchill was the type to drop a lot of food-bits when he ate, and Blackie was feeling lucky. Due to the success of the meeting and the widespread media saturation of the photo, Blackie was renamed ‘Churchill’.
Mrs. Chippy had the misfortune of being brought aboard Sir Ernest Shackleton’s big Antarctic expedition of 1914-1917. He – and it should be noted here that Mrs. Chippy was discovered to be a male cat after his arrival on board – was the companion of the ship’s carpenter, Harry McNish. When things went sour on Shackleton’s ship, Mrs. Chippy and the sled dogs had to be shot. Conditions were rough for the humans who were trying to survive the weather and get home safely, and Shackleton ordered the animals to be put down.
Harry McNish was more than a little pissed about this. He wound up building the boats that would take everyone home, but he made no secret about his rage over Shackleton’s decision. He made such a stink that when the entire crew received the Polar Medal for extreme human endeavor against frigid Antarctic weather, Shackleton made sure McNish didn’t get one. That’s right – the guy who built the ships that saved everyone’s lives was denied a medal because of his outrage over a euthanized cat. I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but it looks like Ernest Shackleton was a bit of a dick.
The RMS Empress Of Ireland, which made its bones by servicing the lengthy commute between Liverpool and Montreal, had an orange tabby ship’s cat known as Emmy. Emmy was beloved by the crew, and notably never missed a voyage. I suppose that’s an advantage of being a cat, you don’t have many conflicting appointments.
Then, on the morning of May 28, 1914, while docked in Quebec City, Emmy tried to escape. The crew watched her flee onto the dock, and did everything they could to try to coax her back on board. They didn’t want to leave the cat behind, but there were also paying passengers and a whole lot of cargo that had to get to England. Emmy was last spotted on the roof of the shed at Pier 27, watching the ship sail away. A few hours later, the Empress of Ireland collided with a Norwegian liner in the Saint Lawrence River, killing more than a thousand people.
Emmy knew something was up.
One soldier who bravely stood alongside men on both sides of WWII was Oscar, also known as Unsinkable Sam. If ever proof was needed for that whole ‘nine lives’ thing, this is the cat who would make the textbook.
Oscar started out aboard the battleship Bismarck in May of 1941, during Operation Rheinübung, a mission to block shipments between the US and England. The Bismarck was sunk on May 27, and only 118 crewmembers out of over 2200 survived. 119 if you count Oscar. The cat was picked up on a floating plank of wood by the HMS Cossack, and with that Oscar became a soldier for the British Navy.
Oscar remained aboard the Cossack until October, when the ship was hit by a torpedo and badly damaged. Oscar survived the explosion and was brought to land in Gibraltar. Around this time he came to be known as ‘Unsinkable Sam’.
Sam found his way aboard the HMS Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier which had coincidentally been responsible for sinking the Bismarck a few months earlier. It took less than a month for the Ark Royal to encounter a torpedo courtesy of a German U-boat, and once again Sam had to scramble onto a wooden plank and float until he was rescued.
At last, Sam was retired from active duty, and he lived a long, healthy life of not being shot at. That’s a hell of a cat story.
I’m sure as a sailor, having a ship’s cat around would make for a welcome connection with the empathetic corner of one’s soul that doesn’t get a lot of attention, particularly on a military voyage. The British Navy did away with on board animals in 1975 for hygiene reasons, but I’m sure you’ll still spot a few counter-regulations beasts roaming the decks here and there.
Okay Internet – there are your cat stories. Now flood through the gates and give me a massive audience, if only for today!