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Antarctic Cats

19th and early 20th century expeditions


This is a companion to our account on a separate page of Mrs Chippy who accompanied
Ernest Shackleton and his crew on the Endurance on their voyage to the Antarctic in 1914.

See also Post-war Antarctic Cats at research stations


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Belgica

Nansen, ship's cat of Belgica, ca 1897 The first to spend a winter in Antarctica was Nansen, a black-and-white kitten that sailed on the Belgian sailing ship Belgica in 1897, under the command of Captain Adrien de Gerlache on the first completely scientific expedition. Nansen was brought aboard by the Norwegian cabin boy Johan Koren, and was named of course after his country's great Antarctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen. He became a great favourite of the crew; but when the ship became trapped in the ice and had to spend the entire winter there, Nansen's personality gradually changed; he became ill at ease, ate little, slept more and was angry and unfriendly if disturbed — he seemed to become almost deranged. Despite the best efforts of the crew he died on 22 June, midwinter's day, but whether it was the demoralising permanent cold and darkness that caused his death is unclear. He is featured in a book by the ship's doctor, Frederick Cook, Through the First Antarctic Night.

Scott and Discovery

Blackwall and Poplar, ship's cats of Scott's Discovery, ca 1902 Poplar in his hammock on the Discovery, ca 1903 Blackwall in the Antarctic snow, Scott expedition, ca 1903 When Robert Falcon Scott sailed to the Antarctic in the brand-new, purpose-built Discovery in 1901 there were two cats on board accompanying the 38 men; they were Blackwall and Poplar (presumably named after those districts of London). Blackwall, a tabby and white, soon attached himself to Scott, spending most nights on the captain's bunk along with Scamp, his black Aberdeen terrier. Poplar was a black cat belonging to American stoker Arthur Quartley; the cats got on well together and would share their favourite warm spot by the stove.

Likeness of ship's cat Poplar in the galley of the Discovery at Dundee Discovery became stuck in the Antarctic ice for two whole winters in 1902 and 1903 before being released early in 1904 by rescue ships Terra Nova and Morning, using dynamite to blast away the ice. Regrettably Poplar fell prey to the ship's husky dogs during March 1904 and was killed, greatly upsetting her owner. However, Blackwall survived the two winters on the ice without mishap and was aboard when Discovery reached New Zealand on Good Friday, 1 April 1904.

RRS Discovery at Dundee, Scotland RRS Discovery is now berthed permanently at Dundee in Scotland, where she was built, and is open to visitors. Some areas of the ship have tableaux 'peopled' by mannequins, to give an idea of what life was like on board in the old days. One such tableau has the cook in the galley (kitchen), with a stuffed likeness of Poplar on a barrel in the corner (right, above).

Terra Nova and Morning

Black cat Night, on the steam yacht Morning Both Terra Nova and Morning had their own cats: on Morning were a black female called Night (probably shown in the photo, left) and her white kitten Noon, but at some point a grey tabby also appeared — and of course was called Morning. Unfortunately she was later lost overboard. There was also a cat called Bobs that belonged to the chief engineer; it too was lost overboard, on the voyage between Madeira and New Zealand. For Terra Nova's cat Nigger, see below.

Enlargement of tabby cat aboard the ship Morning, 1904 Crew of the Morning, 1904 A diary exists, written by one Leonard Burgess, who was an AB on board Morning; in December 1903 he writes 'The cat (Nig) gave birth to 5 kittens; the first kittens I believe born in the Antarctic.' The diary is held at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the extract was kindly copied to us by Peter McKenzie. (Presumably 'Nig' refers to 'Night'? — Ed.)

Peter has also sent us a photo (inner right) dating from 1904 of the entire crew of Morning, which is a wonderful addition to our article and for which we're very grateful. It's not known whether the tabby kitten (see enlargement, outer right) is one of Night's kittens, born as described above, or the grey tabby Morning, later lost overboard.

While the Terra Nova was moored in London Docks in 1910, not long before she was due to leave, a little black kitten seems to have found his way on board, curled up in a warm corner and gone to sleep. When he emerged, little did he know he was on his way to the Antarctic! He turned out to be a great character; the men took him to their hearts, soon made him ship's mascot, and he became a source of great pleasure and entertainment for them. They named him Nigger.

Nigger, ship's cat of Terra Nova, ca 1912 He began using up his nine lives by falling overboard at sea at least twice, being rescued by the ship's boat and revived with a little brandy. Soon the crew had made him his own little hammock out of canvas, about 2 feet long and with his own small blanket and pillow. There is quite an art to getting into a hammock, but Nigger quickly mastered it and would contentedly sleep there, swinging to and fro between the bulkheads and quite oblivious to the fiercest storms and bad weather.

He was asleep in his hammock when an important admiral toured the ship while it was docked in Melbourne before continuing south. Nigger opened his eyes, stared at the great man, gave a huge yawn, stretched out one languid paw and went back to sleep. The admiral is said to have been quite amused.

The hammock had a lot of use during three Antarctic voyages, including the one to pick up the survivors of Scott's fateful journey to the South Pole. It's reported that during these voyages Nigger acquired a great taste for seal blubber — from the Weddell seals that supplied much of the men's needs — to the extent that he would make himself sick just so that he could stuff himself with more! Sadly though, Nigger's luck ran out just before the end of this last voyage, when he was almost back in England. He was again washed overboard during a fierce storm in the English Channel; the ship's boat was launched, but this time he could not be found.

Shackleton and Quest

Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic voyage of 1914/15 during which his ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice, has become well known. We have devoted a separate page to the story of Mrs Chippy, ship's cat on the expedition; but we have learned that initially there were probably two other cats on board. One seems to have 'jumped ship' before it even left England; the second also never reached the Antarctic, having either been lost overboard, or jumped ship in South America. We have no other details, but the information comes from the diary of one of the sailors.

Scout Marr with Questie, ca 1922 Questie with Frank Worsley Questie with Leonard Hussey In 1921 Ernest Shackleton embarked on what turned out to be his final voyage, as he died during it. Leaving London in September, his ship Quest had on board an Alsatian dog called Query, which was later washed overboard during the journey back to England, and black ship's cat Questie. We have been able to find out nothing more about Questie — although he or she did survive the voyage — but three photos have come to light. One shows the cat on the shoulder of Scout James Marr, a Scottish Scout who was chosen from among many applicants to be cabin boy and general factotum. This photo comes from Marr's book describing the voyage, Into the Frozen South, published by Cassell of London in 1923. The image was given a new lease of life when it appeared on a stamp from Tristan da Cunha commemorating the centenary of the Scouting movement (see our stamp review of September 2007). The second photo (inner right) shows Questie on the shoulder of Leonard Hussey, meteorologist and explorer with the expedition, who had been on the earlier Endurance voyage. The third (outer right) has the cat being held by Frank Worsley, sailing master of the Quest. It looks from these photos as though Questie was little more than a kitten at the time they were taken. We are much indebted to John Mann for supplying the last two images.

Mawson and Discovery

Seaman J Martin rescued The Ship's Mascot when he fell overboard from Discovery In 1929 the Discovery sailed with Sir Douglas Mawson and the crew of the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE). While they were in the Antarctic the ship's cat — which seems to have been called simply The Ship's Mascot — fell overboard one day. Seaman J. Martin promptly dived into the icy water and saved it. The cat was photographed with her rescuer for the press in April 1930 when the ship returned to Adelaide in Australia after her voyage (right).

Discovery and the BANZARE crew returned for a second Antarctic voyage in 1930/31, but it is not known whether the same, or another, cat was on board. (Many thanks to Jim Winchell for sending us the information about the BANZARE expeditions.)

Penola

The Penola was a small, three-masted schooner with auxiliary engines and also a De Havilland 'Fox Moth' light plane, equipped with skis and floats, which saw much use. From 1934 to 1937 it carried out the British Graham Land Expedition, a 'budget' expedition that had limited funds but in fact succeeded in achieving most of what it set out to do. The ship's cat was Peter, a tabby (left three below); but while Penola was provisioning in the Falkland Islands the dean of Stanley Cathedral presented the crew with another cat, called Lummo (right three below); he was white with a black 'crown', tail and part of his hindquarters.

Peter, ship's cat of the Penola, British Graham Land Expedition Peter, ship's cat of the Penola Ship's cat Peter of the Penola spacer Lummo, ship's cat of the Penola, British Graham Land Expedition Lummo, ship's cat of the Penola Lummo, ship's cat of the Penola

The two cats got on well together, but Peter's health was not robust; he disliked the severe cold and in fact died during the first winter, in 1934. Lummo, though, didn't seem to mind the cold and would even curl up in the snow sometimes. He survived the whole 3-year voyage and returned to live with a crew member's family in Woking, Surrey, where he died during WW2. Interestingly Lummo, who was also known as Lumus or Lummus, had a rock named after him by the expedition! Lumus Rock is situated 4 miles (7 km) WNW of Sooty Rock and marks the south-west extremity of the Wilhelm Archipelago, a series of islands off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Many of the above accounts are summarised from Val Lewis's excellent book, Ships Cats in War and Peace, published by Nauticalia in 2001.

Links

  • There are many fascinating facts about Antarctic Firsts at The Antarctic Circle site. For example, it's recorded that the first fish caught below the Antarctic Circle was landed on the deck of HMS Terror in 1842 during James Clark Ross's expedition. The ship's cat found it and made a meal of it!

We have a second article recounting the stories of Post-war Antarctic Cats at several research bases.

You may also like to read about other well-known ships' cats: there's the full story of Mrs Chippy mentioned above,
Simon of the Amethyst, and also Trim who sailed around the world and circumnavigated
Australia at the end of the 18th century.
Less well known are ships' cats Halifax who over-wintered in the ice of the high Arctic in the mid-1990s,
and Pwe who, with her intrepid humans, faced and overcame disaster (twice) in the southern Pacific
in the 1950s, and had many other adventures.


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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Simon of HMS Amethyst.
He remains the only cat ever to have been awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry under enemy fire,
in what became known as the 'Yangtse Incident' (1949).
Read Simon's story.


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