Better together 

The Jolly Roger flag with a cats skullAble Sea-cat Bart shares a heart-warming, better together ship’s cat story that hits the trifecta in one action-packed episode – friendship, kittens and escaping a shipwreck.  


Frank T. Bullen, 1901

Personally, I have been honoured by the enduring fellowship of many cats whose attachment to me for myself alone (for I had nothing to give them to eat but a little chewed biscuit) effectually settled for me the question of what some people are pleased to call the natural selfishness of cats.

My first experience was on my second voyage when I was nearly thirteen years old. On my first voyage we had no cat, strange to say, in either of the three ships I belonged to before I got back to England. But when I joined the Brinkburn in London for the West Indies as boy, I happened to be the first on board to take up my quarters in the fo’c’s’le.

The upper deck of a sailing ship forward of the foremast, or the forward part of a ship with the sailors’ living quarters.

I crept into my lonely bunk that night feeling very small and forgotten, and huddled myself into my ragged blanket trying to get warm and go to sleep. It was quite dark, and the sudden apparition of two glaring green eyes over the edge of my bunk sent a spasm of fear through me for a moment, until I felt soft feet walking over me and heard the pretty little crooning sound usually made by a complacent mother-cat over her kittens.

I put up my hands and felt the warm fur, quite a thrill of pleasure trickling over me as pussy pleasantly responded with a loud satisfied purr. We were quite glad of each other I know, for as I cuddled her closely to me, the vibrations of her purring comforted me so that in a short time I was sound asleep. Thenceforward puss and I were the firmest of friends. In fact she was the only friend I had on board that hateful ship. For the crew were a hard-hearted lot, whose treatment of me was consistently barbarous, and even the other boy, being much bigger and stronger than I was, used to treat me as badly as any of them.

A man in a ship's bunk holds a seafaring feline.But when night came and the faithful cat nestled in by my side during my watch below, I would actually forget my misery for a short time in the pleasant consciousness that something was fond of me. It was to my bunk she invariably fled for refuge from the ill-natured little terrier who lived aft, and never missed an opportunity of flying at her when he saw her on deck.

A vintage line drawing of a flying fish, leaping from the sea before a schooner on the horizon, a fine meal for a seafaring felineSeveral times during the passage she found flying-fish that dropped on deck at night, and, by some instinct I do not pretend to explain, brought them to where I crouched by the cabin-door. Then she would munch the sweet morsel contentedly, looking up at me between mouthfuls as if to tell me how much she was enjoying her unwonted meal, or actually leaving it for a minute or two to rub herself against me and arch her back under my fondling hand.

Two days before we left Falmouth, Jamaica, on the homeward passage, she had kittens, five tiny slug-like things, that lived in my bunk in their mother’s old nest. The voyage ended abruptly on the first day out of harbour by the vessel running upon an outlying spur of coral only a few miles from the port. After a day and night of great exertion and exposure the ship slid off the sharp pinnacles of the reef into deep water, giving us scant time to escape on board one of the small craft that clustered along-side salving the cargo. The few rags I owned were hardly worth saving, but indeed I did not think of them.

5 cute kittens in a warm hat togetherAll my care was for an old slouch hat in which lay the five kittens snug and warm, while the anxious mother clung to me so closely that I had no difficulty in taking her along too. When we got ashore, although it cost me a bitter pang, I handed the rescued family over to the hotel-keeper’s daughter … who promised me that my old shipmate should from that time live in luxury. 

CREDIT Frank T. Bullen, A Sack of Shakings, 1901

According to Bart

Able Sea-cat BartThis heart-warmer hits the trifecta – friendship, kittens and escaping a shipwreck. I’ll bet Puss was as glad to discover young Frank’s bunk that night as Frank was to hear her loud, satisfied purr. Pets in general and cats in particular have an innate ability to find the right person and make life better together. That was certainly the case on the Brinkburn.

As for sleeping arrangements, while some people seem to think cats sleep anywhere, believe me, a bed or bunk is the preferred option with or without a bedfellow. Felines have had some famous bedfellows. Trim, Matthew Flinders’ cat, was commonly his bedfellow; and Nelson, Winston Churchill’s cat regularly curled up on the great man’s feet at the end of his bed as he worked. Researching the Seafurrers book, I discovered that Churchill half joking told a ministerial colleague that Nelson did more for the war effort than he did because “he acts as a hot water bottle and saves fuel and power.” True. But, Nelson played an even more vital role – he ensured Britain’s wartime PM did not get cold feet.

As for Frank Bullen, what a hardworking lad. He first joined up as cabin boy in 1869 when he was 11, ending up as first mate before disembarking in 1882 to join the Meteorological Office. He began writing in 1895 and four years later found himself columnist on the Morning Leader. He published A Sack of Shakings in 1901. “Shakings” are the ends of old rope and canvas to be unpicked for making oakum – tarred fibres for caulking to make the decks and sides of wooden ships watertight. 

CREDIT Powder Monkey on board USS New Hampshire off Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1864. Regulations in the 19th century did not allow boys younger than 13 to join the US Navy. They were rarely enforced and children as young as 6 served as powder monkeys during the Civil War. Photo courtesy US Naval Institute.
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