Tom, the Seafarer
Cats,” said Tubby meditatively, “are queer animals. I can easily understand their being associated with witches and black magic. They look at you out of their wise eyes as if they can read your thoughts.”
“I suppose you always have a cat aboard?” I asked. Tubby is some kind of a mate in a steamship.
“I’ve never been in a ship that hadn’t one,” Tubby replied, filling his pipe. “When I was serving my time there was a big black cat, Tom we called him, a great pal of mine; used to sleep at the foot of my bunk every night. A queer animal.
“Tom joined us in Brisbane. As we went alongside Musgrave Wharf we saw him sitting there watching us, not a bit worried by the wires flicking round him or anything. But when the tug was cast off and the gangway lowered Tom began to show signs of life.
“He stretched himself, flicked his fore-paws and stalked to the foot of the gangway. Then he came aboard, tail up, and looked at the quartermaster. He didn’t seem to be pleased with the man, for not saluting him, I suppose.
“I was watching, and saw him sniff the air, then walk straight to the galley and stop at the door. The ship’s butcher was standing there with a huge knife in his hand. ‘Hi, Cook!’ he shouted, ‘ere’s a bloke come for ’is brekfust! Wot will you ’ave, sir? Fish, or liver and bacon?’”
“Tom had fish. After that he washed himself and went to pay his respects to the captain; just stalked into his state room and rubbed against the old man’s leg.
“We had about six other cats aboard, all types and sizes. The boatswain appointed himself ‘Cat-ward.’ He was a fine little chap known as ‘Stumps.’ Every mealtime he would appear outside his cabin with a plate of food and shout: ‘He-e-y-a-ah! Snowy! Ginger! Tarzan!’ and the cats came pattering along from all parts of the ship. They all came-all except Tom. After his first meal aboard he fed in the saloon pantry.
“Tom’s troubles began in Sydney. At least, that’s where they came aboard in the form of a poor little devil of a cat, not much more than a kitten. When I saw it first it was on the half deck table, where it had been put by another apprentice who found it on the wharf, meeowwing. It had fallen into a pot of red paint a while before. It looked at us through a curtain of paint and hair.
“‘The kindest thing would be to drown it,’ someone said. But others didn’t agree.
‘Drown it nothing! That only wants soap and water.’
‘Soap and water won’t get paint off.’
‘No, but grease will.’
‘Grease is worse than paint!’
‘Tell you what, fellows – butter.’
‘What about butter?’
‘Why, wash the cat, then when it’s dry, butter it. The cat’ll lick the butter off and the paint with it.’”
“That’s what was done. After licking the butter off, though a little sick the little new cat was almost clean.
“When the boatswain yelled for the cats to come and feed she hid in a corner, not understanding. We carried her along to where the party of cats fed from a plate, but she hung on the outside. When the boatswain pulled Ginger away and put the newcomer in her place, Ginger simply spat, and the place went vacant again. We carried her back to the cabin and fed her alone. She had just finished her meal when a black shadow sprang on to the door-sill. It was Tom.
“‘Look out for squalls,’ said one but Tom sat in the cabin and only looked at the newcomer. She looked up, saw Tom, and crept up to him. He edged away, and she followed until the bulk-head stopped him. She nestled up to his fur, fell across his tail with a contented purr and was soon asleep. Tom didn’t move for half an hour.
“Matters got worse. This same Tom who disdained to look at other cats allowed that skinny, pinched creature to chew his ear or his tail. The day came when he took her to dine in the pantry, and we called her ‘Mrs Tom’.”
“What was the end of it?” I asked.
“Bad enough,” said Tubby. “That old Tom lost all his dignity, and let this impostor box his ears and even scratch him. He was badly in love.”
The voyage was a long one, and it was some time before we arrived home and I went for went for a fortnight’s leave. Coming back to the ship I inquired for Tom as soon as I was up the gangway. “Oh,” I was told, “things got a bit too thick for him. He deserted, and has sailed in the Somerset – she bit his left ear off!”
“Did she go in the Somerset too?” I asked.
“No fear! She’s in your bunk with five kittens.” And bless her, she was. ◈
According to Bart
I’m often asked how seafurrers become seafurrers. There are a number of pathways as Tubby’s tale reveals. Some are born seafurrers, like Mrs Tom’s kittens. Celeb sea-cat Trim was born to the seafaring life on HMS Reliance mid-Indian Ocean. He sailed with Matthew Flinders throughout his career on a number of ships including Norfolk in 1799 to examine the northern parts of the coast of New South Wales, and Investigator (1801–3) “to explore the whole of the coasts” of New Holland becoming the first seafurrer to circumnavigate Australia. His achievement is commemorated in a number of memorial statues including this fine one by British Sculptor, Mark Richards.
Others, such as rescue cats, have seafurring thrust upon them. Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom found the future PDSA Dickin-award winner Simon wandering the dockyards of Hong Kong in March 1948 looking a bit scrawny and under-nourished and smuggled him aboard the British frigate HMS Amethyst where Simon served with great courage and distinction during the Yangtze Incident disposing of many rats though wounded by shell blast. As his posthumous PDSA Dickin Medal Award Citation (1949) puts it: “Throughout the incident his behaviour was of the highest order.”
How Tom in Tubby’s tale came to be a seafurrer we’ll never know, but he was clearly a seafaring feline through and through, knowing his way around a ship and paying respects to the captain. While he might change ships, he’d never give up the sea for the land. As old sea salt Captain Dyason puts it: “Sea cats are a race in themselves … plenty of them have never been on shore, at all. They are born at sea, live on ships, and when they die they go down to Davy Jones’ locker.” ◈