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The Long and Curious History of Ship Cats

Who said cats are afraid of water?

ships cat
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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Sailors are a superstitious bunch. Cats were said to bring good luck on ships and prevent bad weather. While nobody can prove or discredit myths like that, what cats actually did was successfully catch rodents. In killing diseased-ridden rats, cats helped make for a safer, healthier journey, thus further fueling superstitions.

Historical evidence dates the link between cats and sailors as far back as their domestication in Ancient Egypt and through the Viking golden age—but why? For starters, cats have a natural reaction to barometric pressure changes. So, if you come to know the habits of an on-board cat very well, once they start to take an unusual liking to shelter, you can intuit a storm is incoming. This, plus the fact that every ship needs a mascot made cats very welcome among sailors.

Related: The Long, Strange History of the Maunsell Sea Forts 

Ships' cats were very well taken care of during their service. They would receive rations like any other sailor, were given bunks and living spaces like any other sailor, and they got plenty of love and attention.  

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  • Convoy (the cat) asleep in a hammock aboard HMS Hermione

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sailors would generally leave the cats alone to hunt any rodents that sneaked aboard while docked. And, during the lonely months at sea, cats were big morale boosters when solemn sailors needed a friend. 

Related: 7 Books About Disastrous Shipwrecks in History 

One of the most well-known naval cats was Unsinkable Sam of WWII. As the story goes, he survived the sinking of three ships before retiring. He was first aboard the German battleship Bismark as a kitten (originally named Oscar). When it sank in May 1941, he was found adrift by the HMS Cossack, the ship that destroyed the Bismarck.  

When the HMS Cossack sank in October 1941, Sam was with the picked up with the surviving crew and taken to Gibraltar and served as the ship's cat for the HMS Ark Royal, which then sank in November 1941. Because he still had six lives to go, the Royal Navy saw fit to grant him shore duty as mouse-catcher at the Governor General of Gibraltar's office. 

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  • A portrait of Unsinkable Sam immortalized by Georgina Shaw-Baker

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

More from We Are The Mighty 

This article originally appeared on We Are The Mighty.

Featured photo of Winston Churchill with Blackie, the ship's cat of HMS Prince of Wales: Alchetron; Additional photo: Alchetron