Monday, August 12, 2013

Piratical Cats and Other Shipboard Pets



Ships of the 18th century were not the sort of well-ordered, ultra-clean places now seen in modern tall ships and cabin cruisers. Life itself was more crowded then, dirtier, and less sanitized or organized than modern life, and ships, especially pirate ships, were crowded with whatever people wanted to bring on board.

Everyone knows that pirates had parrots as pets. Many sailors working in tropical regions kept some kind of bird. In a place where personal space was at a minimum it helped to have a pet who would spend time sitting quietly on a perch, or up in the rigging sunning itself. Caribbean natives often traded parrots for axes, beads, or other valuables. The brightly colored, amusing birds were usually so valuable that only the rich could afford them. Having a pet parrot was a mark of status and prosperity.


Parrots are one of the reasons Christopher Columbus believed he had landed in India. Europeans had kept parrots for centuries (The Greek philosopher Aristotle had a pet bird believed to be a parrot), but until the discovery of the New World the only source for them had been India. When Columbus landed on Hispaniola, he was immediately greeted by natives paddling out in canoes to sell the birds.

Columbus seems to have been entranced by parrots. He wrote often about them in his logbook, and mentions flocks of parrots so thick they blotted out the sun as they flew by.



Of course the greatest example of a pirate’s pet parrot was in Treasure Island, where Long John Silver kept a pet parrot, a female, whom he had named “Captain Flint” as a joke against his former shipmate. The bird spouts the piratical term “pieces of eight,” which made if more difficult for Silver to maintain his disguise as an honest man.

Pirates also kept monkeys, but these pets were much less popular with shipmates. Natives sold monkeys and merchant ships transported them back to Europe, so they could be obtained by barter, purchase or robbery. It was also possible for a monkey to blunder into a ship’s rigging on a deserted island and find itself at sea.

Monkeys were a common enough pet that certain ship’s features were named after them. A young boy who was tasked with carrying gunpowder to the cannon crews during battle was called a “powder monkey.” Apparently people have always thought that children resemble monkeys.


 
Also the square tray for holding a stack of cannon balls near the gun was called a “brass monkey.” Brass was used because it would not rust or react with the iron balls. The only problem was that brass expands and contracts at a different rate from iron. If the weather was freezing, the brass holder would shrink so much that it would no longer hold the cannon balls, and they would pop out and roll around the deck. This meant it was literally “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”

Shipboard pets were usually given the run of the ship, and crewmates did not like some of the monkey’s antics. The animals stole attractive objects, bit when annoyed, and relived themselves wherever they wanted. Many monkey owners of the time dreamed of training their pets to be servants, but of course success was very limited. Occasionally the pets would take on certain human traits, such a smoking a pipe or bringing his owner a small object. Some stories exist of monkeys being shot or thrown overboard because of their annoying behavior.



Shore-bound buccaneers kept hunting dogs, and it seems likely that pirates kept them too. But dogs had to earn their keep. Rats infested the ships and terriers were expected to help fight this plague. Many ships held periodic stem-to-stern shipboard rat hunts, and dogs joined men armed with clubs and guns to kill them. One Spanish ship recorded 40,000 rats killed during one such event.



Rat killing dogs were also entertainment. Contests were held to see how many rats a dog could kill in a set period of time.

Cats helped rid the ship of rats and mice, but cats were also lucky. In England, a black cat was the luckiest sort, and families with a member at sea would often keep a black cat, believing that if the animal was kept happy and well fed it meant that the loved one would return home safe.

Black cats were often kept on ships, and sailors enjoyed having them, as many had owned cats at home. The luckiest sort of cat was a polydactyl (many toed) cat. The extra toes were believed to make these cats better mousers and better at keeping their legs under them on a pitching deck.



Many superstitions sprang up around ship’s cats. Throwing or losing a cat overboard would conjure up a deadly storm, and if a ship that lost its cat in this way survived, it was said to be doomed to 7 years of bad luck.

Cats were said to carry wind magic in their tails. Cat behavior was believed to predict the weather. If a cat licked its fur against the grain, it meant a hailstorm was coming. If it sneezed, it meant rain. A frisky cat meant brisk wind coming. Of course, cats have very sensitive ears, and can detect tiny changes in barometric pressure. Some cats were so useful in predicting the weather they were said to be more reliable than a barometer.

A cat approaching a sailor was very good luck, but if the animal stopped halfway and turned back, bad luck would come to him instead.

I myself own a piratical cat. Caliban lost one of his hind feet in an accident before I acquired him 19 years ago. This entry is dedicated to my peg-legged kitty, currently fighting for his life against a blood clot  in his main artery..



   

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