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Wet cat and a bottle of rum

Why were cats and other animals kept on ships?

Under the endless starry sky, on the moonlit deck, Octavia, the ship’s cat with fur as dark as the night sea, looked around her floating kingdom. Her silent steps were accompanied by the whisper of the ocean, reminiscent of the centuries-old connection between people and animals in this great blue desert. Octavia, like her predecessors, was not just a passenger, but an important member of the crew, protecting the ship’s supplies from the ongoing siege of rats. And not far from her night patrol, in a special cage, sat Atlas – a carrier pigeon, with a color the color of the dawn sky. Atlas was not just a bird, he was a messenger, capable of covering enormous distances, and his flights served as an important thread in the fabric of maritime communications.

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This story is reminiscent of countless real events from the annals of maritime history, dedicated to the centuries-old connection between sailors and their tailed companions. Today we’ll explore the roles animals played at different times in maritime history, from their practical abilities to the psychological support they provided to sailors as they shared the adventures and tribulations of life under sail.

Together with the developers of World of Sea Battle, we have prepared a new article dedicated to the iconic companions that have accompanied sailors for thousands of years.

 

Although you won’t be able to have your own ship’s cat or monkey in the game, the maritime MMORPG provides an opportunity to plunge into the golden era of sailing ships, when borders were not yet clearly defined and there were many gaps on the maps. In the game, you can take the helm of a variety of ships, recreated from historical designs, guiding the crew to glorious achievements – be it through military means or through trade.

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Ship cats guarding supplies

Among the various roles of animals on ships, cats and cats served as patrollers, guarding the decks and holds of seagoing ships. These furry sailors were indispensable hunters, recruited to carry out an important mission: to prevent populations of rats and mice from compromising the integrity of the ship and its supplies. Naval commanders understood the damage that pests could cause to meager food supplies over long voyages, making the help of cats vital.

 

From ancient times to the Viking Age

Imagine an ancient Egyptian ship sailing along the calm waters of the Nile in the rays of the setting sun. From the hold you can hear the creaking of wood, the knocking of amphorae and the rustling of grain. And a red shadow with beady green eyes is creeping across the deck – the cat Bastet, not just a pet, but a full member of the team. Her sharp gaze looks out for pests that threaten to spoil valuable cargo. The cat’s paws are silent, the claws are sharp – rodents cannot escape from her quick reprisal!

 

Since ancient times, cats were taken on voyages along the Nile and the Mediterranean Sea to guard food supplies. Back then, people simply couldn’t go to sea without a cat—their role in protecting the ship and cargo from rats and mice, which could gnaw through ropes and even pierce the bottom of the ship with their sharp teeth, was too great. Thanks to their eyesight, speed and agility, cats were perfect for guarding tight holds, reaching the furthest corners and crevices.

 

In addition, furry hunters protected against rat diseases transmitted by bites, fleas and droppings – hantavirus, plague, rat fever and salmonellosis.

 

It is not surprising that superstitions said that a cat on board brings not only benefits, but also good luck. The Egyptians considered these furry guards to be the embodiment of Bastet – the goddess of the hearth, fertility and abundance. Bastet was also seen as a patroness, spreading the belief of protection from the elements and the unpredictability of the sea. And for harming the shaggy defenders of the ship, severe punishments were imposed – up to and including execution. The historian Diodorus Siculus, who lived in the 1st century BC, wrote about a case in which a Roman accidentally killed an Egyptian cat. Despite the efforts of the Pharaoh’s officials to protect the Roman from the angry mob, the Egyptian people captured him and beat him to death. 

In Norse mythology, even the goddess of love, Freya, drove a chariot pulled by two huge cats! Therefore, sacred ship cats also often sailed on Viking longships, vigilantly guarding supplies on long voyages to unknown shores, where the Vikings founded new settlements. Who knows, maybe without cats on board the Vikings would not have become such a formidable sea force.

 

Cat hunting in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, during a period when Christian Europe was overgrown with myths and superstitions, attitudes towards cats were especially controversial. These animals aroused suspicion and fear, as they were associated with witchcraft and the devil. One of the most significant moments in the history of cat persecution was the publication of the papal bull Vox in Rama in 1233 by Pope Gregory IX, which mentioned the black cat as a symbol of Satan. This led to widespread persecution of cats, especially black ones, and contributed to the growth of popular superstition.

 

However, the need for cats on ships remained unchanged, because they performed the critical function of protecting against rodents. Sailors, faced with the need to keep cats on board in defiance of church regulations, found ways to adapt to these conditions. They could secretly keep cats on ships or justify their presence by practical benefits, trying not to focus on superstitions.

 

For example, on the voyages of the Spanish conquistadors, where cats were an integral part of the crew, sailors may have used religious rhetoric to justify the presence of these animals, emphasizing their role in protecting food supplies from rodents as a divine purpose. In such cases, cats, despite church prohibitions, became “irreplaceable crew members,” and their ability to exterminate pests was perceived as a sign of blessing, not a curse.

 

Over time, as it became obvious that cats help reduce the risk of disease on ships, attitudes towards them began to change. Among other things, this led to a softening of church views and a decrease in superstitions among sailors.

 

The era of great geographical discoveries

With the advent of the Age of Discovery, when European sailors set sail for unknown horizons, the role of ship’s cats evolved from simple rodent exterminators to guardians of the seafaring spirit. This era, marked by the search for new trade routes and territories, was characterized by an increase in the size of ships and longer voyages, which became increasingly dangerous. It is difficult to overestimate the value of ship’s cats in those days – they were necessary not only to maintain the health and safety of supplies, but also to ensure the well-being of the crew on long voyages.

 

Such pioneers of great geographical discoveries as Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan perfectly understood the importance of having cats on board their ships. These furry navigators were a natural solution to the problem of rodents, which could cause real havoc in the cramped space of a ship.

 

Stories about ship’s cats from this period are full of tales of courage and loyalty. There is evidence of cats sailing with sailors around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Atlantic to America, and even on the first circumnavigation of the world. These cats had to withstand not only rodents, but also the same harsh conditions as their human companions. Their vitality and adaptability made the tailed animals important crew members, an inextricable part of the ship along with the sails and compass.

One such story is about the amazing black cat named Trim, who accompanied Captain Matthew Flinders on his voyages to explore the coast of Australia in 1801-03. Trim was famous for its extraordinary seaworthiness, ability to survive in the most dangerous conditions and dedication to its crew. They say that even in the most severe storms, Trim ran around the deck with ease, and everyone loved him for his courage and charm. His legacy is so significant that to this day there are statues and memorials in his honor commemorating the cat’s contributions to marine exploration.

 

Another famous story tells of the ship’s cat aboard the Mayflower, the historic ship that brought the Pilgrims to North America in 1620. Legend has it that this cat not only protected the ship’s supplies from rodents during the dangerous Atlantic crossing, but also kept the spirits of passengers and crew alive in the most desperate times.

 

The first circumnavigation of the world, a heroic and dangerous undertaking, is also marked by the exploits of the ship’s cats among the unknown heroes of that era, even if their names have sunk into oblivion. Unfortunately, many of the sailors’ diaries have not survived to this day, and other works focused on the more practical aspects of sailing. And other works remain undigitized in the libraries and archives of Britain, Spain, Portugal and other maritime powers. 

 

These furry sailors endured scurvy, storms and famine alongside their two-legged companions, their endurance a testament to their indomitable spirit. Stories about this legendary journey tell of cats who hunted not only rats and mice, but also caught fish, more than justifying their presence on board.

 

In addition, legends about ship’s cats often include miraculous rescues and heroic deeds. One of the legends tells of a cat who warned the crew about a pirate attack, sensing their approach at night. And another story says that the cat sensed an approaching storm and with its behavior prompted the sailors to change course.

 

Moreover, the superstitions and folklore surrounding ship cats during the Age of Discovery were as varied as the crews themselves. Sailors from different cultures brought different superstitions about the luck and magic cats could bring on board. Some believed that stroking a cat could cause a fair wind, others believed that drowning a ship’s cat could incur the wrath of the sea.

 

In fact, the Age of Discovery marked the golden age of ship’s cats. As the ships headed into uncharted waters, these furry crewmen “stood at the helm” side by side with the people, welcoming the unknown with a calm, comforting presence.

 

Cats on ships in the 20th century

During the First and Second World Wars, there were many stories of cats serving on warships, merchant ships and even in ports, becoming mascots and symbols of hope for the crews. One of the most famous ship cats of World War II was “Unsinkable Sam,” originally named Oscar, who survived the sinking of three ships on which he served in the German and British navies. Sam’s story recalls the resilience and instinct of self-preservation of these furry companions, who brought a sense of normalcy and comfort to the lives of sailors amid the chaos of war and destruction.

 

Modern ships are equipped with more advanced pest control methods such as electronic repellers and pesticides, reducing the need for cats as rodent control. In addition, improved food storage and the use of airtight packaging also help prevent pests from entering and breeding on board.

 

In addition, current safety and hygiene rules and regulations on ships have become stricter, limiting the ability to keep animals on board. This includes health and safety regulations that may require special accommodations for animals, making it more difficult for them to be present on ships.

Other famous ship cats and cats:

  • Tiddles: Born on the high seas and traveled thousands of miles aboard ships of the British Royal Navy, serving as a beloved mascot and rodent exterminator.

 

  • Mrs. Chippy: Accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition on the ship Endurance to Antarctica, and is remembered for his devotion and support to the crew.
Cat Simon
  • Simon: The ship’s cat on the Amethyst, was awarded a medal for his bravery in defending food supplies from a rat infestation under heavy fire and for boosting the morale of the sailors on board. Simon’s funeral was conducted with full military honors.

 

  • Matroskin: A cat who, according to legend, served on Russian warships. While Matroskin’s story may mix historical facts with folklore, it also reflects the cultural significance of ship’s cats in Russia. Matroskin is often depicted as an intelligent and resourceful cat, embodying traits valued by sailors for centuries.

 

Carrier pigeons: winged messengers of the seas

In a time before electronic communications revolutionized naval operations and maritime commerce, homing pigeons were the unsung heroes of the seas, whose wings carried messages that could change the course of ships, battles, and even the course of history. These birds, personified by the legendary titan Atlas (who held the heavens on his shoulders, and later associated with maps and navigation – hence the origin of atlases), were not just passengers, but an essential means of communication, embodying an amazing combination of natural instincts and human ingenuity. Their ability to travel vast distances with important messages made pigeons indispensable for both naval and merchant ships.

 

Ancient roots and strategic importance of carrier pigeons

The use of pigeons for communication dates back to ancient Egypt and Persia, where they served as messengers for military and government purposes. Historical records indicate that the Persians under Cyrus the Great developed extensive networks of pigeon mail, laying the foundations for a complex system of communications throughout the vast Persian Empire. These early postal services demonstrated the strategic advantages of quickly delivering messages, especially when coordinating military campaigns across vast areas of the empire.

 

During the Roman Empire, pigeons further strengthened their place in military and maritime communications. The Romans recognized the value of pigeons for transmitting news during warfare, using them to report troop movements and battlefield conditions. The strategic use of pigeons by the Roman navy allowed a level of coordination and speed of reaction not previously possible, especially in naval blockades and command of squadrons across the Mediterranean.

It is curious that during the times of great geographical discoveries the use of carrier pigeons was limited. Too long distances, unpredictability of travel, as well as the need to care for birds, have minimized the use of these messengers. 

 

However, there is evidence that sailors used wild birds for communication. 

 

An example was described by Lieutenant Vaillant, who was on board HMS Ganges off Gibraltar in 1784 as part of a small squadron of other ships. Here is what he writes about the use of wild birds in an excerpt from his memoirs:

 

  • Four ships sailed as part of a squadron, without losing sight of each other, and even visited each other in calm weather, when we could launch boats. When such communication became impossible due to strong winds and rough seas, we resorted to another method – correspondence with the help of gulls and terns as postmen. We caught these birds, exhausted by the wind and tired from flying, when they sat down to rest on our yards. Having tied small messages to their paws, we released them, and to prevent the birds from landing back, we made noise, forcing them to fly further to the next ship. There they were caught again by sailors and returned to us in the same way with answers to our letters.

 

The role of carrier pigeons in wartime

The First World War marked the dawn of homing pigeon service in support of naval forces. As trench warfare cut off normal communication channels, feathered messengers remained vital to coordination between shore bases and North Sea Fleet maneuvers.

 

Mobile dovecotes were placed on board seaplane carriers and key battleship formations to maintain information flow between ships and land. These messengers transmitted observations of enemy movements from coastal observation posts to adjust naval artillery fire and route convoys.

A famous homing pigeon named Cher Ami gained fame for its heroic flight in October 1918, delivering a message from an encircled infantry unit later dubbed the “Lost Battalion.” Despite being wounded in the chest and nearly losing a leg, he successfully delivered a dispatch that saved more than 190 surrounded soldiers. Her example of courage and determination in completing a mission despite severe injuries set an inspiring standard for feathered messengers serving in combat environments.  

 

During World War II, dedicated sea pigeon units continued to provide a reliable communications channel that was immune to interception. British military intelligence carried out Operation Dove, systematically releasing more than 16,000 pigeons from ships crossing the English Channel. These birds carried coded questionnaires for members of the Resistance in the occupied territories in order to organize reconnaissance of German naval installations and military formations on the coast.  

Mobile dovecote from the First World War

Two famous pigeons, Moker and Commando, flew more than 50 dangerous missions each, reporting on enemy activity in the English Channel and assisting the crews of downed Royal Air Force aircraft. Another famous homing pigeon named Winky helped find the crew that had been forced to splash down in the icy North Sea.

 

Even with the rapid expansion of radio communications, pigeon sections continued to be in active use alongside the early radar installations in British maritime patrol squadrons hunting German submarines and raiders. 

 

However, the advent of advanced aviation systems and reliable long-range communications led to the abandonment of winged messengers. In 1957, the Royal Navy withdrew its last official pigeon service from Coastal Command, ending an era dating back to ancient times. Today, a memorial dedicated to the pigeons can be found in New Jersey.

 

Homing Pigeon Training

  • Selection and Breeding: Homing pigeons were specially bred and bred for their ability to navigate terrain, endurance and speed. Training begins at a young age to enhance these natural instincts.

 

  • Homing Instinct: Pigeons have an innate ability to find their way home over long distances, a skill that is still not fully understood but is thought to be related to the birds’ sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field, the position of the sun, and visual cues.  

 

  • Gradual training at a distance : Young pigeons are trained by gradually releasing them further and further from the home pigeon house and forcing them to return back. This process accustoms them to the task of returning home from unknown places.

Preparing messages

  • Writing the Message: Messages were written on lightweight paper or thin cloth to minimize stress on the pigeon.

 

  • Securing the Message: The message was placed in a small container or capsule that was attached to the pigeon’s foot or sometimes to the base of its feathers.  

 

  • Release and Return: A pigeon was released from a ship or coastal location and it instinctively flew back to its home pigeon coop where the recipient could film the message and read it.

Advantages and challenges

  • Speed and Reliability: Pigeons could travel distances of up to 160 kilometers in just a few hours, making them faster than any ship over short distances.

 

  • Security: Messages carried by pigeons were difficult to intercept, providing a reliable method of communication.

 

  • Environment: Bad weather, predators, and the physical limitations of the pigeons themselves could all affect the reliability of pigeon communication.
  • Geographical limitations: The effectiveness of pigeon mail was limited by the radius of the pigeons returning home, usually a few hundred kilometers, although there were cases of flight over distances of 1800 kilometers.

Fortunately, there is no need to use pigeon mail in World of Sea Battle – there are modern convenient methods for communication, such as chat.

 

Starting with a small boat and a handful of coins, you can also build your own empire, choosing from over 50 ships and traveling through a vast open world. But be on your guard – who knows what the intentions of passing ships are.

 

Dogs in the sea: faithful companions and protectors

Dogs have a centuries-long history of serving as both loyal companions and working crew members on maritime vessels of different eras and regions. Although often perceived as mere mascots, canine sailors supplemented human crews with their useful skills.

 

Breeds adapted to water and search were indispensable for rescuing overboard and returning lost equipment under any conditions. Legendary water dogs like Newfoundlands were able to pull salvaged objects and drowning people onto the deck when tired human crews had long given up searching.

 

The tenacious terriers performed important duties in the holds, chasing down the notoriously omnivorous rats that sought to sneak aboard and steal food supplies. Although not very large, breeds such as the Yorkshire Terrier were ruthlessly superior to rodents in cunning and ferocity, stalking vermin where no human could reach. 

Other famous dogs at sea:

  • Bamsi: A Saint Bernard who served as the mascot of the Free Norwegian Forces in World War II. While aboard the minesweeper HMS Thorodd, Bamse was renowned for his exploits, including saving crew members from drowning and breaking up fights. He was awarded the PDSA Gold Medal for bravery and has a monument to him in Montrose, Scotland.

 

  • Sinbad: A cross between unknown breeds, Sinbad became a legend aboard the USCGC Campbell during World War II. Officially listed as a crew member, his adventures and exploits were widely reported in the press, making him a morale booster for both his fellow soldiers and the general public. His story highlights the role dogs play in boosting morale during stressful times of war.  

 

  • Swansea Jack: Black retriever who lived in Swansea, Wales in the 1930s. Although he was not a ship’s dog in the truest sense, Swansea Jack became famous for his daring rescues of people from Swansea Dock and the nearby river. He was awarded two bronze medals by the National Canine Welfare League (now Dogs Trust) and is commemorated with a plaque by the river.  

 

In the modern era, although technological advances have reduced the functional necessity of dogs on commercial and military vessels, their role as morale enhancers and companions is still recognized. 

 

Some navies still have mascots or service dogs that accompany ships on long missions, providing comfort and a sense of connection to the seafaring traditions of the past.

 

Exotic Animals as Talismans and Symbols of Research

Since ancient times, sailors have collected amazingly strange animals from newly discovered territories, marveling at their alien beauty and greedily thinking about their potential value in their native lands. These unusual captives reflected more than just curiosities—they embodied the call of adventure and opportunity, inspiring ambitious sailors and their sponsors to further their search for nature’s hidden treasures.

 

Bright tropical birds, landing daily on the yards and bulwarks, reminded the crews of the amazing worlds discovered on the last voyage, and foreshadowed even greater glory ahead. Rainbow parrots, mimicking snatches of someone else’s speech or laughing at the top of their lungs, relieved the boredom of the calms, and monkeys frolicked and challenged human dexterity between mischievous attempts to smuggle objects across the deck.

 

The image of pirates with pet monkeys and parrots, often romanticized in literature and film, is rooted in historical realities, intertwined with the broader narrative of maritime exploration and conquest.

 

Parrots, with their colorful plumage and ability to imitate human speech, were highly prized by pirates and sailors. These birds offered a unique form of entertainment on long voyages. In addition to being fun, parrots represented a pirate’s life of adventure and wandering, embodying the sailor’s connection to exotic, open shores. The parrot on the pirate’s shoulder became a visual embodiment of his world experience and success in robbing distant lands.

 

Likewise, monkeys were valued for their playful and mischievous nature, providing company and fun on board. These intelligent and adaptable creatures quickly became part of ship life, entertaining the crew and reminding them of the exotic origins of their pirate owners. Monkeys, like parrots, were often brought back from raids in the Caribbean and other tropical regions, and they became expensive trophies, highlighting the valor and adventures of the pirate.

 

In addition to birds and monkeys, sailors and pirates are known to sometimes keep more fearsome animals such as ocelots, leopards and other small exotic cats as pets. They were valued for their beauty and ferocity, seen as the embodiment of power and might.

One of the most fascinating stories tells of the ruthless pirate Henry Avery, who was rumored to have kept a leopard on board his ship, the Fancy. Avery, known for his daring forays, including the capture of the Gansway, an Indian treasure ship, used the leopard not only as a pet, but also as a symbol of his dominance over the seas. The sight of the leopard on the deck both fascinated and intimidated those who met Avery’s ship, cementing his reputation as the “King of the Pirates.”

 

Another legendary figure, Bartholomew Roberts, is said to have been accompanied on his voyages by an ocelot, a smaller but no less ferocious cat. Roberts, who captured more than 400 ships during his pirate career, was famous for his strict discipline and refined taste. Ocelot was a fitting companion for him, symbolizing Roberts’s own cunning and agility. The Predator roamed the Fortune Royal, a living embodiment of Roberts’s untouchable status and power over creatures of land and sea.  

 

However, the difficulties of keeping exotic animals on long voyages were numerous. Providing fresh and suitable food for creatures such as parrots, monkeys and the odd cat was no easy task, especially on voyages where human crew members themselves risked scurvy and malnutrition. 

 

Sailors had to be smart, often bartering for fresh fruits and vegetables in ports to keep their animal companions healthy. Additionally, managing the natural behavior and needs of wild animals in the confined space of a ship required constant attention and creativity, including creating makeshift enclosures and finding ways to provide the animals with physical activity.

 

Finally

Crew of the Scottish ship SS Strathgarry

 

Although the story comes to an end, the images of the companions are still alive in maritime history. Their talents were vital on ships for which the physical strength of the crew alone was not enough to overcome the harsh trials of the sea.

 

In addition to practical help, whiskers, claws and feathers consoled the soul – a living reminder of home among the endless expanses of water. And for some they personified even more – the embodiment of divine winds and raging waves. 

 

The sparkle in their eyes reflected the passion of the sailors themselves for knowledge of the unknown – an unquenchable thirst to comprehend the secrets beyond the horizon. Perhaps this powerful common aspiration connected them through the fickle whims of Fate. Animals and people endured storms and tragedies together, but together they also achieved glory – inseparable creatures of the sea, whose sagas are forever intertwined.

If you want to immerse yourself in this era of sailing ships and smell the salty freedom, then in World of Sea Battle ships of the 16-18 centuries are recreated in detail, from pirate schooners to galleons, galleys and battleships.

 

And thanks to the full opportunity to explore the seamless expanses of the game world, you can earn a reputation in a way convenient for yourself – from robbery to fair trade. If you have a furry pet at home, then do not forget to stroke it from time to time, for good luck.

 

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