Welcome Maggie of Cat Scouts ( and my Sammy’s special friend). Warning, this story may make you cry.
Hi, Maggie here again with you. Today I would like to remember the great Antarctic explorer, Mrs. Chippy. He is very famous, and was part of Ernest Shackleton’s third expedition to the Antarctic regions. He belonged to Henry “Chips” McNeish, the ship’s carpenter, who had also been on prior Antarctic voyages.Mrs. Chippy was actually a male brown tabby who adored his master, and because he shadowed him all over the ship, the crew soon named him “Mrs Chippy.” He endeared himself to the crew, and early in their fateful voyage, Chippy decided to jump out a porthole. The watch officer turned the huge ship around and the crew were able to pick the cat up out of the icy waters. He had been in the sea for about ten minutes, and most cats certainly would not have tolerated that situation!
Endurance was a noble ship built to withstand the rigors of icy weather and waters. She left Britain for South America in August of 1914, around the time of the start of WWI. The ship stopped in Argentina to provision and obtain a team of sled dogs which would be needed for the overland treks planned once the crew landed in Antarctica. In Buenos Aires, a young British fellow stowed aboard the Endurance, thus making the number of human crew 29 souls. Perce Blackborow proved himself so likable and useful to Shackleton and the crew that he was appointed Steward, and he and Mrs. Chippy soon became fast friends.
This Frank Hurley photo is courtesy, Scott Polar Institute
The expedition left Buenos Aires for South Georgia Island, and from there, set sail for the Antarctic continent. Chippy made himself busy standing on the ship’s rail, harassing the dogs, who were kenneled on the main deck, and otherwise exploring every nook and cranny of the ship. He proved himself to be very adept at catching rodents, so was much appreciated as a full crew member of the expedition. He also kept his master’s bunk warm, pawticularly useful in the frigid temps!!
Chippy’s favorite place to hang out was the Galley, where Cook always shared a tasty morsel with him, or the Ward Room, where he could rub against everyone and get lots of pets in return. Like most of our feline ancestors and contemporaries, Chippy did not see the necessity of keeping a journal, but rather, he lived in the moment. Luckily for us cat historians, his story was re-created from the writings of Shackleton himself and his various crew, all of whom kept journals. “Mrs.Chippy’s Last Expedition” was written by Caroline Alexander, and it’s told from Chippy’s point of view, but based on actual daily events that occurred throughout the voyage until the time of the amazing rescue expedition that followed the ship’s destruction. This precious book, which you must read, has been re-issued several times.
The book is a wonderful account of daily life at sea, including the monotony and the adventures and mishaps. Because the expedition was a scientific one, there were lots of bottled and packed samples of various things the explorers collected and thought important. Chippy loved exploring and occasionally knocking over a bottle or two, but he always escaped the wrath of the crew.
The Endurance did well for a little over a year, and then became gradually and increasingly subject to the pressure of the large ice floes that trapped her. There was no open water for most of their voyage, so they had to push through the ice a little bit at a time. Finally, the ship became crushed by the ice pressure, and she had to be abandoned.
It was a huge undertaking to empty the contents of the entire ship, set up temporary quarters for the crew and the dogs, and maintain discipline, hope and physical fitness. It was now the end of October, 1915.
Photo, Frank Hurley
Shackleton realized that his crew and mission were nearly doomed, so he ordered the crew to dispose of all of their unnecessary belongings. To set an example, he discarded a Bible that had been given to him by the Queen, just tearing out a few important pages. Frank Hurley, the ship’s photographer, had taken hundreds of pictures, and he now needed to choose which ones to keep. In those days, photo “negatives” were made of glass, and they were large and bulky. We are so glad that one of Hurley’s choices was the earlier photo above depicting Chippy on Blackborow’s shoulder -the lone picture of this fabulous kitty navigator that was saved!
Alexander’s book contains most of the surviving photographs, and they only add to the drama and sadness of this voyage.
Shackleton ordered that no body who couldn’t pull his weight or prove useful to the Expedition must be “put down.”
The sled dogs, after hauling many provisions and supplies over huge distances, were all shot. It is surmised, but not confirmed, that Chippy was given a special treat of sardines for his last dinner, and he did not wake up after that meal. Suffice it to say that most of the crew, but particularly Henry McNeish, were devastated by his loss. McNeish later bore Shackleton a grudge because of the cat, and although he was an essential member of the rescue portion of the expedition (due to his carpentry skills), McNeish was not rewarded with commendations at the end of the expedition.
We won’t tell the amazing story here about Shackleton’s incredible 800 mile trek over mountains and icy waters to find the nearest post where he could get a rescue ship. He did it and accomplished one of the most celebrated rescues in human history. After many months, he and a skeleton crew who had braved that long land and sea journey returned to rescue the other crew members. All were saved. Many prior Arctic and Antarctic expeditions did not fare as well.
I like to think that Chippy’s spirit enabled the Endurance human crew to maintain hope and courage, even after Chippy was no longer there in purrson.
It is so sad, to me, and heartbreaking that in those days, animals weren’t held in as high esteem as they are today. The innocent sled dogs, many of whom died from parasites because Shackleton had forgotten to take worm medicine on the journey, were used for heavy work and then discarded as being a burden. Some of them were pregnant or were pups.
Mrs. Chippy, though very small, was also considered to be too risky to keep in the tents set up on moving ice floes. Food and fuel were scarce toward the end of the voyage, so Shackleton decided that the animals would be too much trouble to take care of, and could possibly impede the human crew’s ability to survive and be mobile.
Henry McNeish grieved for his beloved cat for many years, and he later retired to New Zealand, although he was Scottish. McNeish’s gravesite in Wellington was later enlarged to include a tribute to his fabulous companion and the ship’s mascot, Mrs. Chippy!
You can purchase Chippy’s book at the Museum of Maritime Pets website : http://museumofmaritimepets.org/store.html
Thank you Maggie. See you all tomorrow for lots of hopping.