Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Birds of a Feather Ship Together

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

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The inspiration for today's post comes from a favorite scene in the 1934 film adaptation of Treasure Island.  Long John Silver (for the moment keeping his piratical past a secret) has just signed on aboard Hispaniola as the ship's cook, and is having a friendly discussion in the galley with Jim Hawkins.  Captain Flint swings innocently from her perch.

Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper star in 1934's
 Treasure Island, though several scenes were
stolen by Captain Flint.
Jim Hawkins: "I'm glad you like Doctor Livesey."
Long John Silver: "He's a pretty smart man, Jim."
JH: "He's not a sailor of course, but he can cut you open and sew you up again."
LJS: "Well that sewing up must be pretty difficult."
JH: "So's the cutting up part."
LJS: "Well, experience, Jim."
JH: "I couldn't do it."
LJS: "Oh no, neither could I.  Mmm...I'd swoon like a lady of quality, I would.  I guess I'm kinda sensitive-like..."

Numerous sources describing the Age of Sail suggest that nearly every sailing vessel had animals of some form aboard.  A lot of these tended to be livestock like chickens and cattle, but a few were kept as mascots and pets by the crew.  The esteem'd blogger Kyle Dalton of British Tars recently wrote a post on dogs and cats at sea, and my own post treats on birds and other animals.

Thomas Cochrane,
10th Earl Dundonald
Thomas Cochrane, Napoleon's "Sea Wolf" and the eventual 10th Earl Dundonald, takes the time to describe one ship's pet during his time as a midshipman aboard HMS Hind

"On board most ships there is a pet animal of some kind.  Ours was a parrot, which was Jack Larmour's [the first lieutenant's] aversion, from the exactness with which the bird had learned to imitate the calls of the boatswain's whistle.  Sometimes the parrot would pipe an order so correctly as to throw the ship into momentary confusion, and the first lieutenant into a volley of imprecations, consigning Poll to a warmer latitude than his native tropical forests.  Indeed, it was only by my uncle's [Captain Sir Alexander Cochrane] that the bird was tolerated.

One day a party of ladies paid us a visit aboard, and several had been hoisted on deck by the usual means of a 'whip' on the main-yard.  The chair had descended for another 'whip,' but scarcely had its fair freight been lifted out of the boat alongside, than the unlucky parrot piped 'Let go!'  The order being instantly obeyed, the unfortunate lady, instead of being comfortably seated on deck, as had been those who preceded her, was soused overhead in the sea!  Luckily for Poll, Jack Larmour was on shore at the time, or this unreasonable assumption of the boatswain's functions might have ended tragically."

At times equally as boisterous as parrots, different species of poultry could be found aboard ship as well.  Mainly to serve as provisions for the officers (eggs, fresh meat, etc.), these birds were kept in coops that could be carried on deck during the day.  Historian Janet Macdonald mentions several instances where these coops were broken during battle, allowing the birds to go free.  During the action on the Glorious First of June in 1794, a rooster was said to have gotten free of his coop, and found a prominent perch from which he crowed defiantly throughout the battle...perhaps being promoted from the wardroom bill of fare to a billet as mascot.

Parrots as well as monkeys tended to be popular shipboard pets when vessels touched at ports in the West Indies or South America, where these animals could be found.  In 1724, a somewhat macabre account describes a wrecked vessel having touched at Brazil because of the monkeys and parrots washing ashore.  While struggling with miserably cold and wet conditions sailing off Newfoundland in 1785, Samuel Kelly had the care of two white-faced monkeys tied up near his berth.  Apparently, these enterprising creatures would rub tobacco smoke and onion skins into their fur whenever it was presented to them, conceivably to combat the fleas.

On rare occasions, even more exotic animals could be found aboard ship.  While serving as a midshipman aboard the celebrated USS Constitution in early 1815, Pardon Mawney Whipple writes:

"We next made a capture on the coast of Portugal which we man’d & sent in & have now just reaped the golden fruit, which is much the sweetest part of Warfare,  unfortunately  however not without the ruin of a fellow being, who was a jolly scotchman, & got most gloriously drunk the night after the capture & consoled himself with the common remark that it was the fortune of war – on board of this vessel we found two fine young Tigers, which had been in some measure domesticated & were of great amusement to the Sailors."

Many authors describing life aboard sailing ships mention intense boredom and monotony broken up by the occasional battle or foul weather.  One imagines that the occasional pet or mascot did much to brighten an otherwise dreary world.

1.  Cochrane, Thomas.  The Autobiography of a Seaman.  (Endeavour Compass, 2016.)
2.  Macdonald, Janet.  Feeding Nelson's Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era.  (Frontline Books, 2014.)
3.  Kelly, Samuel.  Samuel Kelly, an eighteenth century seaman, whose days have been few and evil, to which is added remarks, etc., on places he visited during his pilgrimage in this wilderness.  (Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925.)
4.  USS Constitution Museum.  Pardon Mawney Whipple's Letterbook,  (Transcribed 2014).