A note about The Cuddlywumps Chronicles

This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to author Roby Sweet. Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mrs. Chippy: Cat of the Endurance Expedition

Photo of Mrs. Chippy on Perce Blackborow's shoulder
The male tabby named Mrs. Chippy perches on Perce Blackborow's
shoulder aboard the Endurance, 1914.
By Frank Hurley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Years ago, people went off in sailing ships to explore far-flung parts of the globe, and they took cats with them. For one thing, cats were good company, capable of providing light entertainment, and for another thing, cats were rather good at killing the mice and rats that inevitably hitched a ride on the ships. One of the most famous of these cats was Mrs. Chippy, a tabby cat from Glasgow, Scotland, who wasn’t a “Mrs.” at all and who sailed to Antarctica with Ernest Shackleton, never to return.

Mrs. Chippy joins the expedition

In 1914, Ernest Shackleton was putting together something called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (also known as the Endurance Expedition). Shackleton intended to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. For this, he needed crews for two ships, and a Scotsman named Harry McNish (also spelled “McNeish”) joined up as the carpenter for the Endurance. As the story goes, McNish found his tabby cat curled up in his toolbox, and he took this as sign that the cat wanted to come with him. So, when McNish boarded the ship in London, along came the tabby.

“Chippy” is a British nickname for a carpenter, and the tabby quickly came to be called Mrs. Chippy for her habit of sticking close to McNish. The cat had been on board for a month before the crew discovered that Mrs. Chippy was actually Mr. Chippy, but still the original name stuck.

Heading south, Mrs. Chippy makes a new friend

Photo of Endurance in full sail, c. 1915
The Endurance in full sail, c. 1915.
By Frank Hurley [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons.
The Endurance sailed on August 8, 1914, for Buenos Aires. It was during the stop there that young Perce Blackborow, still just a teen, stowed away on the ship. Blackborow was allowed to stay after he was discovered, and he became a friend of Mrs. Chippy. The only known photo of the cat shows him perched on Blackborow’s shoulder.

Mrs. Chippy was well liked by the crew. He was friendly, a good mouser, and known for his ability to balance on the ship’s rails even in rough seas. He was less popular among the sled dogs, as he liked to tease them by walking atop the kennels they were kept in.

Map of proposed Endurance expedition route
Map showing the planned route
of the expedition.
March 25, 1916.
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
From Buenos Aires, the expedition sailed on to South Georgia and then to Antarctica. The plan for the Endurance was to land a party in a bay off the Weddell Sea. From there, the explorers would trek across the continent to the Ross Sea, by way of the South Pole. Meanwhile, a second ship, the Aurora, was to sail on to the Ross Sea. But things did not go to plan.

Trapped

The Endurance encountered ice along the way to the intended landing site, which presented more difficulties than Shackleton had anticipated, and the ship eventually became trapped in pack ice in 1915.  At first, Shackleton had the men try to free the ship with chisels and saws, but it was no use, and they all realized they’d be spending the winter on the ice. They tried to get word out with their wireless, but they were too far away from civilization for it to work. The sled dogs were taken off the ship and housed in “dogloos” (kennels made of ice). Mrs. Chippy mostly preferred to stay aboard the ship.

Endurance, crushed by ice and sinking, November 1915
The Eundurance, crushed and sinking,
November 1915. A few of the sled dogs
are seen in the foreground.
By Royal Grographic Society [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Things went tolerably well until October, when the ice truly began to crush the ship. Endurance had to be abandoned on October 27, 1915. The men and animals who’d been aboard her were well and truly stuck. A new plan was needed, but unfortunately for Mrs. Chippy, it did not include a cat.

The end for Mrs. Chippy

Shackleton determined that their best chance of surviving lay in marching across the ice to the west to reach the nearest land, some 350 miles away. He determined that only the strong would survive this journey, and he ordered the crew to shoot the weakest animals, including Mrs. Chippy. This was carried out on October 29. Shackleton wrote, “This afternoon Sallie’s three youngest pups, Sue’s Sirius, and Mrs. Chippy, the carpenter’s cat, have to be shot. We could not undertake the maintenance of weaklings under the new conditions.” Those who were closest to the animals killed, including McNish, “seemed to feel the loss of their friends rather badly.”

A long journey toward rescue

Harry McNish, ship's carpenter for the Endurance
Harry McNish, 1914.
Portrait cropped from photo in
South with Endurance.
Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons.
The march was short-lived, as it proved too difficult to negotiate the uneven ice. The crew instead made camp not far from the ship and waited for the ice to break up. They were able to retrieve more supplies from the Endurance until the ship finally sank on November 21. By April 1916, they had drifted to within sight of land, and with their ice pack breaking up, Shackleton decided it was time to try a lifeboat journey. In three lifeboats, the crew made a perilous, icy trip to Elephant Island.

It was good that they had reached land, but the land they reached was uninhabited. Shackleton needed to make one more dangerous lifeboat journey to get help. He and five others, including McNish, set off for South Georgia. Although the boat quickly became covered in ice, they reached the island on May 10, over two weeks after setting out. But still the ordeal wasn’t over, as South Georgia’s whaling stations were on the northern coast, and the sailors and landed to the south. Next came a land crossing of South Georgia’s interior. McNish and two others were not well enough to make this part of the journey, and they were left in a makeshift camp. They would be rescued by a whaler after Shackleton reached a station on the island. Shackleton also returned to Elephant Island to rescue the men left there. In the meantime, Blackborow’s left foot had had to be amputated after it became frostbitten and gangrenous.

The carpenter and his cat reunited

Statue of Mrs. Chippy on Harry McNish's grave
The statue of Mrs. Chippy added to
Harry Mcnish's grave in
Karori Cemetery, Wellington, by the
New Zealand Antarctic Society in 2004.
By Nigel Cross, via Wikimedia Commons.
McNish never forgave Shackleton for ordering that Mrs. Chippy be shot. He and Shackleton had had their differences from the start of the expedition, and Shackleton wrote that the Scottish carpenter was "the only man I'm not dead certain of." After the Endurance became stuck on the ice, the two men butted heads over exactly what should be done to effect the crew’s rescue, and at one point McNish even refused to follow Shackleton’s orders. Despite this, the carpenter worked hard to build shelters for the crew and to save the Endurance, and of course he was part of the crew on that harrowing lifeboat journey to South Georgia. However, Shackleton denied him the Polar Medal that most of the crewmen received after their ordeal. Harry McNish died destitute in New Zealand in 1930. He was 64.

In 2004, McNish and Mrs. Chippy  were reunited, in a way, when the New Zealand Antarctic Society added a bronze statue of the cat to the carpenter’s grave. A fitting close to the story of a cat who set out on an ill-fated adventure just because he curled up in a toolbox.

For more on cats who sailed to Antarctica, see "This Fearless Feline Sailed the Wild Southern Seas."

Sources

Cool Antarctica. "Henry (Harry McNish (1874-1930) Biographical Notes."
http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/biography/mcnish_henry.php

Roberts, Patrick. “Mrs. Chippy, of Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition.” Purr-n-Furhttp://www.purr-n-fur.org.uk/famous/chippy.html

Shackleton, Ernest. South! The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition, 1914-1917. Project Gutenberg e-book: 2004.


Wikipedia: “Harry McNish,” “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition,” “Mrs. Chippy.”

4 comments:

  1. Damned explorers - taking pets along when they knew the odds were they'd die.

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  2. Poor Mrs. Chippy. I thought they had poisoned her food ( still not a good ending).

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  3. I love reading these historical "tails" you find and this one is no exception, but what a tragic ending :( That statue on his grave is so beautiful...that's what I want when it's my time!

    ReplyDelete