If I were to make list of things I love in life, cats and tales of polar expeditions would definitely feature. So when Grand Days’ Tamara handed me Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journey of Shackleton’s Polar-bound Cat (Complete and Unabridged) by Caroline Alexander, I was excited. I had never heard of it – a diary written by a cat who participated in one of the greatest polar expeditions of all times. A book written just for me!
On the front cover of the book there is a photo of a tiger-striped tabby cat with dramatic dark markings standing on the shoulder of a young man and on the back cover a blurb which says:
Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica is regarded as one of the most perilous in history. After sailing halfway around the world, Shackleton’s ship Endurance became trapped in a sea of ice. Over the course of ten long months, the ice thickened around the ship until its hull was crushed and the ship went down. All twenty-nine crew members were pushed to their limits to survive…including the level-headed, quick-thinking Mrs. Chippy, the ship’s robust (male) cat.
Mrs. Chippy was no ordinary polar explorer, as evidenced from this magnificent diary. Mrs. Chippy worked as a carpenter’s mate with shipwright Harry “Chips” McNeish. But his vital duties went much further: monitoring the noisy sled dogs, climbing the rigging to survey the ice, watching for birds and penguins, and patrolling the hold for stray mice.
Illustrated with authentic photographs and closely based on the true events of Shackleton’s journey, Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition is a superbly written cat memoir that will take its place in the annals of fine expeditionary literature.
The introduction to the diary is by Lord Mouser-Hunt, R.R.G.S, photos are by famous Australian photographer and adventurer Frank Hurley no less, and drawings are by Able Seaman W.E How, these latter two serving on the Endurance along with Mrs. Chippy. The cover photo is of Mrs. Chippy and Perce Blackborow, a stowaway who joined the ship at Buenos Aires having been turned away when Shackleton decided he had enough men and not discovered until three days after the ship left port. Shackleton gave him an eloquent dressing down in front of all the crew but later instated him as a crew member, coming to regard the quiet, conscientious Welshman as highly as any member of the crew. The photo of Blackborow and Mrs. Chippy is the only one we have of our diarist, he being in all others, unfortunately, “out of frame.”
As you already know and as Lord Mouser-Hunt tells us, the cat is male, the name “Mrs. Chippy” being “mistakenly bestowed by his ship-mates, beguiled by the playful and charming aspects of his character. Even after the foolish error was determined, the affectionate name stuck and it is a tribute to Chippy’s rugged masculinity that he remained unperturbed by this comic misapprehension.”
Mrs. Chippy’s diary begins, as Lord Mouser-Hunt points out, “media res” – in the midst of the plot - on 15 January 1915, months after Endurance set sail from London on 1 August 1914. “The loss of Mrs. Chippy’s account of the early stages of the Expedition – whether because such an account was materially lost, or because it was never written – has been long lamented by historians and explorers”. Furthermore, for reasons that will be revealed, the diary finishes on 15 October when Shackleton and his crew were forced to abandon ship onto the ice so the epic denouement of the expedition is also sadly missing from the memoir. Caroline Alexander’s other information-filled book, however, which I sought out, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (1998), fills in these large gaps for those readers interested in knowing the story from beginning to end. (As a bonus this book is filled with many of Hurley’s magnificent photographs of the whole expedition.) Mrs. Chippy’s diary is, however, as Lord Mouser-Hunt says, “annotated with helpful footnotes” which provide real historical and scientific information about the voyage and the day-to-day efforts, experiences and privations of Shackleton and the crew during the ten months that Endurance was trapped in the ice in the Weddell Sea and unable to move.
I loved Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition. Perhaps you have to be a cat person to really appreciate its insights and wry humour but if you aren’t a feline fan, you might just enjoy the polar revelations presented from the unique perspective of a ship’s cat together with the information available in Lord Mouser-Hunt’s amusing but full of facts Introduction and the expansive footnotes.
Mrs. Chippy was, in real life, the ship’s cat aboard the Endurance. He came from the small village of Cathcart, outside Glasgow and was a mate of, and named after, Henry “Chippy” McNeish, a carpenter and master shipwright who also sailed on the ill-fated expedition and whom Mrs. Chippy constantly followed around. (“Chippy” is a British nickname for a carpenter). Lord Mouser-Hunt tells us that Mrs. Chippy was “solidly built, with a frank, broad face and handsome whiskers”. He adds, “According to Sir Ernest Shackleton, ‘the qualities….necessary to the explorer are….first, optimism; second, patience; third, physical endurance.’ These were qualities Mrs. Chippy possessed in abundance. While his shipmates fretted anxiously about their safe return to their homes, Mrs. Chippy greeted each new dawn with complacent optimism, often sleeping patiently through the winter days. A champion mouser, Chippy was additionally blessed with both agility and stamina, physical traits that served him well in his long ordeal.”
Mrs. Chippy is wise and observant, talented and brave, affectionate and humorous, good company and warm in bed against one’s ankles. He is also blithely un self-aware, supremely self-confident, (one might even say, conceited), greedy (he is the only crew member who put on weight during the voyage) and prone to laziness. (Or perhaps cats just need a lot of sleep..?) Here are three snippets from his diary:
I myself am very self-disciplined by nature and have set myself a strict winter regime: Wake at 2:00 pm; stretch, wash, take breakfast by the galley stove, greet shipmates etc. On deck for Watch shortly after 3:00. At this time I also take my exercise, sharpening my claws on the mast, practicing maneuvers amid the coils of rope and so forth. Often I help my shipmates in shipping seal meat and blubber, or keeping an eye on the dogs below. I finish my watch just before four, and return to the galley for my tea-time milk – if Blackborow is in charge, he sometimes heats it for me. After this I may snooze by the stove or help my shipmates with their various desk jobs. Many have notes and journals to write up at this time and I help keep the pages of their notebooks flat by sitting on them while they work. Also Blackborow has his books to attend to, as the Boss has told him he must keep up his schooling, and naturally I help him with these. This is also the time I compose my own mental notes of the day’s events for my Log. This time is very social and I’m often summoned from one end of the big table to the other by persons needing my assistance…..After dinner with my shipmates at 6:00, I often join my mate for a constitutional evening stroll around the deck, taking in the night air and observing the icy dogloos below [the dogs’ quarters have been moved from the ship’s deck onto the ice], and the dogs huddled around them. I usually have a saucer of milk before retiring for the night. Generally I bunk with my mate or with Blackborow. …..Before turning in for the night I sometimes visit with the watchman, who is always pleased to see me, sharing cocoa and sardines and so forth…This winter routine has fallen very naturally into place.
Observed the Skipper making his way up to the crow’s nest, where he likes to look out for seals and realized it had been quite a while since I had kept my own watch there. Scratching my claws by way of preparation, I looked up to see if anyone was watching me. Bakewell was working by the foredeck and when I saw that I had caught his attention, I sprang up the rigging and nimbly and dexterously made my way to the top, surprising the Skipper as I took my position beside him. “Hello, Chippy” he said. “Come to share the watch?”…. Without wishing to be boastful it is generally recognised that I am a much better climber than any of my shipmates, and incalculably better than the scientists, who can’t climb at all, and everyone enjoys watching me make my way up and down the rigging…..Down I rappelled, twisting from backwards to headfirst in a single rather difficult move near the end, leaping the last few feet and landing easily inches from McCarthy’s feet…. I went and sat on a coil of rope and casually cleaned my whiskers. I am not one to lord it over my fellows.
I happened to pass by the Boss’s cabin and seeing that his door was ajar…I padded inside… “Hello, Mrs. Chippy” he said… “making the rounds are you?”... He seemed very pleased to see me and dangled his hand over the edge of his bed….I have always got on with Sir Ernest…. I have been most fortunate to ship on with such a wise and perceptive leader. I was just sprucing up my whiskers when there was a tentative knock on the door and How poked his head inside, carrying a bucket of coal...”Oh,” he said, suddenly seeing me. “I see you have a visitor, sir”. “Come in,” said the Boss. “It’s quite all right. I’m sure Mrs. Chippy would like you to join us”. How laughed and came in and greeted me beside the stove. “Well, Chippy,” he said, stroking my head, “working late as usual.” “Yes”, said the Boss, “one of the more industrious members of our crew. Always up to something or other.” I felt the tips of my whiskers glow with pride. So my hard work and conscientious efforts have not gone unappreciated!.... I settled down and although I meant to stay awake to keep the Boss company and continue our earlier conversation, I must have dozed off.
Shackleton was a twenty-eight year old merchant service officer when he set off on his first Antarctic expedition in 1901. He, because of his physical strength, and Dr Edward Wilson, a physician and zoologist, were chosen by Captain Robert Falcon Scott to accompany him on the first bid to reach and claim the South Pole. They and crew set sail on Scott’s ship Discovery and subsequently Scott, Wilson and Shackleton took off inland from McMurdo Sound with nineteen sledging dogs and five loaded sledges. As Caroline Alexander says, “They faced an unspeakably daunting challenge, a round-trip journey of more than 1600 miles [2,600 kms], hard sledging all the way, through an entirely unknown and uncharted environment.” They starved and suffered from scurvy, their sleeping bags were frozen solid, the dogs sickened and died and had to be butchered to feed their fellow canine survivors. They pressed on until they reached 745 miles [1,200 kms] north of the pole when Scott, acknowledging their desperate and perilous situation, reluctantly gave the order to turn back. Three months after setting out they arrived back at their ship. The last leg of this terrible journey which they barely survived established a pattern of heroic suffering that would characterise subsequent British expeditions.
Inconceivable as it sounds, the prodigious difficulties faced by Scott and his companions on this venture were not the result of unavoidable circumstances but of incompetence. They had not taken enough rations, they had no knowledge of driving dogs and they had not bothered to become proficient on skis. Scott and Shackleton, miles apart temperamentally, quarrelled and had no rapport. Nerves were frayed. Scott was not the reader of men that Shackleton turned out to be and unwisely ignored the significance of personality and compatibility when choosing his team.
Despite the failure of this venture, it opened doors for Shackleton and, in 1907, he obtained funding for a new expedition to the South Pole. His ship, the Nimrod set sail with ten ponies and nine dogs on board and, in October 1908, he departed from base camp at Cape Royds over the Great Ice Barrier with three companions and a team of four ponies. Shackleton had learned much from the Scott expedition but not all he should have: by this time, expeditions to the Arctic had proven that dog teams were the only practical mode of polar transportation; Shackleton had made little progress with learning to ski and much of his mountaineering equipment would prove inadequate. Once again the pattern of suffering began: the ponies floundered in the deep snow and would eventually be shot and eaten- all but Socks, the last, who fell down a crevasse to his death. The men, confronted with hitherto unknown terrifying terrain, suffering from snow-blindness, hunger, frostbite and probably scurvy struggled to 100 miles [160 kms] short of the pole when Shackleton, taking realistic stock of the situation, made the bitter decision to turn back while survival was still possible. It was the furthest south that anyone had travelled at that time. The men reached base camp, barely alive, and considerably overdue, only to find that it had been deserted. Miraculously, they were discovered shortly afterwards when the Nimrod returned with a search party aiming to winter over and look for their bodies.
Only while writing this did I discover that Leo Cotton, the father of Australia’s wonderful photographer Olive Cotton, was a member of this expedition of Shackleton’s. Leo was a Professor of Geology and went along as a meteorological observer but also, having sought instruction in photography before he went, took photographs during the expedition. The technical knowledge he gained later encouraged Olive to work in a dark room of her own rather than use commercial processing services. Cotton Glacier in the Antarctic is named after Leo.
While Shackleton, knighted on his return to Britain, hit the lecture circuit, wrote a book and turned the Nimrod into a museum, all with the aim of paying off the expedition’s debts, Scott headed back in October 1911 for another assault on the pole, this one to be the most tragic and ill-fated of all. Suffice to say here that he and his team were beaten to the pole by the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, and his four companions travelling by skis and accompanied by 52 superbly conditioned and trained dogs. To Scott’s horror, he and his companions came across the tracks of Amundsen’s party and realised what had occurred. They continued on dispiritedly to plant their flag at the pole and then headed back to base. They didn’t, however, make it. All five died on the ice, the last three trapped in a raging blizzard only 11 miles [18 kms] from a supply depot. Scott’s diary contains a litany of excuses for the failure of the expedition but when his last eloquently written words reached the public nearly a year later, his party’s “perverse blunders” (ponies again, motor-sledges which didn’t work and dogs that no-one knew how to drive, shortage of fuel left in the depots) disappeared and the myth of heroic adventure and glorious failure was further propagated.
This then was the climate in which Shackleton, one year later, managed to scrape together funds for his third Antarctic venture, the Endurance expedition. Acknowledging that Britain had been beaten to both poles, Shackleton’s aim for the expedition as set out in his prospectus was, “the largest and most striking of all journeys – the crossing [on foot] of the [Antarctic] Continent” from the Weddell to the Ross Sea.
Shackleton, born into a middle-class family in Dublin (with one brother and eight doting sisters) but raised in England, charming, charismatic and handsome, reasonably well-educated although ill-suited to formal academic training, was a man of romantic ambitions; a lover of poetry and a (bad) poet himself. He was a born leader, watchful of and considerate of his men, fair, commanding, good spirited and, above all, optimistic. He was contemptuous of those who did not possess this trait. He knew that, beyond everything else, the success of the expedition depended on the spirits of his men remaining positive and the atmosphere collaborative. He figuratively kept his finger on the pulse of every individual man, tending to each physically or emotionally when he knew it was necessary. The mysteries of what makes a person choose a life of extraordinary hardship and danger and what makes one a great leader and another a failure are, I think, what draw me to these tales of exploration.
Sir Ernest Shackleton
A few of the Endurance’s crew had accompanied Shackleton on his second voyage, while the majority, like Mrs. Chippy, were shipping with him for the first time. To quote Lord Mouser-Hunt again, “Shackleton’s method of recruitment was entirely personal: He simply chose persons whom he felt he could trust and whom he liked. Past qualifications did not count as much as character. Shackleton’s eye had fallen approvingly on Mrs. Chippy, in whose frank and open countenance he had discerned the ideal shipmate.”
There were twenty-nine expeditioners including Shackleton (“Boss”), the second-in-command (Frank Wild), the Skipper (Frank Worsley), a navigator, a carpenter (Henry “Chips” McNeish), a carpenter’s mate (Mrs. Chippy), a photographer (Frank Hurley), an artist, scientists, engineers, surgeons, officers and sailors and the stow-away.
Also on board were sixty-nine Canadian husky dogs, purportedly to be used for sledging purposes. Mrs. Chippy’s “misgivings about the usefulness of including dogs in an undertaking of this nature were to prove all too justified”. As it transpired, they ended up fulfilling no useful tasks, merely consuming costly meat supplies and requiring constant manpower.
As has been mentioned, Mrs. Chippy’s journal does not cover the early part of the voyage but (real) diary entries by other expedition members give tribute to his outstanding character and the esteem in which he was held by the crew. T.H Orde-Lees (motor expert and store-keeper) gives us a glimpse of one of Mrs. Chippy’s more extraordinary experiences from that early period in his own diary entry for 13 September 1914: “the tabby cat – Mrs Chippy – jumped overboard through one of the cabin port holes and the officer on watch, Lt. Hudson, heard her [sic] screams and turned the ship smartly round and picked her up. [Mrs. Chippy] must have been in the water 10 minutes or more.” Capt. Frank Worsley describes Mrs. Chippy’s habit of climbing the rigging “exactly after the manner of a seaman going aloft” and others describe his ability to walk along the ship’s inch-wide rails in even the roughest seas.
Since December 1914, Endurance had battled unusually heavy ice conditions on her journey south from the remote whaling station on the island of South Georgia at the gateway to the Antarctic Circle. Eventually she became stuck in pack ice and couldn’t move. It was expected that winds and currents would eventually break up the ice and allow the ship to sail. When this did not happen, attempts were made to cut and saw the ship from the ice but this failed and eventually the ice pushed Endurance over at an angle, its timbers cracked and leaks developed. Shackleton and his men abandoned the ship on 27 October 1915. They lived in tents on the ice for three days, salvaging as much as they could from the ship, the plan being to march over the ice towards land some 200 miles [320 kms] away.
And now I cannot avoid telling you about the tragic demise of Mrs. Chippy. Shackleton ordered that three of the puppies and one dog who had not been trained to wear a harness and Mrs. Chippy had to be shot. “We could not”, he wrote in his diary, “undertake the maintenance of weaklings under the new conditions”. It was poor second officer, Tom Crean who had become “foster father” to puppies born along the way who did the shooting. In Mrs. Chippy’s last hours the crew doted over him, giving him hugs and pats and feeding him his favourite food, sardines, perhaps laced with a sleeping drug.
If your appetite has been whetted, here is a link to the fabulous film (well, to a polar tragic like me at least) made in 2000, The Endurance, written by Caroline Alexander and narrated by Liam Neeson. It is full of Frank Hurley’s magnificent film footage and photographs.
I’m looking forward to reading a book recently launched, Trim, The Cartographer’s Cat by Australian writer, Gillian Dooley which is an ode to another much loved ship’s cat, Trim, who accompanied Matthew Flinders from 1801 to 1803, including on his circumnavigation of Australia. The first two sections of the book provide historical information and Flinders’ tribute to Trim and in the last we apparently learn what Trim’s views on all that might have been.
You might think this is an undiscovered-until-now Frank Hurley picture of Mrs. Chippy sitting on the lap of one of her mates but no, it is Grand Days’ Tom with his cat Ludwig. Love of cats and polar expeditions might run in the family?