For just about as long as ships have been sailing, animals have been brought aboard sailing vessels. This has been done for a range of reasons. In the case of boats used to transport livestock, the presence of animals was a necessity. But animals have also served other, apparently practical, purposes. The Ancient Romans brought chickens aboard their warships, and determined that chickens eating before a battle was a good omen, and that chickens refusing to eat was a bad one. A famous general, Publius Claudius Pulcher, attempted this trick prior to a battle against Carthage in 249 AD. Having ignored the bad omen, Plublius’s Romans were roundly trounced – which further reinforced the superstition that chickens could predict the future.
The tradition of birds being brought onto sailing vessels, of course, lasted for a long time after the Romans. You might think of Long John Silver’s pet parrot, Captain Flint. In this case, there’s a good historical reason to suppose that parrots would have been put to use in this way. Colourful birds, like parrots, were rare and considerably valuable, and would therefore have been a sign of prestige among the pirates of the 18th century. Moreover, with so much time to spare on board, it’s likely that there would have been plenty of opportunity to teach the animal to sit on a person’s shoulder, accept treats, and repeat catchphrases.
Another purpose for animals at sea is that of pest-control. If rats get into essential supplies of food, then an entire expedition could be imperilled – along with the lives of everyone aboard. Dealing with vermin, therefore, is something that dogs and cats were trained to do. Many were awarded medals for their services, including Simon, who famously earned a medal for bravery for his stint aboard the HMS Amethyst in 1947.
Of course, while performing all of these functions, these animals were also performing another – that of bolstering morale for the men around them. There’s nothing quite so likely to boost morale as the sight of a dog who is always happy to see you, and who is unconcerned with, and oblivious to, the dangers of what might be an incredibly hostile environment.
And many of these incredibly useful animals have left a legacy that goes way beyond the boundaries of the ships on which they served. Radley, canine mascot of the clothing company of the same name, now finds himself fronting a range of stylish new nautically-inspired cross body bags and other accessories. They’re perfect for salty sea dogs, and those wishing to pay tribute to a perhaps underappreciated branch of animal history.