When the Mary Rose, pride of Henry VIII’s fleet, sank in to the muddy waters off Portsmouth in 1545 she took most of her crew with her. She also took at least one dog to the bottom of the Solent. The skeleton of this animal, thought to have been owned by the ship’s carpenter, is on display in the excellent Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth. Animals were an integral part of life onboard the wooden ships of the 18th century too. They came in all shapes and sizes. Some were welcome, but many were not.
As well as the skeleton of the dog, an inordinate number of fine toothed nit combs were found in the Mary Rose, ample evidence that hair lice was rife on board. This was a major problem in 18th century warships too. Their sailors’ love of long hair, combined with the packed living conditions on the lower deck, made ideal conditions for lice to spread and thrive. Fleas were a more occasional problem, while weevils in ship’s biscuit and rats in the hold were near universal. It is likely that the Mary Rose’s dog was a rat-catching terrier – the skeleton certainly suggests a dog of that size. Rats not only destroyed provisions, on occasion they could endanger the ship by damaging the hull. In 1763 Captain Lafroy of the Levant reported that his ship had become so leaky that he “...feared the rats had eaten through her bottom, again.”
In addition to vermin, there were also animals that were actively brought on board. The main category was livestock, which was a ubiquitous part of most voyages. Hens were carried, to supply eggs for the officers’ breakfasts, together with goats to supply fresh milk. Cows, sheep and pigs were also shipped on longer voyages for their fresh meat, often in astonishing quantities. The Elizabeth, 64, sailed for the Indian Ocean in 1760 with seventy-one head of oxen on board. Admiral Hawke instructed ships returning to join his fleet from Plymouth to each bring forty sheep and a dozen oxen with them. Livestock was carried in the front section of the lower deck in an area known as the manger. When looking around a historic ship, like the Victory in Portsmouth, or the Constitution in Boston, visitors should try and imagine the combined smell of bilge, several hundred poorly washed sailors and the odour of the farmyard all being present at the same time. Oh, and all those port lids left open to light your path would be tightly shut at sea.
The final category of animal carried was the exotic. Sailors returning from the tropics would often supplement their pay by returning with as many live monkeys and parrots as they could, for sale back home. The carriage of strange creatures was not just the preserve of the lower deck. At the start of the Seven Years War, a French East Indiaman was captured with a cargo of specimens for the French Academy of Sciences which included a live adult elephant. One Royal Navy ship in the same war had a pet bear as a mascot, while Captain Augustus Hervey is said to have had two tigers on board his ship on one voyage. What effect they had on his ship’s rat population is sadly not recorded.
Four hundred years after the Mary Rose foundered, the pride of the German fleet, the huge battleship Bismarck was also in trouble. Crippled by the Royal Navy and reduced to a burning wreck, she sank below the waters of the North Atlantic in 1941. This deprived Oscar, her ship’s cat, of his home. Plucked from the cold sea by the destroyer HMS Cossack, he was adopted by the crew. Unfortunately this destroyer was sunk in her turn, shortly after, and Oscar found himself back in the water. Saved once more, he was transferred to the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, just in time for her fatal encounter with the German submarine U81. By now Oscar had acquired something of a reputation for bad luck, and sailors, ever a superstitious breed, were showing a reluctance to ship with him. He was transferred to the unsinkable fortress of Gibraltar for the rest of WWII. Oscar was to live another 14 years, finally passing away in 1955 in Belfast.