Pets on board

Scene: Setter

"A Setter Dog" engraved by C. G. Lewis after a picture by Sir Edwin Landseer, 1878.

For many, starting a new life in South Australia would not be complete without the family pet. Cats and dogs provided comfort and companionship for passengers on the long journey. Cats were also useful for keeping rats and mice at bay.

Some pets fared better than others. Eliza Randall and her family emigrated from England to South Australia in 1845 on board the ship Templar, sailing cabin class. The Randalls’ pet St Bernard dog, Hector, was free to roam about the deck as he pleased. Eliza even noted that Hector and their two cats looked fat and well; obviously eating better than many other emigrants.

Unfortunately not all pets were as fortunate as Hector. On board the Cygnet in 1836, a favourite setter belonging to a passenger was thrown overboard during the night, and no one owned up to the deed. Storms and rough seas were also risky for small animals. A diarist on board the John Pirie recorded a period of strong weather when a particularly large wave hit the deck: ‘the poor Tom-cat got such a fright by the shock, as to jump from the weather side of the Deck, clean over the lee Bulwark into the Sea, where he met a watery grave’.

Losing an animal overboard often stirred ship board superstitions. Cats have a long history at sea and were said to bring good luck to a ship. On the other hand, if a cat fell or was thrown overboard, it was thought it would summon a terrible storm. Needless to say, when this occurred, it caused quite a commotion. On board the Africaine, Mary Thomas overheard a sailor say ‘he would hang a man for a glass of grog, but would not drown a cat for a sovereign’.

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