the best and most illustrious of his Race, –
the most affectionate of friends, –
faithful of servants,
and best of creatures.’
-Matthew Flinders, in his biographical tribute to his cat Trim-
Standing outside the NSW State Library is a very stately statue of Captain Matthew Flinders, a name any Australian high schooler will recognise as an important figure in the European settlement of Australia. Flinders was an accomplished navigator and chart-maker in the Royal Navy. Sailing on the HMS Investigator from 1801 to 1803, it was Flinders who first circumnavigated mainland Australia.
In December of 1803, Flinders sought help on an island off the east coast of Madagascar after the schooner he was sailing back to England began letting in too much water. It was here, on the island of Mauritius, that Flinders lost his ‘good-natured purring animal’ friend, Trim the cat.
From birth, Trim captured Flinders’ interest and respect. In his biographical tribute to his cat, Flinders speaks of ‘the signs of superior intelligence which marked [Trim’s] infancy’. From that moment on, a deep friendship formed between pet and master and Flinders watched with a proud interest as Trim grew and learned from the seaman that surround him over the various voyages they partook together.
Trim did indeed seem to be a very intelligent and adaptive creature. According to Flinders, he learned not only to not fear the water, but also to swim. He learned to climb ropes and steps alike with great speed and agility. He even came to do tricks with his fellow seaman. However, his one fault, as Flinders confessed, was his vanity. Trim would sit in the middle of the seaman’s walkway and spread out his two white paws, making anyone who wished to walk past him stop to admire them.
Flinders noted that the cat seemed to ‘take a fancy to nautical astronomy’. Trim would sit with the time-keeper (an instrument used to measure longitude) and interact with the young man who was tasked with marking down the time. The one item that seemed to attract his attention more was ‘a musket ball slung with a piece of twine, and made to whirl round upon the deck’ with one’s finger.
Trim, it seems, was beloved by all crew members. At dinner time, he would be the first to the table. Once everyone was seated, Trim would ‘put in his request’ for dinner and continue his modest mew until fed. If his petition was refused, Trim would whip a person’s mouthful off their own fork ‘with such dexterity and an air so graceful, that it rather excited admiration than anger’. Trim would then finish off his morsel and move on to the next diner to repeat the process.
Flinders traveled with Trim on a number of voyages and with him, this one cat traveled the globe. In fact, Trim seemed to be more comfortable out at sea than at “home” in England. Trim did not suit the manner of English living and apparently could wreak havoc on a good set of china dishes if a mouse so happened to dash past.
One August night, on their way back to England in 1803, after circumnavigating Australia, the ship Trim was on was shipwrecked. By some feat of daring or by simple dumb luck (or perhaps it took a bit of both), Trim survived that night and made it to Wreck Reef, off the coast of Queensland. There, he and the surviving crew salvaged food and water for three months, until Flinders found and rescued them.
Having rescued his shipmates, Flinders set off again for England, with Trim by his side. However, it soon became apparent that the schooner they were on would not reach their destination. Flinders, therefore, was obliged to stop on the island of Mauritius for assistance, an island that was then controlled by the French. During this time, war between England and France had broken out (again) and Flinders, his crew and Trim, feared by the French General De Caen to be spies, were taken prisoner on the island. Trim was clearly a comfort to Flinders and his men during their captivity and a hint of jealousy can be detected in Flinders’ account of the cat’s nightly adventures without him.
When the men were moved to Maison Despeaux, Trim was handed over to the custody of a French lady and her young daughter. However, after only a fortnight, it was announced that Trim was nowhere to be found, despite the offer of a monetary reward for his return. Flinders was quite heartbroken to hear that ‘poor Trim was effectually lost’ and feared that the loyal cat had been eaten by a poor, hungry slave.
Flinders ends his account with a moving epitaph, commemorating the life and noble attributes of his dear friend, and lamenting his untimely death. The full epitaph, along with Flinders’ own account of his memories of Trim, can be read in his biographical tribute to Trim, written in 1809.
‘Peace be to his shade, and
Honour to his memory’.
Matthew Flinders’ biographical tribute to his cat Trim, December 1809, The Flinders papers, <http://flinders.rmg.co.uk/DisplayDocumentb322.html?ID=92&CurrentPage=1&CurrentXMLPage=1>.
H. M. Cooper, 'Flinders, Matthew (1774–1814)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, <http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/flinders-matthew-2050/text2541, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 August 2016>.