Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The Sunday EssayFebruary 25, 2024

The Sunday Essay: Mrs Chippy, the polar-exploring tom cat

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Some thoughts about cats, death and remembering, and the changing nature of stories. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

From time to time, I go walking in Karori Cemetery. It’s only a few blocks from my home, a rare carless space, home to established trees and the birds that nest in them, and beneath all that, the dead. 

It was the city’s primary cemetery for decades, so I have come to think of it as the Wellington of 1905, of 1922 and 1957 and every other year between and after, until Makara Cemetery opened in 1965. This mingling of decades means it contains the same architectural mishmash as the streets outside. There are the looming ornaments the Victorians seemingly loved: obelisks and pillars, stone anchors and angels, the stark headstones of war veterans, the neat plaques set just below the lawn from the decades when death was made tidy and regular, and the occasional vault, which gives me the creeps. 

Even among all this, the cat is unusual. The bronze statue of Mrs Chippy the cat rests on the grave of Harry McNish, his former owner (yes, “his”: despite the name, Mrs Chippy was a tom). Both were members of Ernest Shackleton’s team during his famous attempt to cross Antarctica. The small statue is to scale, a good depiction of catness; that curious mix of simultaneously relaxed and alert, about to either nod off or spring up at any moment. 

Shackleton’s was an expedition thwarted before it properly began. His ship, with Mrs Chippy aboard, became stuck and was eventually crushed by ice floes. Shackleton and his men marched across the ice, hauling lifeboats behind them and camping on drifting ice floes before taking to the sea. They made it to an island off the coast of the continent, and from there a smaller group traveled across open ocean in one of those lifeboats to seek help at a whaling colony. 

On its own original terms, the expedition was a failure. It also lacked the doomed heroism of Scott’s attempt at the Pole or the efficiency of Amundsen’s first arrival there. But in the years since, Shackleton has achieved irreversible hero status. A book written by journalist Alfred Lansing in the 1950s, Endurance, helped this along, recasting the story in that great literary form, the ripping yarn. 

Shackleton’s own account, written earlier to help recoup the costs of his expedition, has the feel of a ship’s log, lingering on details about ocean currents, provisions and coordinates. Lansing wisely shifts the focus, highlighting the incredible feat of endurance and survival, and I read Endurance over several evenings one winter, each description of men huddled on ice floes in sleeping bags of decaying reindeer hide making my own bed seem that much cosier. 

Since Endurance was published, the story has grown and the retellings have self-seeded. Yet another Shackleton biography was published the year before last, and the man has become beloved of students of leadership; a pinup for the Linkedin crowd. There exist a number of books on how his leadership style might apply to the corporate world. Jacinda Ardern counts Lansing’s book as her favourite.

It is in this mining of the story, the finding of new seams, that we have struck upon the cat. He is mentioned but not named in Shackleton’s account, although a long list of dogs’ names is provided. These names are offered as evidence of his men’s personalities and senses of humour, and the dogs are working beasts, part of the equipment. Lansing, more alert to the makings of a good story, includes the cat’s name, Mrs Chippy, and the reason for it: McNish was the ship’s carpenter (or “chippy”), and the cat followed him around closely, the two as inseparable as a married couple. In 1997, a novel was written from the perspective of the cat. A children’s book about him was published in 2021. 

This process of discovery, the enlarging of the story, has happened to McNish himself. Shackleton had little to say about the man, mostly referring to him only as “the carpenter”. He was resistant to Shackleton’s authority, at one point directly questioning his leadership, and it turns out the great man held a grudge: despite McNish’s efforts in modifying the boats that would enable their survival, he was one of only four members of the crew who Shackleton would never nominate for the Polar Medal. 

McNish worked for the merchant navy on his return and in later life moved to New Zealand, leaving a wife and several children behind. Here he worked on the docks until injury forced him out of that job, and he lived destitute, sleeping in wharf sheds for a time. When he died in 1930, he was buried without a headstone, and it was almost 30 years later – the year Lansing’s book was published – that this oversight was remedied. The New Zealand Antarctic Society brought McNish back into the story with a headstone that makes note of his role on the expedition, even if his name was spelt incorrectly. The postscript, Mrs Chippy, was added in 2004; the story sufficiently enlarged by then to take in the cat.

As with all cats, there is little we know about Mrs Chippy but much we like to say. That he was a heroic cat who climbed the ship’s rigging and jumped from rope to rope while the team sailed through Antarctic waters (once he fell overboard and needed rescuing; the ship’s biologist scooping him up with his sample net.) That he was a loyal cat, attached to the carpenter. Finally, that he was a tragic cat: when it came time to abandon their ship and set out into the snow, Shackleton decided that the ‘weaklings’ – the cat and the dogs who were no longer useful – were extraneous and likely to take from their efforts. They were all shot one day on the ice. 

I’m not the only one to go walking in this cemetery. I often see joggers and dogwalkers, and a group called Friends of Karori Cemetery spruce up the graves and take groups on tours every so often. Barbara Mulligan is one of their guides, stopping at graves that tell some story from the past and pausing occasionally to take in what she regarded as some of the “best vistas” in the place. I emailed her some questions about Mrs Chippy. His statue is the most popular destination in the cemetery, she told me; she’s “constantly asked for directions” to his gravesite. I have seen flowers at the cat’s feet, a collar placed around its neck, and a small sachet of Whiskers left as an offering. By contrast, McNish’s headstone has been bare every time I’ve gone near it. 

It was this that drew me to this subject: the thought of the cat taking the glory and the relative lack of interest in his owner. A case of modern sentimentality, I wondered, something there was no room for in polar exploration. They had started with so much stuff: Burberry coats and scientific equipment, musical instruments and a set of encyclopaedias. Gradually these items were jettisoned, left in the snow, until each man was wearing their only set of clothes, carrying just what they needed to survive. Pages were ripped from the encyclopaedias to roll cigarettes. The cat did not survive the winnowing process. Emotions would surely need to be pared back too. The most famous lines in Antarctic history are Captain Oates’ last words, “I am going out and may be some time,” stoic and factual as he walked to his death. This was the way to face this place, itself the barest, most stripped back of landscapes. 

Leeroy, our tabby, is in the room as I write this. I have shared rooms with cats for as long as I can remember. In childhood, Kitty then Min. Mama Puss, who came with a flat I rented but left with me. And now Leeroy. Their lives have marked these eras of mine. 

So often, I’ve had the experience I have now of looking enviously at a cat as they stretch out, making sleep look like a debauch while I labour away on a late-night assignment. Envy without resentment, because there is always something reassuring about a cat in the room. Life less lonely. Their love given without prejudice – your bad breath and grating personality no issue to them – yet never given entirely, their aloofness contributing to the feeling that what love they do show you has been earned; is yours. 

I miss every one of those cats. From time to time I look at Leeroy, who came into our life as a kitten, and I am unhappy to notice he’s older now, heavier, his fur frowsy and his movements a little slower. One day I will need to say goodbye. Their lives, even the longest lived, are only ever too short a portion of ours. I dread finding myself one day in the vet’s office, faced with a version of McNish’s dilemma: the operation too costly, the results uncertain. A dread that makes moot my worry about sentimentality. 

Emotion rarely takes the ‘appropriate’ path, the approved route. It leads sometimes to cats, even when they have gone and left us without ever saying a word. Few of us have the stoicism of the polar explorer. Not even them. Harry McNish’s diary is equanimous following Mrs Chippy’s death: “I had to part with my pet Misses Chippie the day after we left the ship. I was hurt but I knew it was impossible to take her with us.” 

But I’ve also come across an anecdote shared by a man named Baden Norris, himself an Antarctic veteran. As a young child, Norris and his father visited McNish in Wellington. Despite his age, Norris remembered what he heard McNish saying and told of it often. “Shackleton shot my cat.” The cat had been killed more than a decade earlier. McNish was still wounded. 

I’m reminded of something else: the block of flats where I once worked as a gardener. A young woman lived alone in one of the flats, and one day I was told she had committed suicide in the shed where I kept my tools. When I next went to tidy the garden at that flat someone had stuffed a bunch of flowers into the handle of the shed’s roller door. It was all desperately sad, pathetic in the older meaning of the word. I knew very little about her; she was polite but seemed distracted whenever I came by to mow the lawn or clip the hedges. But I knew she once owned a cat. 

In the garden behind those flats, the woman had stuck a small wooden cross in the dirt. After she died, her flat was repainted and other people moved in; the flowers in the roller door dried out and eventually disappeared. But the cross remained; something of hers that at least had some shape and suggested things familiar: rooms less empty, silences broken and made reassuring by a purr. 

I weeded around it, left it in the ground until it came time for me to move on. It will be gone now I’m sure, but I can note it here, let it linger in this way.

Keep going!