According to the archaeological record, the earliest trade dates to the Neolithic period of the 10th millennium, BC. The Austronesian peoples of island Southeast Asia established trade routes with the Indian sub-continent, as early as 1500 BC. Egyptians traded with Asian merchants from the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Greco-Roman palate of antiquity would not have been the same without the spice roads, plied first by land and later, by sea.
From the earliest times when man took to the ocean, food stores and trade goods alike were an attractive food source for the Black Rat, Rattus rattus.
Able to climb obstacles from trees to buildings to ship’s ropes, DNA and other evidence suggests the black rat originates not from Europe, but southeast Asia.
Also known as the “ship’s rat”, the animal reaches sexual maturity in as little as three to four months and completes the act of reproduction, in the blink of an eye. Litters average 7 or 8 “kittens” with an average gestation period of only 20 to 22 days and a weaning period, of 20 to 28.
Rat infestations get out of hand with shocking rapidity. Left uncontrolled, rats will destroy a ship’s stores in a matter of weeks. This is to say nothing of the black rat’s prodigious ability to carry disease without itself, being affected. From Bubonic plague to Typhus to Toxoplasmosis, Trichinosis and any number of Streptococci, this third to half-pound animal has done more than any creature in history, to alter the course of human events.
Unsurprisingly, the “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea since man first took to the water.
“Simon” was about a year old in 1948, one of countless and nameless feline waifs, starvelings roaming the dockyards of Hong Kong in search of a morsel. 17-year-old Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom smuggled the animal on board the frigate HMS Amethyst, the job of “ship’s cat” being open at that time.
Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats and well understood the threat posed by rodents, in the hot and humid weather of that time and place. As Hickinbottom recalled, ‘He warned me that if he saw any muck on board, he’d have me up on a charge.’ The crew made sure any ‘muck’ was quietly tossed overboard.
Simon earned the admiration of the Amethyst crew, with his prowess as a rat killer. Seamen learned to check their beds for “presents” of dead rats while Simon himself could usually be found, curled up and sleeping in the Captain’s hat.
China was embroiled in a Civil War at this time, between the Nationalist Kuomintang led Republic of China and the Communist Party led People’s Republic of China.
The first mission assigned to incoming Skipper Bernard Skinner was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanjing to replace the duty ship HMS Consort, then standing guard over the British embassy.
On April 29, 1949, Amethyst was on her way up river when she came under fire from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The frigate returned fire but she was soon disabled, run aground with most of her guns too high to return fire. The first salvo from the Communist guns exploded in the Captain’s quarters, killing Commander Skinner and badly wounding the ship’s cat.
By 9:30, wounded First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston made his last, desperate transmission: “Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.20′ East. Large number of casualties”.
The order was given to evacuate. Some managed to swim across to the Nationalist side, despite fire from Communist batteries. For the rest, the following three months became a tense and deadly standoff known as the Amethyst Incident.
Simon was carried to the sick bay where surviving members of the medical staff removed four pieces of shrapnel from his little body, and dressed his burned flesh and singed fur. He was grievously wounded and wasn’t expected to make it, through the night.
As weeks dragged to months, Simon did not die but recovered and resumed his duties as rat killer, below decks. A good thing it was, too. The trapped and cornered vessel was overrun, with vermin. Simon returned to his work with a vengeance, even earning the fanciful rank of “Able Sea Cat” after killing one notorious rodent known as Mao Tse-tung.
HMS Amethyst makes a nighttime dash for freedom. Painting by Montague Dawson
The Amethyst incident resulted in the death of 47 British seamen with another 74, wounded. HMS Amethyst herself sustained extensive damage in the episode. The heavy cruiser HMS London, the destroyer HMS Consort and the sloop HMS Black Swan were also damaged.
All but unseen amidst the economic devastation of World War 1, the domesticated animals of Great Britain were in desperate straits. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, conducting over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.
The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals in World War Two. The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, the Dickin is equivalent to the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, comparable to the American Medal of Honor and bearing these words, “We Also Serve”.
Excepting the 2014 blanket award to all animals of the “Great War”, the Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception. Recipients include 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to this day, only one cat. A ship’s cat. The champion rat killer of the Yangtze River. Simon.
Simon arrived to accolades in Great Britain, awarded a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal and Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp. Unhappily, Simon didn’t survive his war wounds, after all. Placed in quarantine like any other animal entering the United Kingdom, Simon succumbed to severe infections of his wounds and died on this day, November 28, 1949.
More than a thousand people including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst, attended the funeral for the two-year-old feline. Simon’s gravestone at the PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford reads: “Throughout the Yangtze Incident his behavior was of the highest order.”