The true story of Trim, the adventurous cat belonging to navigator Matthew Flinders
Outside Sydney’s Mitchell Library stands a statue of Matthew Flinders, the celebrated English navigator and cartographer who helped map Australia, declared it a continent, and was influential in giving it its current name. In addition, on a window ledge behind the statue stands a bronze figurine of his faithful cat, Trim, who accompanied the seafarer on many of his adventures. Eyes wide open and a front paw raised, he is sculpted alert, as if waiting to pounce on a pigeon.
A plaque in front of the statue explains the cat is, “Matthew Flinders’ intrepid cat, who circumnavigated Australia with his master 1801 – 1803, and thereafter shared his exile in Mauritius where he met his untimely death.”
The story of the tenacious black and white cat begins in 1799, when he was born somewhere in the Indian Ocean aboard the ship HMS Reliance as it sailed from the Cape of Good Hope to Botany Bay. Having cats on board was the norm (do you remember the history of Simon?), and there were a handful of cats on the ship to keep pests at bay. However, Trim soon became a favorite of the crew but, above all, of the ship’s 25-year-old lieutenant, Flinders. Flinders noticed that he was a gentle and kind-hearted kitten and gave him the name of Trim, after a kind-hearted and humble cat owned by his Uncle, or maybe in honor of the butler in Laurence Sterne’s book Tristram Shandy.
Flinders’s respect for the kitten grew after he witnessed the adventurous feline’s bravery and determination: when the young cat fell overboard, Flinders later noted how “this was far from being a misfortune; he learned to swim and to have no dread of the water; and when a rope was thrown over to him, he took hold of it like a man, and ran up it like a cat.”
And so began a strong relationship between one man and his cat, full of seaborne adventures and mishaps.
When Flinders was given command of HMS Investigator in 1801, Trim was by his side and in 1802, they completed the first circumnavigation of Australia. Two years later, on August 17th, Flinders and Trim survived the shipwreck of the HMS Porpoise on the Great Barrier Reef while returning to England as passengers. They never arrived.
After surviving the shipwreck, Flinders took command of the HMS Cumberland to return to England. But when he docked at the French-controlled Isle de France (the current Mauritius) for repairs in 1803, the locals detained him. War had recently broken out between France and the United Kingdom, but Flinders hoped the scientific nature of his mission would give him free passage. However, his hopes were dashed and he was imprisoned as a spy.
The ever loyal Trim stayed with his human friend during his captivity, although, as Flinders later wrote, the cat “sometimes contrived to elude the vigilance of the sentinel at the door, and left us to make little temporary excursions in the neighbourhood.” He would, however, shut Trim in after supper so that no harm came to him.
It was 1804 when Trim disappeared during one of his wanderings, never to be seen again. Flinders supposed that his beautiful faithful cat had been stolen and eaten by a hungry slave, but this was never proven. Saddened and imprisoned, Flinders could only lament the loss of the “sporting, affectionate and useful companion of my voyages during four years.”
Flinders remained a captive on the Isle de France for six years, although he was given greater freedom to move around the island in the latter years. He wrote at length during this time, including a four-and-a-half thousand word biographical tribute to Trim, which was only found among his papers in 1971 by Australian writer Stephen Murray-Smith.
There can’t be many cats in history who have been described in such affectionate detail.
He wrote: “Trim’s robe was a clear jet black, the exception of his four feet, which seemed to have been dipped in snow, and his under-lip, which rivalled them in whiteness. He also a white star on his breast, and it seemed as if nature designed him for the prince and model of his race.”
Flinders never got a chance to erect a monument to Trim, but a number of statues now stand as memorials to the adventurous cat, in England and in Australia, and his story lives on.
Since the discovery of Flinders’ tribute to Trim and its wider publication, the two friends have been reunited in various statues. Trim stands at the feet of Flinders in a statue in Donington, Lincolnshire, where Flinders was born. And in Port Lincoln, South Australia, Trim is again represented at the feet of a kneeling Flinders.
The bronze statue of Flinders outside the Mitchell Library in Sydney was inaugurated in 1925, long before the discovery of Flinders’ tribute to Trim. The bronze figurine of Trim was added to the window ledge behind the statue in 1996.
A separate plaque is dedicated to Trim, and bears the opening lines from the epitaph that Flinders wrote for his cat: “To the memory of Trim, the best and most illustrious of his race, the most affectionate of friends, faithful of servants, and best of creatures. He made the tour of the globe, and a voyage to Australia, which he circumnavigated, and was ever the delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers.”
Images from web.