The Sea Dog and the Sea Cat: Matthew Flinders’ Cat Trim

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Trim's statue by John Cornwell behind Matthew Flinders's own in Sydney, Australia.

Much is known of explorer Captain Matthew Flinders who circumnavigated Australia. Less is known of Trim, his constant companion and right hand cat.

The State Library of New South Wales stands imposingly on the corner of Macquarie Street in the heart of Sydney. Before venturing inside, two statues in the grounds are worthy of contemplation. One is that of Matthew Flinders, famed cartographer who circumnavigated Australia before being imprisoned on the island of Mauritius. Flinders was instrumental in naming the island ‘Australia’ and is depicted in more Australian statues than anyone, with the exception of Queen Victoria.

Waiting patiently behind Captain Flinders, perched on a windowsill, is stationed a stone depiction of Trim, his intrepid, sea-faring cat who – the plaque explains – “circumnavigated Australia with his master . . . and thereafter shared his exile on the island of Mauritius where he met his untimely death.”

“He Took Hold of it Like a Man”

Trim was the original ship cat. He was born at sea in 1797 between the Cape of Good Hope and Australia’s Botany Bay. Unlike most of his fellow felines, Trim had no fear of water and was naturally able to swim. Flinders noted in his essay ‘A Biographical Tribute to Trim the Cat’ that Trim’s natural exuberance sometimes carried him overboard but when a rope was thrown for Trim he “took hold of it like a man and ran up it like a cat.”

Flinders’ tribute displays his fondness for his furry companion who “grew up to be one of the finest animals I ever saw” and doubts whether even Dick Whittington’s cat could be compared to Trim. His name derives from that of Matthew Flinders’ “uncle Toby’s honest, kind-hearted, humble companion.”

Trim was black with a white star on his chest and paws which “seemed to have been dipped in snow.” Flinders remarked that Trim was “excessively vain of his person, particularly of his snow-white feet. He would frequently place himself on the quarterdeck before the officers, in the middle of their walk, and spreading out his two white hands in the posture of the lion couchant, would oblige them to stop and admire him.”

You Can Teach a Cat New Tricks

The tribute recounts many of Trim’s escapades on deck, his ability to learn new tricks – a feat beyond old dogs; his interest in nautical astronomy, practical seamanship and experimental philosophy and his practice at dinner of moving hopefully from one office to the next as if requesting “a kind of tythe from the plate of each.” Only once, Flinders writes, “was Trim known to be guilty of theft: he had a soul above it; but one unlucky afternoon, a cold leg of mutton in the pantry tempted him.” Unfortunately for Trim, the crime was discovered and he accepted his beating from the angry steward.

Cat Burglar

In 1800, Trim completed a voyage around the globe when Flinders returned to England. Trim was a stranger to both England “but also to a house and to the manner of living in it” and caused consternation to his hosts by clambering to the roof and breaking windows in order to enter the house. He had never learned the town cat’s art of treading carefully around objects without breaking them. “If he spied a mouse there he dashed at it like a man of war, through thick and thin: the splinters flew in all directions.”

Flinders and Trim circumnavigated Australia in each of the following three years. When their ship was wrecked, they – and other survivors – swam ashore to Wreck Reef Bank in the Coral Sea. A substitute schooner sprung a leak causing Flinders to stop for repairs at the French owned island of Mauritius. Unfortunately, England and France were at war and the voyagers were detained as spies.

Catnapped

Whilst in exile, Trim mysteriously disappeared and is believed to have been catnapped and consumed by ravenous slaves. The cafe in Sydney’s Library is named ‘Cafe Trim’ and a plaque bears a eulogy penned by Flinders:

“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.”

Visitors to the cafe may rest assured that no feline flavoured products appear on the menu, although the Library shop sells books and cuddly toy Trims with snowy-white paws. There is little doubt that Captain Flinders would have approved wholeheartedly.