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Book Review: Trim-The Cartographer's Cat by Matthew Flinders, Philippa Sandall & Gillian Dooley

“In playing with his little brothers and sisters upon deck by moon-light, when the ship was lying tranquilly in harbour, the energy and elasticity of his movements sometimes carried him so far beyond his mark, that he fell overboard; but 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 by it like a cat; in a short time, he was able to mount up the gangway steps quicker than his master, or even than the first lieutenant.”

Trim is one of the most famous cats in history due to Matthew Flinders’ heartfelt writings in tribute to him. Matthew Flinders was an English cartographer and navigator who circumnavigated Australia, mapping much of the country’s coastline. He also identified it as a continent and suggested the name Australia. His feline friend, Trim was born in the middle of the Indian Ocean in 1797 and voyaged with his master until they became prisoners on the island of Mauritius about 6 years later, where he disappeared.

In 1809, a year before he is released from Mauritius, Flinders recorded his sadness of the loss of Trim in A Biographical Tribute to the Memory of Trim.

I kindly received Trim: The Cartographer’s Cat from a competition run by The Australian Writers’ Centre. I chose today to publish my review, as today marks one year since we lost our own Trim. Our black and white fur baby boy passed away suddenly, his life left much too short, as was his namesake.

Matthew Flinders’ Trim was named after the character Corporal Trim in the novel Tristram Shandy (published between 1759-1767) by Laurence Stern. He was “Uncle Toby’s honest, kind-hearted, humble companion.” Also very true of our own Trim.

Trim: The Cartographer’s Cat includes Flinders’ biographical tribute as well as corrections in Trim’s own words, an essay by Gillian Dooley, timelines, maps , footnotes, illustrations and photographs of the many statues dedicated to the cartographer and his cat (sometimes just his cat) around the world. I have previously read Matthew Flinders’ tribute, but it was beautiful to have so much additional information (some which had corrected former editions).

It wasn’t just Flinders who had his heart stolen by Trim, but the crew. It was amusing to think about sailors playing with endearing Trim, satisfying his whims and fancies; endeavoring to further his learning of science, nature and sailing.

“…He was, I am sorry to say it, excessively vain of his person, particularly of his snow-white feet. He would frequently place himself on the quarter deck before the officers, in the middle of their walk; and spreading out his two white hands in the posture of the lion couchant, oblige them to stop and admire him.”

Flinders describes that Trim would wait to be given the command to go aloft at times for example, when they were taking in a reef. The sailors then would carry him back to the deck after his inspection of the rigging was complete.

He was also very polite when it came to food.

“…He was always the first ready for dinner; but thought he was commonly seated a quarter of an hour before any other person, his modest reserve was such that his voice was not heard until everybody else was served. He then put in his request, not for a full allowance, he was too modest…by a gentle caressing mew, he petitioned for a little, little bit, a kind of tythe from the plate of each…Without the greatest attention to each morsel, in the person whom he had petitioned in vain; he would whip it of the fork with his pay, on its passage to the mouth, with such dexterity and an air so graceful, that it rather excited admiration than anger…There are some men so inconsiderate as to be talking when they should be eating, - who keep their meat suspended in mid-air till a semi-colon in the discourse gives an opportunity of taking their mouthful without interrupting their story. Guests of this description were a dead mark for Trim: when a short pause left them time to take the prepared mouthful, they were often surprised to find their meat gone, they could not tell how. “

Well, most of the time he was polite to those who deserved it. My Trim lived up to his namesake in this aspect all too accurately.

“Trim had one day missed a fine morsel from the hungry activity of one of the young gentlemen…seeing him, however, talking and eating at the same time, my persevering gentleman did not give it up, though the piece was half masticated and only waited for a period to disappear; but running up the waistcoat of our unsuspecting guest, for Trim was then but a kitten, and placing one paw at each corner of his mouth, he laid vigorous siege to his morsel…”

Two centuries later, Trim is still softening the hearts of humans. It was clear when he went missing in Mauritius that many, many people felt it was a great tragedy. Matthew Flinders’ dream of settling in the country in England with his small “bedfellow” didn’t come to pass. Flinders himself died the day after his book A Voyage to Terra Australis was published in 1814. There are six memorials spread throughout Australia, Britain and Mauritius.

Gillian Dooley, who is a Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Flinders University loves to visit the one in London in particular when she is in England. Fellow author, Philippa Sandall has written a book about ships’ cats- Seafurrers: The Ships’ Cats Who Lapped and Mapped the World. I will definitely be checking out this book and her Seafurrers website.

Animals touch our hearts so deeply, many of them living their whole lives in our care. They become loving companions in a way which is different to human friends and relatives. Trim was one of the few who travelled the globe (plus shipwrecked) and will live forever in history thanks to his devoted master.

“…endowed with an unusual degree of confidence and courage, and having never received anything but good from men, he believed all to be his friends, and he was the friend of all. “

Extra: there was a picture book about Trim published this year by Corinne Fenton and Craig Smith titled A Cat Called Trim.

5 Stars

Read: December 2019

Published: 2019

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