Friday, November 26, 2010
FIRST CATCH YOUR RAT
Weeks into the voyage of 1879, London to Lyttelton, the passengers of the sailing ship Euterpe began to be seriously troubled by rats which were starting to get hungry. “We are getting swarmed with rats” wrote one passenger, “they being a little more sociable than we like, having through the night got into my bunk.” Another passenger reported that “the rats ate part of my boot last night.”
The wife of the editor of the ship’s newspaper was one night alarmed by a large rat tumbling off the top of her bunk on to her head. “She shrieked in horror” the paper noted gleefully, “and springing from her bunk seized a shawl which she hurriedly wrapped around her and jumped on the table in the centre of the Cabin. Here she sat perched up like an Hindoo Goddess, her eyes almost startling out of her head with fright and declared she would never go to bed again in the Horrid Ship” (Euterpe Times No. 14).
The same edition of the paper reported on a new and exciting sport that had sprung up on the ship: rat hunting. Some of the passengers set to work making snares, and others took to throwing belaying pins at them, the daily kill being exhibited on deck with the largest sporting a triumphal ribbon. “There were all sizes of them from the infant … to the aged and grey bearded depredator and hardened criminal” went the report. One young man wrote in his diary that he had got up at 3.30am and had caught ten.
The squeamish should stop reading here, because there were thousands of rats, and the food on the ship was running low. A few of the passengers began to supplement their rations with rat pies. They skinned them and put the shoulders and legs into a dish and put a piece of pastry over it, wrote one diarist. The Euterpe Times (no. 14) gave a well-bred shudder but, under the heading “Rats a la Paris”, reported that “Rat pie has been in great demand during the last 2 weeks by a few of those who are not over fastidious in their tastes and are wishful for a change of diet. We are told by the bon-vivants they possess the flavour of a young pigeon and that they are nice and tender. Perhaps it is so but we should prefer an Albatross, or any of the numerous birds caught to the most dainty dish of vermin than can be served up on board the Euterpe.”