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Early cats in NZ, but when did they arrive?

November 2017

You’re never far from a cat, wherever you are. They’re in our homes, in our gardens, on the internet and (less happily) running wild in the bush.

Cats, like humans and in fact all species introduced before 1940, came to New Zealand on ships. Cats had been a part of shipboard life for a very long time. They kept rats under control, which helped prevent the spread of disease and damage to provisions and equipment. They provided companionship and helped lift morale on  long voyages.

But when did they arrive? It’s not possible to say using documentary evidence alone, but there are some clues.

A mention of a single cat on shore in New Zealand can be found on page 128 of volume one of ‘A voyage around the world in his Britannic majesty’s sloop Resolution’, published in 1777 in London. This is a record of Cook’s second voyage to New Zealand, which arrived in New Zealand in 1773.

“Numbers of small birds were so little acquainted with men, that they familiarly hopped upon the nearest branches, nay on the ends of our fowling pieces, and perhaps looked at us as new objects, with a curiosity similar to our own. This boldness in reality at first protected them from harm, since it was impossible to shoot them when they approached so near; but in a few days it frequently proved the means of their destruction; for a sly cat on board had no sooner perceived so excellent an opportunity of obtaining delicious meals, than she regularly took a walk in the woods every morning, and made great havock among the little birds, that were not aware of such an insidious enemy.”

By 1820, after many visits to New Zealand’s shores by whalers, sealers and explorers, it appears that populations of cats were well-established—or established enough that they could be spared for the pot! In a diary entry made on the 18th of August 1820, during his third voyage to New Zealand, Samuel Marsden describes being offered a cat to eat, and having to explain the status of cats as a foodstuff in the European culture of the time:

“The usual introductions and salutations being over, we all sat down in a shed: and shortly after I was seated, a chief presented me with a Cat, suspended from a long spear, by a cord; but not quite dead — I understood, he intended it to be dressed, as a delicacy, for my dinner — I told him that white people never eat cats nor dogs — that these were tabooed Animals, and never used as an article of food by Europeans. He immediately took the cat away: and they all seemed to think it strange, that we did not eat such things, as they deemed the most choice food — I told them we eat other animals which they have not seen, and that we also used the Hog for that purpose.”

This is perhaps the earliest documentary record of a population of cats present in New Zealand, and certainly the first mention in the Hocken Collections.

The diary is part of Dr Thomas Hocken’s Church Missionary Society papers, which were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World register in 2014.
You can view the original entry on the Marsden Online Archive.