You’ve Goat to be Kidding

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By | From the Collections

A goat walking. Photogravure after Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. Wellcome Images V0048762

Best known for their cantankerous personalities and trouser nibbling traits, it’s not particularly surprising that there haven’t been too many positively memorable goats throughout history.  Putting aside the goat that hit the headlines for marrying a man in Sudan, another recently immortalised on Youtube for singing the chorus of a Taylor Swift hit and the two employed to bring the “wow factor” to a cafe in Tokyo, there have also been some adventurous goats who served in the Army as actual regimented members, like William Windsor, Taffy and Shenkin.

A mere nine years before this military tradition was thought to have begun around 1775, HMS Dolphin (1766-68) circumnavigated the world for its second time under the command of Captain Samuel Wallis, and on board was a soon-to-be fairly famous and experienced sailor, Sir Joseph Bank’s goat.

Captain Cook setting out on his voyage. Wellcome Images M0011187

Now, fast-forward two years to 1768 to when James Cook, British explorer, navigator and later Captain, embarked on his first circumnavigation of the globe, this time on HMS Bark Endeavour.  Not to be overlooked as simply an exploratory  “voyage of discovery” of unknown lands in the Pacific,  it was also a significant scientific expedition.  Endeavour was set to reach Tahiti in time for Cook to observe the Transit of Venus and record the alignment between the Earth, sun and Venus.  Of the near 100 men aboard the ship, including Joseph Banks, botanist and fellow of the Royal Society, Dr Daniel Solander, Swedish naturalist, and artist Sydney Parkinson, it was this very same, highly valued, goat who was invited back with Banks to sail the seven seas, and provide milk for all aboard the Endeavour.

Following some disastrous world voyages that preceded him, in terms of crew well-being and survival – ships returning from long-haul expeditions would often return with less than a third of the crew in its original state – Cook was determined to put the health and welfare of his sailors at the forefront of priorities to avoid repetition of past mistakes. Scurvy, for instance, was rife on the high seas and it has been debated that Cook had no deaths from it.  Johann Bachstrom’s theory, that scurvy was caused by a lack of fresh and nutritious food, possibly influenced Cook who went to great lengths to ensure his crew were well fed and had hygienic living conditions.

While it was relatively well-known, since the late 16th century, that eating citrus fruits prevented scurvy, it was often difficult to obtain and travel with these perishable fruits.  To provide the crew with a balanced and nutritious diet, in addition to “every species of stores requisite for so long a voyage”, every time the ship anchored the crew were fed fresh green vegetables, selected specially by the botanists on board, which were thought “to act as anti-scorbutics“, and meat, fish and water.  Oh, and the benefits of fresh goats milk were enjoyed daily, of course.

Sadly, once Cook and HMS Endeavour returned to England in 1771 the Travelled Goat – as named in Chambers’s Book of Days – only lived for another year before she died in Mile End. But she was not your average goat, even with four hooves safely on dry land.  The Travelled Goat had been the seafarers’ very own nurturing goddess, Amalthea, or “nurse of Jove” and was to be rewarded by the Admiralty, for her constant supply of fresh milk for years on both ships, with a privileged retirement.  Sir Joseph Banks took the responsibility to ensure this remarkable, and clearly well respected, nanny would not be demoted to ordinary life, and she even wore a silver collar to boot.

Amongst some recently catalogued archive and manuscript material I came across this facsimile of a letter from Dr Samuel Johnson to Sir Joseph Banks (MS.8842). While it is not a recollection of a motto, or “an epic poem, from some happier pen”, at the header is the “distich” Johnson wrote for the inscription on that very collar:

Excerpt of letter from Dr Johnson to Sir Joseph Banks, 1772. Wellcome Library MS.8842

Excerpt fromthe facsimile from Dr Johnson to Sir Joseph Banks, 1772. Wellcome Library MS.8842

James Boswell translated and expanded on this in his biography, Life of Johnson, as:

In fame scare second to the nurse of Jove,
This goat, who twice the world has traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.

Seventeen years prior to writing this letter, Dr Samuel Johnson compiled his most famous publication A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.  Perhaps Johnson’s illustration of the word “goat” in its definition could explain why Banks requested him to pen a couplet for his goat:  “the nursing goat’s repaid, With heaven, and duty rais’d the pious maid”.  Held in such high regard at the time, it’s quite surprising that The Travelled Goat was barely mentioned in word or recorded by image, but instead her nameless legacy has lasted because of Johnson’s epigram.

(You can read a little more about the “anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson by Hester Lynch Thrale”, and the inscription here).

Nicola Cook

Nicola Cook is Senior Assistant Librarian at the Wellcome Library.

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