I’m going to take as my sole source of information for this article the excellent book written by Dr Desmond Morris and published in 1996 called Cat World A Feline Encyclopaedia. The truth is, however, that I’ve written about this subject before at some length but it is nice to read the efforts of Dr Desmond Morris who I admire tremendously.
He says that the history of the Abyssinian cat is an amalgam of a rather fanciful story and a cynical one (my words). There has to be a connection between the name of the cat and the country of its origin. There is. The story starts in Ethiopia, now called Abyssinia. This is the fanciful part of the history of this cat. But it is believed to be truthful.
Click on the images to see larger versions.
It all began with the Emperor of Abyssinia writing to Queen Victoria asking for her hand in marriage. Unsurprisingly, Desmond Morris says, the letter was ignored. The Queen’s failure to respond to his proposal annoyed him intensely whereupon he overreacted and proceeded to arrest some Europeans including the British Consul.
In response the British government dispatched a military force of 32,000 men to ensure the release of the arrested individuals. The Emperor panicked and committed suicide by blowing his brains out with a pistol which was a gift from Queen Victoria.
The British troops had no need to fight and came home but before they did so it appears that some soldiers picked up some pet kittens from friendly locals and brought them back to Britain.
The first Abyssinian cat in Britain was written about by Gordon Stables in 1874. The cat’s name was Zula (not Zulu). It is said that this cat was brought to England by the wife of captain Barrett-Lennard in 1868.
This date conveniently coincides with the end of the Abyssinian incident described above. It is said that the lady obtained the cat from one of the returning soldiers. The name Zula is the name of the northern Abyssinian port where the military force had established its base in 1867.
At this point the Abyssinian cat breed was then developed in England through selective breeding. It appears that there were other cats brought back from Abyssinia. All these cats had a ticked coat. These cats with unusual coats, as they then were, were probably mated with selected British shorthair cats to developed a new breed with a ticked coat called the Abyssinian cat.
The Abyssinian cat was first listed as a breed in 1882. Apparently its status was contested by certain authorities. The first breed standard (Standard of Points) was created and published in 1889 by Harrison Weir the founder of the cat fancy. The National Cat Club Studbook registered the first Abyssinians in 1896. The United States received their first Abyssinian cat from England in 1907.
In 1929 the Abyssinian Cat Club was created in England by Major E.S. Woodiwiss. The club was dormant during World War II and reactivated in 1947.
Morris says that about a dozen purebred Abyssinian cats survived the war years but breeding began thereafter and the club went from strength to strength leading to a special Jubilee Show celebrating 60 years in existence in 1989.
Some commentators thought that the Abyssinian cat originated from Egyptian cats being direct descendants of the sacred cats of the ancient Egyptians. This fitted in nicely with the close proximity of Abyssinia to Egypt. The Abyssinian cat does look like the depictions of the domestic cat of ancient Egypt but there is no evidence to support the theory.
More cynical commentators state that the Abyssinian cat was simply created in London by the cat fancy from a standing start through selective breeding at the end of the 19th century.
The combination of importation from Ethiopia as it then was and the subsequent selective breeding to fix and enhance the ticked coat of this cat (which is its trademark) is likely to be the more accurate narrative of the history of the Abyssinian cat.
P.S If you are looking for a single and definitive book on cats both domestic and wild I highly recommend this book. It can be bought at tremendous value for £2.50 online. It is a substantial book that would cost around £30 today.
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