A Rat's Tale
A 17th Century Stowaway
by Kathryn Siefker, Associate Curator of Exhibition Content
The year is 1686. A family of rats is living aboard a French ship named La Belle. Born on a bed of straw in a crate containing muskets, La Belle is the only home the rats have ever known. For weeks now, La Belle has been anchored in Matagorda Bay. Unable to speak French, the nine rats don't understand why they are sitting in the bay not going anywhere. But as the weeks stretch on, the rats begin to sense the anxiety of the people on board.
Twenty-seven people are living on the ship along with eight young pigs. Drinking water is scarce. The rats watch as five sailors take a smaller boat to shore to get more water. The men never come back. The crew on board is desperate. The rats, who are friendly with the pigs, watch as the crew slaughters the pigs for food. The extra food doesn't keep several men from dying of thirst. The rats have nothing to drink either. Then one of the rats goes missing. The others search franticly for him. They smell burning fur coming from below deck. They rush in that direction, arriving just in time to see a sailor eat their brother. They scamper off in fear that they could be next.
The rats are hiding with the cargo when the wind picks up and the ship begins to pitch back and forth. They hear shouting and running feet above. Suddenly, the ship lurches backward and runs aground. Water begins to rush into the cargo hold. The rats try to run — they are, after all, famous for abandoning sinking ships — but they don't make it. The water swallows them up, drowning them all.
Their little rat skeletons, along with millions of other objects and the ship hull itself, are preserved in the muddy waters of the bay. Over 300 years later, archaeologists excavate the ship and its contents, and put it all on display at the Bullock Museum where the doomed story of the shipwreck can be told.
Come see the ship rat skeleton, as well as over 100 additional artifacts from the excavation, in the exhibition, La Belle, The Ship That Changed History.
Property of France from the collection of the Musee national de la Marine. Courtesy of the Texas Historical Commisssion, Austin.
Time Period: 1519 - 1689
This artifact is not on view.