The Abyssinian cat is said to be descended from a cat called Zula, brought to England by Captain Barrett Leonard when he returned from service in the Abyssinian wars in the 1860's. Apparently he brought two cats, but Zula was the sole survivor. There is no verifiable record of Abyssinian cats directly descended from Zula, but Abyssinians were certainly exhibited at Crystal Palace in 1871, so that this breed may claim to be one of the original pedigree cats. Certainly every Abyssinian in the world is descended from cats bred in the Unitied Kingdom.
Recent research published in the journal Science suggests that the domestic cat first lived with humans in the Middle East about 130,000 years ago. It is beyond dispute that the Egyptians venerated the cat, forbade its export from Egypt and established temples to its worship, notably at Bubastis. Egyptian cats were mummified in their thousands. Grotesquely, many were shipped to Liverpool in the Nineteenth Century by plunderers of Egyptian sites - to be used as fertiliser! The Abyssinian Cat Club has one of these mummified cats as its mascot. The cat's status in Egypt derived from its ability to protect the stores of grain harvested in the Nile valley. The Egyptians also used cats in hunting, as various murals attest. Analysis of cat remains at Egyptian sacred sites indicated two main types: the African Golden Cat and Felis Chaus. So if you think the Usual Abyssinian bears more than a passing resemblance to Egyptian statues or murals, you may well be right.
The Roman conquest of Egypt put a stop to the ban on cat exports. When the Romans discovered that the British climate was extremely favourable for growing the wheat they needed to feed their armies, you may be sure that the descendants of cats plundered from Egypt were used to guard granaries in Britain. And what could be more probable than that colonies of these cats survived the Roman evacuation of Britain and that our Abyssinians may be their descendants!
So the truth is that the origins of the Abyssinian are impossible to verify. Beyond dispute, however, are its distinctive type, ticking and colour, which have survived at least a century. Today one may hear Aby lovers deplore the variation in type which commonly occurs. It is more remarkable that true Abyssinian type is as consistent as it is, given that the breed has been undermined by two World Wars, the depredations of leukaemia before the days of testing and vaccination and a small gene pool, not to mention irresponsible practices such as inbreeding and inappropriate outcrossing.
The breed was almost lost to Britain as a result of these diasasters. Fortunately it was possible to import cats descended from Abyssinians exported in earlier times, notably from Holland and the United States. Fine specimens are also to be found in Australia and New Zealand. The Scandanavian countries had lovely Abys too, though a gene for Progressive Retinal Atrophy was something of a scourge to be eradicated. Key importers of these earlyAbyssinians were Edith Menezes (Taishun), Morris Sklader (Arolan) and the group known as the Pure Abyssinian Breeders (Derren Green, Alan and Valerie Lockwood and Anne and Tony Rose). These imports were vital to the survival of the British Abyssinian. Grace Denny (Pi Den) imported cats from Norway, Jacqueline Murphy imported GdCh Fellows Copper Flash of Mara Ty, while Caroline Macaulay (Annera) brought in Bastis Ashanto 23a and Tauserts Habanera 23 from California in 1986 and Australian GdCh Merindalee Field of Dreams in 2001.
Since then there have been a good many more Abyssinians imported from Australia, Europe and the USA, many through the Pet Passport scheme which avoids the need for quarantine. Today, no breeding Abyssinians in this country are of purely indigenous descent.
The photos used are of Ch. Nigella Sascha, Int. Ch. Nigella Fern, Ch. Heatherpine Juanita and Ch. Nigella Amapola. They show some of the very best of earlier Abyssinians. The photographs are from the collection of the late Florence Bone, Nigella Abyssinians, given by her to Caroline Macaulay so that they could be preserved on disk.
Abyssinian Historical Slideshow
Karen Lawrence and Hilary Helmrich collaborated with Harry Blok to put together a comprehensive slideshow of assorted Abyssinian cats and related images. To see them, Click here.