The Intelligent Baboon
Jack the Baboon
James Edwin Wide was a conductor who worked for the Railways. In 1875 while he was on duty, James landed under a train and lost his legs. After being released from the hospital, the Railways offered him a position as a signal officer in Uitenhage.
His biggest problem was to move from his house to the Railway station where he worked, and back again. He made a light cart that he could use to travel to work and back. The cart was made the same width as the railway tracks.
One day James went to the local market. They were selling the usual fruit and vegetables, tobacco and farming equipment. Then he saw the guy selling a baboon and decided to buy it.
James was Patient
At home James taught the baboon patiently. He took him with him to work every day and first taught him to lift the cart onto the tracks and down again. He also taught him to push the cart.
Eventually he taught the baboon to pull the right signal so that the trains could pass onto the right track. He first gave every signal a name so the Jack the baboon would know which signal to pull. Jack was a big attraction at the station. He would pull the signal, then look to see if the right signal had gone up and stand solemnly while the train passed, then push the signal back again.
James would then reward him with a banana or some other treat. Another duty that James taught Jack was to take the keys to the engine driver. The engine driver came to collect coal from a depot at the station and would blow his whistle four times to let James know he wanted the keys to the depot. Jack quickly learned to take the keys and one day before James could hand him the keys he grabbed them and ran to the engine driver.
The Baboon Resting
Jack in the Paper
In April 1884 a notice was published in the Cape Argus about Jack and how he helped his disabled owner. At home Jack also collected water from the pump for James as well as wood for the stove. Some nervous passengers complained to the Railways about Jack stating that it was dangerous for a baboon to control the signals.
According to them he could cause an accident. Those in charge gave Jack a test which he passed with flying colors. The Railways also supplied Jack with regular rations which he enjoyed. After nine years of faithful service he became sick and died. His skull can be seen at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.
James Wide retired and moved to Whitechurch in Wallis where he died in 1912. This is a true story and even with the passing of so much time James and Jack are not forgotten. James for his patience in teaching a baboon so much and Jack who had the intelligence to accomplish the tasks that nobody thought would be possible.
© 2016 Anita Hasch