“It would be quicker to train an ape!” – Basil Fawlty on Manuel the waiter.
Basil may have been right. In the 1880s train travellers passing through Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape of South Africa would have witnessed the diverting sight of a Chacma baboon operating the signal levers in the station control tower.
James Wide was employed as a guard on the Cape Town-Port Elizabeth service by the Cape Government Railways. He had a habit of springing nimbly between the coaches, earning him the apt but prosaic nickname Jumper. He managed just fine until one dreadful day near Kleinpoort in 1877 when he slipped on the canvas covering of one of the coaches and landed under the moving train which severed his legs at the knee. This devastating accident almost broke his spirit but he dug deep and rallied his considerable forces.
Good prosthetics weren’t around in those days so James designed and made a pair of wooden legs for himself. He couldn’t perform his guard duties anymore and was unemployed for a while. Eventually the Railways offered him a post as signalman at Uitenhage railway station. He was offered a cottage less than a kilometre from the station. Always resourceful and resilient, he constructed a trolley to travel to and from work on.
It was tiring work for him to get up the small hill between the cottage and the station, and although he could operate the levers from a chair, he needed to hobble slowly out when a train came, to give the engineer the special key needed to unlock the points for the coal shed. The signal for the key was four blasts from the train’s whistle.
On a visit to the market one day in 1881 he was impressed by the sight of a baboon leading an ox wagon team as a “voorloper” and asked the owner if he would sell him. Jack’s keeper was very reluctant to part with his pet but felt sorry for the crippled railwayman. He told Jumper that if he wanted to keep the baboon happy and co-operative he must give him a tot of good Cape brandy every evening before bedtime, or he would spend the next day sulking.
So James bought Jack and took him to live with him at his cottage. His main aim was to teach Jack to assist him with the trolley, which Jumper had designed to fit on the tracks. Jack would push it up the incline with his powerful hairy arms, then hop on and enjoy the ride as they rolled down the other side to the station.
Jack watched as Jumper held up the key and went out to hand it to the engineer. Jack learned quickly and volunteered to do this extra duty himself. After a few days he raced to the engineer with the key as soon as he heard the four whistles. Thus Jumper was able to entrust Jack with more and more responsibilities.
The next task Jack learned was to operate the levers in the signal box. These levers controlled which section of track a train would travel on as it passed the station. Drivers would whistle once, twice or three times so once again Jack learned to rely on these audio cues, which meant he could count and respond accordingly.
Jumper would hold up one or two fingers and the baboon quickly learned the right thing to do. He always looked at Jumper to check he was doing OK. Passengers would throw snacks for him as the train steamed by and Jack would nimbly catch his “tips”.
One day an officious high society lady passenger noticed the baboon and was horrified to think her life had been placed in the hands of an ape. She notified the railway authorities, who had been unaware of the human-baboon partnership, and both Jumper and Jack were immediately fired.
Jumper pleaded with them to be given another chance. A number of railway workers came forward to verify Jumper’s claims that Jack knew what he was doing.
The railway management set up a stringent test. They set up a series of levers similar to those at the station and had a driver subject the ape to a rapidly changing series of whistles. Jack passed his test with flying colours, making no errors.
Impressed, the Cape Railways re-employed both of them and gave Jack an employment number and a weekly wage. He was paid 20c a week – quite an acceptable figure in those days, plus daily rations and a weekly half bottle of beer. On Saturday afternoons Jack would sit at the door of the cottage sipping his well earned ale.
In the nine years he worked for the Railways, the primate reportedly never made a mistake. Travellers were in safe hands with Jack around!
The unusual friendship became a familiar sight to the good citizens of Uitenhage and many people came to see Jack at work. They were amazed by how bright he was.
Menial work wasn’t beneath his dignity and he would sweep the kitchen floor of the cottage and remove the trash. He was also an excellent security guard and unwelcome visitors would be confronted by a snarling baboon baring his fearsome fangs.
Jack would also roll the old railway sleepers which had been condemned and replaced, from the dump to the kitchen fire where they were used as excellent firewood being constructed from good quality solid wood.
Unfortunately he fell ill with TB and passed away in 1890 after nine years as Jumper’s best friend.Wide was devastated at the loss of his smart simian companion.
If you really wanted you, you can see his skull at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, but I would much rather have seen Jack in “person”. All baboon skulls look alike anyway…
Jack’s story is told in Michael Williams’ book Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse. (Note: the referral link to Amazon gives proceeds to your choice of charity.)
I’m sure a baboon could be trained to do stuff like this even today. I don’t think I’d trust one as a waiter, even at Fawlty Towers.
Numerous signs next to the main road through the Western Cape threaten people who feed baboons with a fine. You’re not doing them any favours by throwing them a blueberry muffin from your picnic basket.
They are quite thorough at trashing a house they break into in an “organized” food hunt which does not endear them to the homeowner. For peace between our two species it’s better for them to seek their own food. No one wants to come home to find your darling Pekingese has been torn limb from limb by an angry ape who grew tired of the yapping little nuisance!
They are protected by law and keeping them in the bush is the key to their survival. A shortage of natural food such as following a veld fire may make them descend from the hills and do some free grocery shopping in someone’s home.
Like many of our primate relatives they can be pretty darn smart. But Jack was truly a high flyer of his species and deserves to be remembered forever.
Jackie the War Baboon
Not to be confused with Jack, Jackie was a baboon belonging to Albert Marr, who farmed near Pretoria before World War I and found Jackie on his land. After war broke out they joined the Third South African Infantry Regiment and Jackie was their mascot. He had rations and a pay book and was issued with a uniform.
They sailed to the battlefront in August 1915 and saw active service against the Turks and Germans as well as in Egypt. Marr was wounded in the Battle of Agagia and the medics found Jackie licking Albert’s wound.
In April 1918 both Albert and Jackie were injured in battle and Jackie lost a leg. The brave ape made a full recovery, was promoted to corporal, given a medal for valour and honourably discharged. Jackie rode a captured howitzer during a victory parade in London in 1919.
Both Marr and Jackie returned to his Pretoria farm where Jackie died in 1921.
Kishi Station in Kinokawa, Japan, has a stationcat in charge named Nitama. She replaced their original cat, Tama, a stray calico cat who was regularly fed by a station employee. When the station was automated in 2007 Tama was hired as a station mascot / stationmistress and given a daily food ration and an official cap and medal to wear. Passengers travelled far and wide to see her until she died in June 2015.
New mascot Nitama works Fridays to Tuesdays from 10 am to 4 pm. The new Kishi station building is designed in a cat theme with a Tama themed cafe. The Wakayama Electric Railway operates three cat-themed trains: Strawberry Train, Tama Train and Toy Train.
Do drop by and say hi to Nitama should you ever be lucky enough to find yourself in Kinokawa!