Gee, that’s unbelievable but true. During the latter part of the 19th century, a Chacma Baboon(a species of Old World Monkey) in South Africa worked as a signalman and earned a handsome amount.
Commuters who went past the Uitenhage Railway Station near Port Elizabeth spotted this ‘not so human’ creature working on the levers at the signal box. Surprisingly, this little fellow was lawfully employed for the Cape Town Government Railways. Named Jack, by his master, this invaluable asset even achieved recognition for serving as an assistant to a disabled railway signalman. He was visited by people from all over Cape Town to whom a baboon working at a railway station was a kind of miracle. He was a living embodiment of vitality and perfection. To James, Jack was an invaluable asset.
Wondering how all of this started? Here’s how.
This unrealistic story begins with the two-legged amputee named James Edwin Wide, who worked as a guard for the Cape Town’s Port Elizabeth Railway Station for ten years. His wild habit of jumping recklessly over running trains earned him the nickname ‘Jumper’. He also swung from one railcar to another. 1887 brought a doomsday for him as an untimed jump led to a catastrophe, and he lost both his legs. The heavy wheels of the moving train smashed his legs but fortunately, he was rescued alive. Post this traumatic incident, James designed two artificial legs for himself. He then proved the railway officials that he could still walk, was useful, and earned himself a posting to Uitenhage Railway Station as a signalman.
The world is quite unpredictable, right? We all know.
James was out in the hustle-bustle of the market. He came across a baboon guiding a wagon pulled by some oxen. Immensely surprised, he bought the baboon on the spot, named him Jack, and decided to pet and train him as his assistant. Have you ever heard about a baboon who sweeps the floor and takes out the trash? No, right? Well, our friend here was capable of doing these household chores too. He was also tutored to carry James in a small wooden cart to where they worked.
However, he proved his true worth at the railway station. Approaching trains used to toot their whistles a certain number of times which indicated track change. Our quick-witted friend here grasped the procedure and Voilà! he no longer needed someone to watch over him. James took a sigh of relief and now Jack did the work outside on the levers and signal box while the master sat in the cabin. Jack was so fine and reliable that he was even entrusted with the keys of the coal shed when trains had to be loaded with coal.
Just like every coin has two faces, not everyone praised this mysterious arrangement. A complaint was filed to the authorities when a concerned passenger informed about the baboon working on the signal box as it was a worrisome affair. The authorities however found this fact humorous and thought of testing the baboon. They chose to appoint Jack officially only if he proved his work competency. To everyone’s astonishment, Jack cleared the tests and came out with flying colors. Impressed by Jack, the authorities issued him an official employee number and gave him 20 cents per day and a half bottle of beer each week. Thus, this complaint proved to be a boon for both of them. “Jack knows the signal whistle the way I do, also all of the levers,” said railway superintendent George B. Howe, after visiting Jack around 1890.
A best friend isn’t always a human being, this unique duo proved this. Jack was very fond of his master. During an interview, they both sat on a trolley, and Jack wrapped his arms around James and stroked his face. This gesture clearly explained how Jack felt about James.
Marcus Tullius Cicero rightly quoted -The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.
Jack was in assistance for nine consecutive years and had a clean record as his work was clear as crystal. Jack expired in 1890 due to Tuberculosis. His skull is kept in the collection of the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.