Henry Dunant: The Man Behind the Red Cross

The words Red Cross literally, and immediately, bring to the mind’s eye the image of the red cross on a white background. This has become a universal symbol of humanitarian help and healing wherever there is a situation of war, natural or man-made calamity. The history of what has, for over a century been an international movement can be traced back to a much earlier war, and to the humanitarian vision of a businessman named Henry Dunant.

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Henry Dunant was born on May 8, 1828 in Geneva in a Swiss family that was religious and civic-minded. Henry himself, in this youth, was closely involved with the Young Men’s Christian Association. After he completed school he was initially apprenticed to a Swiss bank. When he was twenty-six he joined as a representative of a company that had commercial interests in Swiss colonies in North Africa.

As part of his work Dunant travelled to Algeria to take charge of the Swiss colony of Setif. While he was there he attempted to become an independent entrepreneur and set up a wheat mill. For this he needed a large tract of land and water rights for the same from Napoleon III. Napoleon was at the time headquartered near the northern Italian town of Solferino, directing the French and Italian armies in the battles to drive the Austrians out of Italy. Dunant arrived in Solferino in time to witness one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century. On that memorable twenty-fourth of June 1859, more than 300,000 men stood facing each other; the battle line was five leagues long, and the fighting continued for more than fifteen hours.

Dunant was also witness to the horrific aftermath of the battle which left behind hundreds badly wounded and dying without any kind of help. Dunant was deeply moved by his experience. He wrote about it and published a small book titled Un Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino). He began the book with these words: I was a mere tourist, with no part whatever, in this great conflict; but it was my rare privilege, through an unusual train of circumstances, to witness the moving scenes that I have resolved to describe.

The book, published in 1862 had three parts. The first described the battle itself. The second described the battlefield after the fighting: chaotic disorder, despair unspeakable, and misery of every kind. It also described all the efforts to care for the wounded in the small town of Castiglione. The third section proposed a plan. It suggested that the nations of the world should form relief societies to provide care for the wartime wounded; each society should be sponsored by a governing board composed of the nation’s leading figures, should appeal to everyone to volunteer, and should train these volunteers to aid the wounded on the battlefield, and to care for them later until they recovered.

As he wrote: But why have I told of all these scenes of pain and distress, and perhaps aroused painful emotions in my readers? Why have I lingered with seeming complacency over lamentable pictures, tracing their details with what may appear desperate fidelity? It is a natural question. Perhaps I might answer it by another: Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers?

This report shook the whole of Europe. What was unusual about it was that rather than being just a reporting of the battle, Dunant also provided ideas and proposals aimed at preventing a repetition of the horrifying happenings in Solferino.

His two main proposals were: i.That countries adopt an international agreement, which would recognise the status of medical services and of the wounded on the battlefield. ii. The creation of national relief societies, made up of volunteers, trained in peacetime to provide neutral and impartial help to relieve suffering in times of war.

In response to this, on 7 February 1863, the Geneva Society for Public Welfare appointed the International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded, a committee of five people, to find ways to put the plan into action. The committee consisted of the banker Gustave Moynier, the general Guillaume-Henri Dufour, as well as the doctors Louis Appia and Théodore Maunoir, along with Henry Dunant. Dunant, poured his own money and time into the cause, travelled over most of Europe to meet governments and convince them to send representatives to a conference which would develop the plan of action. The founding charter of what was to become the International Red Cross Movement was drawn up in 1863.

An international conference was held from 26 to 29 October 1863; it included delegates from sixteen nations. The result of the conference was an international treaty with ten articles that were signed by twelve nations on 22 August 1864. This became known as The Geneva Convention. The Treaty guaranteed neutrality to sanitary personnel and protection of sanitary establishments, guaranteed free access for such personnel to grant material assistance.

The Convention also adopted a special identifying emblem. A red cross on white base was selected as a recognition and protection sign. It was the reverse of the Swiss Federal colours and was selected in honour of the Swiss origin of the initiative to provide humanitarian assistance in times of armed conflict.

While Dunant was putting all is time and resources in making his humanitarian dream a reality, his personal and professional life went into a steep decline. His business ventures failed and he became bankrupt; he was also cast out by the Geneva society of which he was once a part; he was penniless and unmoored. In September 1867 he resigned from his post as secretary, as well as member of the International Committee.

For the next 20 years from 1875-1895 Dunant became a wandering recluse, living on charity. In 1887 he ended up in a small Swiss village where he fell ill and found refuge in the local hospice where he spent the remaining years of his life. In the meanwhile he was almost forgotten, and even presumed dead, until a journalist discovered him in 1895 and wrote an article about him. The article was printed all over Europe. Henri Dunant was rediscovered by the world.

In 1901, Dunant was awarded the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize for his role in founding the International Red Cross Movement and initiating the Geneva Convention. The prize was divided equally between Jean Henry Dunant “for his humanitarian efforts to help wounded soldiers and create international understanding” and Frédéric Passy “for his lifelong work for international peace conferences, diplomacy and arbitration”.

Despite the prizes and honours Dunant continued to live in his one room in the hospice until he died in 1910, and as per his wishes, there was no funeral ceremony.

Henry Dunant’s vision and creation of the worldwide movement continue to be play a critical part, in a world that is conflict-torn even today, helping people in need during armed conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies. The movement’s ethics are based on seven Fundamental Principles: Humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.

May 8 is marked as Red Cross Day in memory of the contribution of Henry Dunant to building this international Movement, and to celebrate these principles.


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