Jack the baboon, was an extraordinary companion and assistant to James Wide, a signalman who tragically lost both his legs while working for the Cape Town – Port Elizabeth Railway service. Known as “Jumper” Wide for his daredevil leaps between railcars, an unfortunate accident resulted in the amputation of both his legs at the knee.
In 1881, James Edwin Wide was visiting a busy South African market when he witnessed a chacma baboon driving an oxcart. Impressed by the primate’s skills, Wide bought the baboon, named him Jack and hen trained him to push his wheelchair and to operate the railway signals. A pet and a personal assistant, the duo’s partnership quickly caught the attention of others.
The tale took an intriguing turn when a curious observer reported the sight of a baboon changing railway signals in Uitenhage, near Port Elizabeth. The railway authorities decided to conduct an official investigation. To their astonishment, Jack’s exceptional competence in carrying out his assigned tasks was confirmed and the railway company officially employed Jack, recognising his invaluable contributions. As part of his employment, Jack received a daily wage of twenty cents and enjoyed a weekly reward of half a bottle of beer.
Throughout his nine years of service with the railway company, Jack earned a remarkable reputation for his flawless performance. There is no record of Jack ever making a single mistake.
Sadly, Jack’s journey came to an end in 1890 when he succumbed to tuberculosis. However, his legacy lives on, with his skull finding a place of honour in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.
(Image has been digitally restored)