Henry DunantHenry Dunant

The only constants in Henry Dunant’s life were his passion for humanitarianism and the Red Cross. His life was marked with contrasts. He was born on the 8th May 1828, in Geneva, into a religious, Calvinist family that devoted itself to humanitarian and civic values.  Henry Dunant developed deep religious beliefs and high morals at an early age. He then dedicated a great part of his life to religious activities. He became a member of the League of Alms whose goal was to offer material comfort to the poor, sick and those in need. He was further carrying out visits to prisons as a social worker and was for a while a full-time representative of the Young Men’s Christian Association for which he travelled to France, Belgium and Holland.

At the age of seventeen, he started an apprenticeship at a banking house in Geneva. In 1857, at the age of twenty-six, he was given a temporary appointment as a representative of the “Compagnie genevoise des Colonies de Sétif” in North Africa and Sicily. In 1858 he published his first book called “Notice sur la Régence de Tunis” (An Account of the Regency in Tunis). While in its pertinent part made up of travel observations, it contained a remarkable chapter that Dunant then published separately in 1963 entitled “L’Esclavage chez les musulmans et aux États-Unis d’Amérique” (Slavery among the Mohammedans and in the United States of America).

Taking advantage of his business connections he entered into business himself in Algeria and became president of a land exploitation company called the Financial and Industrial Company of Mons-Gémila Mills which was very successful. In need for water rights, he went on a business trip to Napoleon’s headquarters near Solferino where he wanted to approach the Emperor with his plea. At the time, the French armies were fighting alongside the Italians against the Austrians who were occupying parts of Italy. It was then that he witnessed the aftermath of one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century. Confronted with the inadequate medical service provided on the battlefield he tried to assist in the relief of the pain and suffering of the wounded. His fame came with the publishing of the book “Un Souvenir de Solférino” (A Memory of Solferino) in which he wrote down for the public what he had seen on the battlefield and made proposals on how to confront the inadequacies in war. This experience drove the focus in his life even further to the core interests in humanity. From then on he devoted his life to the prevention and amelioration of the suffering of the poor, wounded, sick and needy.

The proposals introduced in his book led to the foundation of the Red Cross and were transformed into an international treaty, entitled the Geneva Convention. Over time, the scope of the Red Cross was extended not only to wounded and sick in wartime but also to naval personnel in wartime and peacetime, to prisoners of war and to civilians in wartime.

In 1866, Henry Dunant wrote a brochure to create a neutral colony in Palestine, called the Universal and International Society for the Revival of the Orient.

The period from 1867 to 1875 was in sharp contrast to the previous phase of his life. Henry Dunant went bankrupt in 1867 due to the rejection of the plea to be granted water rights and to mismanagement in North Africa with Dunant, mainly focused on humanitarian activities, having neglected his business ventures. The bankruptcy of the company affected many of his Geneva friends leading to him being virtually exiled from Genevan society. From being wealthy he went to living on the level of a beggar.

From 1875 to 1895 he lived a life in obscurity. He finally settled down in a small Swiss Village called Heiden. Dunant was rediscovered in 1890 by a teacher named Wilhelm Sonderegger who then informed the world that Henry Dunant was alive. The world, however, took little notice. An illness forced him to move to a hospice at Heiden in 1892. In 1895 he was once again rediscovered, and he was awarded with prizes and received honours, notably he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. He did not spend any of the prize monies received from the world and died in 1910 in a lonely room leaving a testament that he wished to be carried to his grave “like a dog” and to those who had cared for him in the village hospital he bequeathed some legacies, made available a «free bed» to the sick among the poorest people in the village, and left the remainder of his prize monies to philanthropic enterprises in Norway and Switzerland.

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