He never monkeyed around with the signals.

Jack the Baboon handling the train levers in South Africa
Jack the Baboon handling the train levers in South Africa

HATTIE, MILLIE, AND MARGARET, three over-fifty, frugal but well-fixed widows had finished all their quilts, mended all their mending, canned all of the plums, and tatted all of the tatting they cared to tat for awhile.  They decided a trip was in order—but where?

There was one adventurous opportunity staring them right in the faces.  When Hattie’s sister had invited them to come to South Africa for a visit, they were at first hesitant.  It was a long way for three lone women to travel in the late 1800s.

“What else better have we got to do?”  Millie asked this one day at tea.  “Reckon our constitutions are up for it?”

“Have you made that long of a boat trip?  What about the mal de mer?”  Margaret wished to know.

“Well I have made enough boat trips to know that I get used to it after a few days,” Millie answered.

“It will be difficult, but certainly we are up to it.  We could keep journals of our daring experiences and read them aloud to each other at tea in the coming years for our own amusement.”  Hattie tried to entice them.

“Is it your opinion that we will have any years left?”  Margaret laughed.  She was always the skeptic of the group.

Hattie replied, “You know we are strong as oxen and have good tickers.  What else have we to do at this time in our lives?”

With reluctance, over-protective family members hauled their trunks to the dock in Plymouth, Devon and bade them farewell.  They would take a steamer, the Annie Mae, around the west coast of Africa, and after stopping in several ports along the way, would disembark in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  There they would take a train to Uitenhage where Hattie’s sister and her husband, Colin Hempstead, would have a wagon there to meet them.

The three ladies were decidedly a little road-weary.  As the Cape Government Railway train slowed to a sputter along on its approach to Uitenhage, Millie, and avid window-watcher, came alert.

“What’s that?  Is it a monkey?”  Millie’s excited voice prompted the other two.   They peered out the window.

“It is!  It’s a monkey on the platform!”  Margaret exclaimed.

“And look!  That man nearby has no feet!  His legs are wooden from the knees down, with only rough round knobs at the end.”  Millie added.

Hattie made an observation.  “Oh my, he is still able to move around quite skillfully.”

“Oh! Look at the monkey!  He is hopping about.  Now he is pulling on that big lever.”   Millie was getting excited.

“Oh my goodness.  Is he dangerous?  Will he bite?”  Margaret asked.

“He’s hopping about, again.  Look at him hop and run about.”  Millie continued.

“The peg-leg man is giving him food.”  Hattie announced.  The women’s creaky necks craned clear around as they watched the activities on the platform go by the window.

When the excitement was over, Margaret said, “I’m roasted.”

The train slowed as it approached the Uitenhage depot.

“It won’t be long.”  Hattie tried to be reassuring.   “Maybe we can take a real bath before much longer.”

The three women were able to take long baths and naps.  They were able to do so on Colin Hempstead’s luxurious sugar cane plantation, with its slowly turning ceiling fans and potted palms and ferns.  When well-rested, they enjoyed a meal of creamed Cape Lobster on toast.

“We saw the strangest sight, when we were almost to the Uitenhage Depot.  It appeared to be a large monkey on the platform.  He was playing with some of the railroad levers.”  Hattie announced at the dinner table.

Margaret chimed in.  “I was frightened.  I thought he might derail the very train we were on.”

“Oh, that is Jack, the baboon.” Colin explained.  “Did you see a peg-legged man nearby?”

“Yes!”  All three women exclaimed at once.

Colin continued.  “Jack is famous in these parts.  It seems that the peg-legged man, James “Jumper” Wide was at the local market one day when he observed the baboon driving an oxcart expertly through the throngs of people.”

“No! You don’t say!”  Margaret was astounded.

“Jumper Wide was very curious.  He followed the oxcart and struck up a conversation with the baboon’s owner.  This owner was a very compassionate man.  He felt sorry for Jumper Wide and his disability.  He offered the baboon to him for a helper.  Jumper took Jack to work with him at the train yard every day.  Jack began helping Jumper do his work.  In time he learned how to change the signals at the train yard.  Jack recognized different types of horn blasts from the engineers and changed the signals accordingly.  At the end of the day, Jumper Wide rewarded Jack with a shot of brandy.”  Colin explained some more.

“No!” The women exclaimed all at once clasping their hands to their mouths.

“When Cape Town officials got wind of Jack’s abilities, they came and tested him with the train signals.  He has never made an error.  They decided to put him on the payroll.  They gave him an employee number and paid him in bananas.”

*     *     *

     Hattie’s nieces were all aflutter when the ladies read the monkey incidents aloud from their journals at tea time back in Plymouth a few months later.   “And in one port we saw an elephant lifting logs with its trunk.  We saw many camels doing all types of work for their masters,” Margaret added.

Memorials and tributes have been made to Jack the Baboon in both Uitenhage and Grahamstown.  Jack’s skull is preserved and on display at the Grahamstown station.


Please click the book cover image to read more about Sara Marie Hogg and her novels.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    I have watched monkeys and baboons and looked into their eyes. I believe they have an intelligence that we don’t yet understand and, given the chance, they may be smarter than we are.

    • Sara Marie Hogg

      I think you are right! I hope you saw the movie The Day of the Dolphins w/ Geo. C. Scott. They (dolphins) are also dang smart.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        I learned a lot from my dog and even more from my cat.

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