Jean Henri Dunant

Henri Dunant (1828- 1910) from Switzerland, established the International Committee of the Red Cross, an organization concerned with the alleviation of human suffering.

His life is a study in contrasts. He was born into a wealthy home but died in a hospice; in middle age he juxtaposed great fame with total obscurity, and success in business with bankruptcy; in old age he was virtually exiled from the Genevan society of which he had once been an ornament and died in a lonely room, leaving a bitter testament. His passionate humanitarianism was the one constant in his life, and the Red Cross his living monument.

The Geneva household into which Henri Dunant was born was religious, humanitarian, and civic-minded. In the first part of his life Dunant engaged quite seriously in religious activities and for a while in full-time work as a representative of the Young Men's Christian Association, traveling in France, Belgium, and Holland.

African expirience

When he was twenty-six, Dunant entered the business world as a representative of the Compagnie genevoise des Colonies de Sétif in North Africa and Sicily. In 1858 he published his first book, Notice sur la Régence de Tunis [An Account of the Regency in Tunis], made up for the most part of travel observations but containing a remarkable chapter, a long one, which he published separately in 1863, entitled L'Esclavage chez les musulmans et aux États-Unis d'Amérique [Slavery among the Mohammedans and in the United States of America].

Having served his commercial apprenticeship, Dunant devised a daring financial scheme, making himself president of the Financial and Industrial Company of Mons-Gémila Mills in Algeria (eventually capitalized at 100,000,000 francs) to exploit a large tract of land. Needing water rights, he resolved to take his plea directly to Emperor Napoleon III. Undeterred by the fact that Napoleon was in the field directing the French armies who, with the Italians, were striving to drive the Austrians out of Italy, Dunant made his way to Napoleon's headquarters near the northern Italian town of Solferino. He arrived there in time to witness, and to participate in the aftermath of, one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century. His awareness and conscience honed, he published in 1862 a small book Un Souvenir de Solférino [A Memory of Solferino], destined to make him famous.



The eight years from 1867 to 1875 proved to be a sharp contrast to those of 1859-1867. In 1867 Dunant was bankrupt. The water rights had not been granted, the company had been mismanaged in North Africa, and Dunant himself had been concentrating his attention on humanitarian pursuits, not on business ventures. After the disaster, which involved many of his Geneva friends, Dunant was no longer welcome in Genevan society. Within a few years he was literally living at the level of the beggar. There were times, he says2, when he dined on a crust of bread, blackened his coat with ink, whitened his collar with chalk, slept out of doors.

For the next twenty years, from 1875 to 1895, Dunant disappeared into solitude. After brief stays in various places, he settled down in Heiden, a small Swiss village. Here a village teacher named Wilhelm Sonderegger found him in 1890 and informed the world that Dunant was alive, but the world took little note. Because he was ill, Dunant was moved in 1892 to the hospice at Heiden. And here, in Room 12, he spent the remaining eighteen years of his life. Not, however, as an unknown. After 1895 when he was once more rediscovered, the world heaped prizes and awards upon him.



Tags: | Switzerland | Red Cros |



Newsletter

Sign up to receive the news from Euro-POI

About Newsletter