Jack and Jackie, the Baboons | Nathan Wilson


Confession, in my original article version of this, I was stuck between doing Mel Gibson, Dennis Rodman, Aki and Pawpaw and Charlie Sheen. That was until I remembered these bad boys, also existed and deserved the attention more.

When we think of rogues, one might imagine figures from popular folklore. Images of Robin Hood, Zorro fill the minds that one could think up. Even real people enter our collective psyche when we envision rogues, from drinking sessions between Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole, to Donald Trump going out and becoming President of the United States.

At the same time as this, what is a true rogue without having a sidekick. Batman had Robin and Robin Hood had Little John, you see every man must have a friend. When we think of Man’s best friend, we first think of dogs. Dogs and other animals have often become famous for their dedication to their masters, think Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh or Hachikō, the loyal Akita in Tokyo.

Man, and his companion’s is where our story begins, but like with most things, a couple South Africans took this to the extreme.

Insert Count Dankula references and music.

James Wide was a South Africa railway signalman, who worked the Cape Town-Port Elizabeth Railway line. During his tenure as a railway signalman, Wide earned his ironic nickname. This being James ‘Jumper’ Wide, for his ability to jump between moving railcars. It was in fact, during one of his famous jumping sessions that he accidently fell and became a double leg amputee.

As James had just recently lost his legs, he did not fret, he did not weep, he decided to build a new pair of legs out of wooden pegs. One might wonder how a man could continue to function in his role, after the disaster that resulted in loss of both his legs.

It was simple, you buy a baboon.

Wide bought Jack in 1881 and Jack was no ordinary baboon (Chacma, to be specific); he was both a pet and James’s assistant for the railway signalling. Upon buying Jack the Baboon, Wide trained him to push his wheelchair around and to operate the railway signals under his care and supervision.

The railway operation being controlled by James and Jack, became the stuff of South African legend. Eventually after a while, the South African government had begun an official investigation into the pair. The reason for the investigation was due to Wide having told the railway line that he had got himself an assistant, he had just forgotten to mention that it was a baboon. This was in response to a member of the public, which had officially reported witnessing a baboon changing railway signals at a stop near Port Elizabeth.

Initially the report brought lots of scepticism but after witnessing the Baboon itself, the railway line decided to employ Jack in an official capacity. This was in response to the Baboon’s competency within the role as railway assistant. As a result, the railway line decided to pay Jack twenty cents a day, and half a bottle of beer each week. After nine years of employment for the railway line, it was reported that Jack never ever made one mistake while working the railway signals.

Sadly, in 1890 Jack had contracted tuberculosis and passed away. His skull remains in Albany Museum in South Africa. It was James Wide and Jack, that set the stage for our unique set of stories involving baboons within South Africa.

However, this not the only rogue stories involving the rainbow nation and baboons. Following on from James Wide and his monkey assistant Jack, we get Corporal Jackie the Baboon.

Just like Jack, Jackie was also a Chacma Baboon. A baboon that just happened to serve in the 3rd South African Infantry Regiment during World War I. Like Jack, Jackie had his origins as a pet for a man, in this case Albert Marr. Marr had found Jackie walking around his farm and decided to train him up and make him join the family (is this a common thing in South Africa? I will assume so).

For several years Jackie lived with Marr on his farm, this was until in 1915 that Marr was enlisted to fight in World War 1. As Jackie had become Marr’s best friend, he was unwilling to leave Jackie behind on the farm in South Africa. It was because of this that Marr had asked his superior officers if they could let Jackie be enlisted too?

In typical South African fashion, they said yes.

Once Jackie was enlisted, he was treated like an ordinary soldier. Given a uniform, with buttons and regimental badges, a paybook, a military cap and his own set of rations. For his rations, Jackie would eat them with his own knife and fork, after which he washed himself within his own washing basin. A day in the life of a South African baboon soldier, I suppose.

Alongside this, whenever he saw a superior officer, he would stand and salute them. His training included lighting cigarettes for officers and standing guard. The latter was something he excelled in, due to his great sense of smell and hearing (something that baboons naturally have an advantage in, so I have been told).

Because of his natural dedication to the South African Army, Jackie became the official mascot of the 3rd Transvaal Regiment and followed the soldiers everywhere. This resulted in Jackie serving throughout the war in open conflict, with both Jackie and Marr surviving the Battle of Delville Wood, during the Somme Campaign in 1916. This battle sustained some eighty per cent casualties and remains a miracle that both Marr and Jackie survived such a fray. Earlier in the year, while serving at the Battle of Agagia in Egypt, Marr was shot in the shoulder. As Jackie stayed with him, licking his wound, and remained by his side while they both waited for help to arrive.

Later during a shootout in a trench on the Western Front, Jackie was observed building a wall of stone around himself for protection, during which he stained a shrapnel wound to his right leg.

Sadly, the regiments doctors could not save Jackie’s leg and it had to be amputated. During his operation, Jackie had to been made unconscious with chloroform, for which the unknown effects on baboons was feared meant he may never recover. Luckily within several days, Jackie did just that, he recovered.

For his bravery and loyalty, Jackie was promoted from private to corporal and was given a medal for his valour. Near the end of the war, Jackie left with his discharge papers, a full military pension and even a civil employment form that discharged soldiers received. After this, he returned to the Marr family farm with his owner Albert. Sadly, he died in 1921 during a fire. Marr himself lived until 1973, when he died at the age of 84. Jackie the Baboon is the only baboon to fight during World War 1 and achieve a rank within the South African Army.

In conclusion, perhaps some of the most amazing and unknown rogues have not just been men but also their pet baboons. Rogue’s can be thought of sometime, as a bit chicken and egg. Is the owner the rogue for training to the baboon to work the railway signals and fight in World War 1, or is the baboon the rogue for signing up and doing it anyway?

What can be of certain is that for James Wide and Albert Marr, they both discovered two friends in the most unlikely of places. Although, most certainly obscure and deserve further recognition, it both Jack and Jackie which truly find themselves a special place within not just South Africa folklore but also its gallery of rogues.

Eccentric, Yes

Unique, Yes

Legends, Of course

Loyal and dedicated to their work, always. This is the has been the story of Jack and Jackie, the South Africa Baboons. Mad Lad Monkeys, until the very end and their owners James Wide and Albert Marr deserve the credit for being mad enough to train them up.


This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

Photo Credit.

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