Jean Henri Dunant Biography (1828-1910)


With his life's work dedicated to the needs of others, the Swiss humanitarianJean Henri Dunant is best known as the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Born in Geneva into an affluent family whoconsidered religion and charity a priority, Dunant's father and grandfather held important positions in Geneva, including member of Geneva's governing council, director of a Geneva hospital and mayor of nearby Avully.

Dunant began shaping his future with early interests in finance, religion, and public service. A student of economics during the day, he dedicated his evenings to the poor and sick as a representative of the League of Alms. Following in the footsteps of his Calvinist family, Dunant attended church regularlyon Sundays, and then brought the message of religion to a local prison. He pursued his religion further when Dunant joined the Réveil (Awakening)evangelical movement at the age of 18. Eager to become a catalyst for new ideas, Dunant began to support the abolition of slavery after meeting American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1853, and he became active in the newly formedYoung Men's Christian Academy (YMCA), which opened its first European branchin Paris in 1855.

At the age of 26 years old, Dunant began a position with one of Geneva's largest banking houses in North Africa and Sicily. While knowing this position would produce his income, Dunant continued to work for charitable causes and established a YMCA outpost in Algeria. As a writer, he published his travel observations of North Africa in Notice sur la régence de Tunis (AnAccount of the Regency in Tunis). Dunant's interest in slavery was called toattention when one long chapter was published separately from Noticeas L'Esclavage chez les musulmans et aux États-Unis d'Amérique (Slavery Among the Mohammedans and in the United States of America, 1863.)

In 1859, Dunant's world would change as he left his profession in finance andpurchased a large amount of land in the French colony of Algeria with plansof raising cattle and grain. He solicited 100 million Swiss francs by organizing a company supported by investments from family and friends to make his farm a reality but Dunant was missing one key ingredient: water that must be piped from government-owned land. His appeal to Algerian officials went unanswered, and Dunant decided to personally receive a direct answer from Emperor Napoleon III of France. Upon visiting Napoleon on June 24, 1859 in Solferino, Italy where he was leading the French army and its Italian allies against theAustrians, Dunant witnessed one of nineteenth-century Europe's bloodiest battles. When arriving in nearby Castiglione at the Battle of Solferino, Dunant witnessed the killings and woundings of 40,000. Described by Dunant as "indescribably hideous," he immediately joined the 6,000 people who streamed into Solferino to remove the wounded to Castiglione.

Caring for the wounded in temporary hospitals that were set up in houses, army barracks and the town church and cloister, Dunant became an aid to soldiersfrom both sides of the war. When he came upon a group of Italian soldiers about to throw several wounded Austrian soldiers down the steps of a church, called the Chiesa Maggiore, in Castiglione he was alarmed. "Stop," Dunant yelled. "You must not! They are brothers!" The Austrians were released, and Sono fratelli (They Are Brothers) was the name given to the relief effort.

As the director at the Chiesa Maggiore, Dunant gathered food, organized firstaid workers, and recruited tourists, priests, and journalists to help the wounded. With only two badly injured doctors available and three days of relentless care to those in need, Dunant went to the French army headquarters to request the release of all medically trained prisoners into his custody. Charitable organizations in Geneva also sent supplies from Dunant's requests and heorganized additional relief efforts at battle sites in Brescia and Milan.

Shortly after Solferino's unforgettable plight, Dunant wrote Un Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino, 1862) where he told of battle's cruelty to humanity, described the relief effort in Castiglione, and made a proposal to "take advantage of a special congress to formulate some international principle, with the sanction of an inviolable Convention which, once accepted and ratified, might constitute a basis for Societies for the relief of the wounded in various countries of Europe." His book received praise from journalists andEurope's high society.

The first to act on Dunant's idea of cooperative national war relief organizations was the Geneva Public Welfare Society, a private humanitarian organization of leading citizens. By February of the following year, they created a five-member committee that included Dunant. He stressed the importance of approaching the entire world with their mission to gain support. Dunant's public campaign turned to influential public figures, including Victor Hugo, CharlesDickens, and Florence Nightingale, to help organize an international conference that would become responsible for arranging the work of national war relief groups.

Dunant's efforts were successful as 39 delegates from 16 countries met at Geneva on October 26, 1863. The delegates' work was swift in drafting a treaty which guaranteed the neutrality of relief workers and adopting the Swiss flagwith the colors reversed, a red cross on white, as their emblem, and as a wayto honor Dunant and his government. This meeting marked the creation of theICRC, and the beginning of the Red Cross movement. In 1864, representatives from 12 nations signed the treaty, known as the Geneva Convention, in Paris.

While personal triumphs were being celebrated by Dunant, his neglected business in Algeria forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1867. His good deeds were overlooked by several investors, and he was shunned by the Geneva society whohad once applauded him. Dunant soon fell into poverty. Although financially ruined, Dunant continued to make great strides at the 1867 general meeting ofthe Red Cross, where he proposed the same inviolable status as the sick and wounded to the prisoners of war. To help make this a reality, he founded the Provident Society during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. With a mission to pursue the official neutrality of prisoners, the Provident Society (which cameto be known as the World Alliance for Order and Civilization in 1872) established chapters in Britain and France to spread their message. The rights of prisoners were addressed at the first conference in Brussels in 1874 as the rules of war and the treatment of prisoners were outlined. These were eventuallyacknowledged by other countries as Red Cross chapters were established throughout the world.

With all efforts turned towards the World Alliance from 1871 to 1874, Dunantthen became vocally involved with the slave trade as he campaigned against it. While slavery was illegal in Europe, regulations drafted by the British Admiralty stated that naval vessels must surrender runaway slaves who looked forBritish protection aboard the ships when docking at the fugitive's home ports. Dunant organized such a powerful protest against these orders as a memberof the Anti-Slavery Society in Britain and France that they were soon revoked.

Once again showing love for his neighbor, Dunant supported the European Jewswho yearned to return to their homeland in Palestine. To help make this a reality, he founded the International Society for the Revival of the Orient in 1864 whose main goal was to establish a European colony in Palestine. While financing was planned by the Syrian and Palestine Colonization Society in 1876,Dunant's plans were stopped when the war between Turkey and Russia in the same year kept the Turkish sultan, Abdul-Hamid from providing land grants for the cause.

No longer acknowledged by family or friends, Dunant chose a solitary life after 1876 that allowed only short public appearances to raise funds for the World Alliance. Living in a garret in southern England, his last brief positionwas as secretary for Frèdèric Passy's French Society of the Friends of Peace in Paris. He wandered home to Switzerland, surviving as a beggar from village to village, but always keeping a meticulous appearance by using ink to blacken his coat and chalk to whiten his shirt. Time found him entering a hospice in the village of Heiden in 1892, where he spent his remainingyears.

Three years later, a journalist named Wilhelm Sondregger found Dunant and published his interview with the humanitarian throughout Europe. Personal interest in his lifelong cause became apparent from the dowager empress of Russia,who provided him a small pension, and editor Bertha von Suttner asked him tocontribute regularly to her pacifist periodical.

In 1901, the first Nobel Peace Prize was presented to Dunant and Frèdèric Passy. While unable to attend due to illness, Dunant's life work that instigated peaceful cooperation among nations was respectfully honored. Because he never married, Dunant left the entire proceeds of his prize to philanthropic organizations in Norway and Sweden upon his death in 1910. A free bed for the poor in Heiden at the hospice was also granted from his last requests.

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