The beginnings of the Red Cross

Red Cross Month

For many years the Cayman Islands Red Cross has been celebrating the month of May as Red Cross Month’.

By now, most people know that May 8th is World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. Yet how many of us know the history behind this Movement?

It all started with a young man named Henry Dunant. Henry, who was born in Geneva on 8 May, 1828, came from a devout and charitable Calvinist family. He did not finish secondary school, and instead took up a post as an apprentice to a Geneva bank. In 1853, he travelled to Algeria to take charge of the Swiss colony of Sétif. He started construction of a wheat mill, but could not obtain the land concession that was essential for its operation. After travelling to Tunisia he returned to Geneva, where he decided to approach Napoleon III to obtain the business document he needed.

At the time, the Emperor was commanding the Franco-Sardinian troops fighting the Austrians in northern Italy, and it was there that Henry Dunant decided to seek him out. This was how he came to be present at the end of the battle of Solferino, in Lombardy. This experience would change his life and the world.

In Solferino Henry witnessed the worst of the war. He saw wounded soldiers from both armies being left to die because no assistance was given to them. He saw those who tried to assist being shot and killed. He saw young soldiers spend their last minutes in despair and alone.

Henry assembled a group of residents from Solferino and set up a make-shift hospital in a nearby church. These volunteers provided medical attention to all soldiers who needed it, independent of their origin or affiliation. They also assisted the dying with writing final letters to their loved ones abroad.

Upon returning to Geneva, Henry wrote A Memory of Solferino, which eventually led to the creation of the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, the future International Committee of the Red Cross. His ideas would also serve as the foundation for the Geneva Conventions created in 1864, which are still in effect today. Henry was a member and acted as secretary of the ICRC. He became famous and was received by heads of state, kings and princes of the European courts. But his financial affairs were floundering and he was declared bankrupt in 1867. Completely ruined, he was in debt for almost a million Swiss francs (1860s value).

As a result of the scandal that this bankruptcy caused in Geneva, he resigned from his post as secretary of the International Committee. On 8 September, 1867, the committee decided to accept his resignation not only as secretary but also as a member. Henry left for Paris, where he was reduced to sleeping on public benches. At the same time, however, the Empress Eugénie summoned him to the Tuileries Palace in order to consult him on extending the Geneva Convention to naval warfare. Henry was made an honorary member of the national Red Cross societies of Austria, Holland, Sweden, Prussia and Spain.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he visited and comforted the wounded brought to Paris and introduced the wearing of a badge so that the dead could be identified.

When peace returned, Dunant travelled to London, where he endeavoured to organise a diplomatic conference on the problem of prisoners of war; the Tsar encouraged him but England was hostile to the plan.

An international congress for the “complete and final abolition of the traffic in negroes and the slave trade” opened in London on 1 February, 1875, on Henry’s initiative. There followed years of wandering and utter poverty for Henry: He travelled on foot in Alsace, Germany and Italy, living on charity and the hospitality of a few friends.

Finally, in 1887, he ended up in the Swiss village of Heiden, overlooking Lake Constance, where he fell ill. He found refuge in the local hospice, and it was there that he was discovered in 1895 by a journalist, Georg Baumberger, who wrote an article about him which, within a few days, was reprinted in the press throughout Europe. Messages of sympathy reached Dunant from all over the world; overnight he was once more famous and honoured. In 1901, he received the first ever Nobel Peace Prize.

Henry Dunant died on 30, October 1910. Yet his legacy continues to live on. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has grown and expanded and continues to carry out its principles and aims in over 120 countries worldwide. It is not only an organisation; it is also a family of 115-plus million members, of which over 200 are from the Cayman Islands Red Cross.

Want to learn more about the Cayman Islands Red Cross or how you can support? Contact the Red Cross office at 949-6785 ext. 26 or [email protected] for more information. Stay tuned to the Compass throughout the month of May as we will be bringing you more information about the C.I. Red Cross, its community programmes, and other activities happening this month.