Henri Dunant's life (May 8, 1828-October 30, 1910) 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,
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 Etats-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.
A Memory has three themes. The first is that of the battle itself. The
second depicts the battlefield after the fighting - its «chaotic disorder,
despair unspeakable, and misery of every kind» - and tells the main story
of the effort to care for the wounded in the small town of Castiglione.
The third theme is a plan. The nations of the world should form relief
societies to provide care for the wartime wounded; each society should
be sponsored by a governing board composed of the nation's leading figures,
should appeal to everyone to volunteer, should train these volunteers
to aid the wounded on the battlefield and to care for them later until
they recovered. On February 7, 1863, the Société genevoise d'utilité publique
[Geneva Society for Public Welfare] appointed a committee of five, including
Dunant, to examine the possibility of putting this plan into action. With
its call for an international conference, this committee, in effect, founded
the Red Cross. Dunant, pouring his money and time into the cause, traveled
over most of Europe obtaining promises from governments to send representatives.
The conference, held from October 26 to 29, with thirty-nine delegates
from sixteen nations attending, approved some sweeping resolutions and
laid the groundwork for a gathering of plenipotentiaries. On August 22,
1864, twelve nations signed an international treaty, commonly known as
the Geneva Convention, agreeing to guarantee neutrality to sanitary personnel,
to expedite supplies for their use, and to adopt a special identifying
emblem - in virtually all instances a red cross on a field of white.
Dunant had transformed a personal idea into an international treaty. But
his work was not finished. He approved the efforts to extend the scope
of the Red Cross to cover naval personnel in wartime, and in peacetime
to alleviate the hardships caused by natural catastrophes. In 1866 he
wrote a brochure called the Universal and International Society for the
Revival of the Orient, setting forth a plan to create a neutral colony
in Palestine. In 1867 he produced a plan for a publishing venture called
an «International and Universal Library» to be composed of the great masterpieces
of all time. In 1872 he convened a conference to establish the «Alliance
universelle de l'ordre et de la civilisation» which was to consider the
need for an international convention on the handling of prisoners of war
and for the settling of international disputes by courts of arbitration
rather than by war.
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 says, 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.
Despite the prizes and the honors, Dunant did not move from Room 12. Upon
his death, there was no funeral ceremony, no mourners, no cortege. In
accordance with his wishes he was carried to his grave «like a dog».
Dunant had not spent
any of the prize monies he had received. He bequeathcd some legacies to
those who had cared for him in the village hospital, endowed a «free bed»
that was to be available to the sick among the poorest people in the village,
and left the remainder to philanthropic enterprises in Norway and Switzerland.