CLOSE
Original image

The History And Impact Of The Red Cross

Original image

In honor of the founding of the Red Cross on October 29, 1863, here's a closer look at the organization, how it works, and its greatest triumphs.

How It Works

There is no international Red Cross. Instead, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) oversees and approves national Red Cross organizations, ensuring those local organizations always live up to the committee’s objectives. The ICRC also handles a small number of issues that arise during international conflicts which require the oversight of a neutral humanitarian committee.

The International Committee operates out of Geneva, Switzerland (the building pictured above is its headquarters), and all of the people involved in this highest level of the organization must be of Swiss nationality. While this seems to be a little odd given the multi-cultural objectives of the group, the assembly believes the permanent neutrality of their country will ensure that no one ever questions the political motives of the decision makers. They say this way no one will ever feel high-level decisions affecting their country will be made by enemies of their country.

On the other hand, National Red Cross organizations are operated by people from all over the world. There are currently 186 national societies that are officially recognized by the ICRC; almost every country in the world has its own Red Cross society. These organizations provide emergency services, malaria eradication programs, blood drives, and local first aid training programs. The International Committee largely limits its services to investigating the condition of prisoners of war. Both groups help families get in touch with relatives who are separated and lost during global conflicts.

While other groups, like Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International, release their records regarding the conditions of prisoners of war, the Red Cross generally does not release their findings to anyone except the government involved. While this means they cannot push for more humane treatment of prisoners, it does allow them access to many locations that are off limits for similar groups. If the Committee finds that prisoners are being mistreated, they try to arrange low-key negotiations with the relevant government that will remain confidential.

History

In 1859, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman, traveled to Italy to discuss business with Napoleon III. On his way, he witnessed the Battle of Solferino, where 40,000 soldiers from both sides were wounded or killed. Dunant was shocked at the atrocities he saw and immediately set about helping the wounded soldiers who received practically no medical attention after the battle was over. In the end, he ended up abandoning the original motivation for his trip, focusing instead on care for the wounded soldiers. He motivated the local residents to help, too, regardless of their military affiliation.

When Dunant returned to Geneva, he wrote A Memory of Solferino. After sending the book to leading political and military figures in Europe, Dunant began advocating the creation of voluntary relief organizations to help care for wounded soldiers in war. He also pushed for international treaties to assure protection of these relief organizations.

In 1863, Dunant gathered other leading figures from Geneva to discuss the feasibilities of his ideas and how to best implement them. Eight days later, they decided to name the committee the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded.”

In October of that year, the committee held an international conference to develop measures that would improve battlefield medical services; it was attended by more than 30 representatives from countries throughout Europe. The resolutions adopted from this first meeting included the creation of relief societies, protection for wounded soldiers, and the introduction of a distinctive protection symbol for medics in the field. The symbol chosen at the conference was a white arm band with a red cross—the first official use of the Red Cross logo (although they didn’t start to use that name until 3 years later).

The following year, the Swiss government invited all European governments, the United States, Brazil, and Mexico to attend an official diplomatic conference regarding those resolutions. Sixteen governments sent delegates to this first Geneva Convention, and 12 countries signed the convention binding rules for neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and humanitarian institutions. The convention also defined two requirements for the recognition of a national relief society as defined by the International Committee: A society must be recognized by their own national government, and the country involved must be a party in the Geneva Convention.

Immediately after the Geneva Convention, the first national relief societies were formed in Belguim, Denmark, France, Oldenburg, Prussia, Spain, and Württemberg. Within a few years, almost every country created a relief society—including the American Red Cross, started by Clara Barton.

Major Conflicts

While Red Cross agencies dealt with a number of conflicts after their initial creation, the first major test of their effectiveness was during the first World War. Immediately after the war broke out, the ICRC set up an international Prisoners of War (POW) Agency. By the end of the war, the group transferred about 20 million letters and 18 million Swiss francs worth of donations to POWs in all affected countries. The agency also helped safely exchange 200,000 prisoners, allowing them to return to their home countries.

During the war, they also monitored the fighting countries for compliance with the Geneva Conventions and forwarded their complaints to the countries responsible. When chemical weapons were used for the first time ever, the ICRC fought their use immediately.

While the Geneva Conventions did not dictate that the ICRC should help civilian populations, the committee also helped residents who were suffering from the war. A year before WWI ended, the ICRC received a Nobel Peace Prize for its wartime work. It was the only prize awarded during the conflict.

In 1925, another Geneva Convention was held, and the use of chemical and biological weapons was outlawed. The committee also drafted a new set of rules dictating the proper treatment for prisoners of war.

When WWII started, the ICRC faced quite a challenge: getting access to Nazi concentration camps. It tried applying pressure to the country, but eventually quit pushing so that efforts could be focused on helping POWs from all countries. In 1943, the group finally achieved permission to send parcels to the concentration camp detainees with known names and locations. Because many packages were signed for by persons other than those to whom the package was addressed, the group managed to use these signatures to register the names of around 105,000 detainees in the camps.

(c) Benoit Junod, Switzerland

In March of 1945, the SS allowed delegates to visit concentration camps with the condition that the delegates had to stay in the camps until the war ended. Ten delegates volunteered. One was able to prevent the blasting of Mauthausen-Gusen by American troops, saving 60,000 lives. Unfortunately, this went against the ICRC’s neutrality policy and circumvented their authority, so he was condemned by the organization. They did not apologize until 1990.

The ICRC received a second Nobel Peace Prize in 1944 for its work during the war: once again, the only prize awarded during that period. After the war, the ICRC worked with local Red Cross societies to help provide assistance to the countries most severely affected.

After the war, another convention was held to discuss international laws regarding civil populations during times of war. After all of the conventions and additional protocols were added, the Geneva Convention treaties contain over 600 articles. In around 150 years, the ideas of a Genevan businessman have helped rewrite the acceptable behaviors of countries at war and have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, while improving millions more.

Original image
Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)
arrow
History
When Lexicographer Samuel Johnson Became a Ghostbuster
Original image
Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)

Dr. Samuel Johnson is today best known for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which remained the foremost authority on the English language until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared more than a century later. The dictionary took Johnson nine years to complete, for which he was paid the princely sum of 1500 guineas—equivalent to $300,000 (or £210,000) today. Although it wasn’t quite the commercial success its publishers hoped it would be, it allowed Johnson the freedom to explore his own interests and endeavors: He spent several years editing and annotating his own editions of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and traveled extensively around Britain with his friend (and eventual biographer) James Boswell—and, in 1762, helped to investigate a haunted house.

Johnson—who was born on this day in 1709 and is the subject of today's Google Doodle—had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, once commenting that he thought it was “wonderful” that it was still “undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.” According to Boswell, however, he was more of a skeptic than an out-and-out believer, and refused to accept anything without seeing the evidence for himself. So when the news broke of an apparently haunted house just a few streets away from his own home in central London, Johnson jumped at the chance to perhaps see a ghost with his own eyes.

The haunting began in the early 1760s, when a young couple, William and Fanny Kent, began renting a room from a local landlord, Richard (or William—sources disagree, but for clarity, we'll use Richard) Parsons, at 25 Cock Lane in Smithfield, London. Soon after the Kents moved in, Richard’s daughter, Betty, began to hear strange knocking and scratching sounds all around the house, and eventually claimed to have seen a ghost in her bedroom.

Richard soon discovered that William was a widower and that Fanny was in fact his deceased wife's sister; under canon law, the pair couldn't be married, and Richard became convinced that the ghost must be that of William's deceased first wife, Elizabeth, blaming William’s presence in the house for all of the strange occurrences. He promptly evicted the Kents and the noises soon subsided—but when Fanny also died just a few weeks later, they immediately resumed and again seemed to center around Betty. In desperation, a series of séances were held at the Cock Lane house, and finally Fanny’s ghost supposedly confirmed her presence by knocking on the table. When questioned, Fanny claimed that William had killed her by poisoning her food with arsenic—an accusation William understandably denied.

By now, news of the Cock Lane Ghost had spread all across the city, and when the story broke in the press, dozens of curious Londoners began turning up at the house, queuing for hours outside in the street hoping to see any sign of supernatural activity. According to some accounts, Parsons even charged visitors to come in and “talk” to the ghost, who would communicate with knocks and other disembodied noises.

But with the suspicion of murder now in the air, the Cock Lane haunting changed from a local curiosity into a full-blown criminal investigation. A committee was formed to examine the case, and Johnson was brought in to record their findings and investigate the case for himself.

On February 1, 1762, one final séance was held with all members of the committee—Johnson included—in attendance. He recorded that:

About 10 at night the gentlemen met in the chamber in which the girl [Betty] supposed to be disturbed by a spirit had, with proper caution, been put to bed by several ladies. They sat rather more than an hour, and hearing nothing, went down stairs, when they interrogated the father of the girl, who denied, in the strongest terms, any knowledge or belief of fraud … While they were enquiring and deliberating, they were summoned into the girl’s chamber by some ladies who were near her bed, and who had heard knocks and scratches. When the gentlemen entered, the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back.

But the committee were suspicious. Betty was asked to hold out her hands in front of her, in sight of everyone in the room:

From that time—though the spirit was very solemnly required to manifest its existence by appearance, by impression on the hand or body of any present, by scratches, knocks, or any other agency—no evidence of any preternatural power was exhibited.

Johnson ultimately concluded that it was “the opinion of the whole assembly that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.” And he was right.

As the investigation continued, it was eventually discovered that Richard Parsons had earlier borrowed a considerable amount of money from William Kent that he had no means (nor apparently any intention) of repaying. The two men had a falling out, and Parsons set about elaborately framing Kent for both Fanny and Elizabeth's deaths. The ghostly scratching and knocking noises had all been Betty’s work; she hidden a small wooden board into the hem of her clothing with which to tap or scratch on the walls or furniture when prompted.

The Parsons—along with a servant and a preacher, who were also in on the scam—were all prosecuted, and Richard was sentenced to two years in prison.

Although the Cock Lane haunting turned out to be a hoax, Johnson remained open minded about the supernatural. “If a form should appear,” he later told Boswell, “and a voice tell me that a particular man had died at a particular place, and a particular hour, a fact which I had no apprehension of, nor any means of knowing, and this fact, with all its circumstances, should afterwards be unquestionably proved, I should, in that case, be persuaded that I had supernatural intelligence imparted to me.”

Original image
The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
arrow
geography
The Mountains of Kong: The Majestic West African Range That Never Existed
Original image
The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

If you look closely at a 19th century map of Africa, you’ll notice one major way that it differs from contemporary maps, one that has nothing to do with changing political or cartographical styles. More likely than not, it features a mountain range that no longer appears on modern maps, as WIRED explains. Because it never existed in the first place.

A 19th century map of West Africa
From Milner's Descriptive Atlas, 1850

The “Mountains of Kong” appeared on almost every major commercial map of Africa in the 1800s, stretching across the western part of the continent between the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River. This mythical east-west mountain range is now the subject of an art exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.

In "Mountains of Kong," stereoscopic images by artist Jim Naughten—the same format that allowed Victorians with wanderlust to feel like they’d seen the world—reveal his view of the world of wildlife that might have existed inside the imagined mountains. As the gallery describes it, “he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition of the mountain range.” We’ve reproduced the images here, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to go to the gallery in person, where you can view them in 3D with a stereoscope (like the ones you no doubt played with as a kid).

Toucans fight a snake in two almost-identical side-by-side images.
The Toucans © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Naughten created the images by taking two photographs for each, and moving the camera over some 3 inches for the second photo to make a stereoscopic scene. The landscapes were created by shooting images of Scottish and Welsh mountains and dioramas in natural history museums, using Photoshop to change the hues of the images to make them seem more otherworldly. His blue-and-pink-hued images depict fearsome apes, toucans sparring with snakes, jagged peaks, and other scenes that seem both plausible and fantastical at the same time.

The Mountains of Kong appeared in several hundred maps up until the 20th century. The first, in 1798, was created by the prominent geographer James Rennell to accompany a book by Scottish explorer Mungo Park about his first journey to West Africa. In it, Park recounts gazing on a distant range, and “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.” Rennell, in turn, took this brief observation and, based on his own theories about the course of the Niger River, drew a map showing the mountain range that he thought was the source of the river. Even explorers who later spent time in the area believed the mountains existed—with some even claiming that they crossed them.

Two colobuses stand in a tree on a mountaintop.
The Colobus © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The authority of the maps wasn’t questioned, even by those who had been to the actual territory where they were depicted as standing. Writers began to describe them as “lofty,” “barren,” and “snow-covered.” Some said they were rugged granite peaks; others described them as limestone terraces. In almost all cases, they were described as “blue.” Their elevation ranged from 2500 feet to 14,000 feet, depending on the source. Over the course of the 19th century, “there was a general southward ‘drift’ in the location,” as one pair of scholars put it.

Though geographers cast some doubt on the range’s existence as time went on, the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger’s Niger River expedition between 1887 and 1889, after which Binger definitively declared their nonexistence.

By 1891, the Mountains of Kong began dropping off of maps, though the name Kong still appeared as the name of the region. By the early 20th century, the mountains were gone for good, fading into the forgotten annals of cartographic history.

[h/t WIRED]

All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios