The story of Lucas the baboon man

TREVOR BRADFIELD – guest writer

LINDIWE (surname unknown) was busy harvesting the dry mealie cobs in her garden patch on the banks of the Fish River, with her nine-month-old baby lying on a blanket in the shade of a Milkwood tree.

She had already delivered one basket full of cobs and was busy with the next basket when she noticed a baboon next to where she has deposited the mealies. Quite concerned that the baboons were stealing her hard earned mealies, she ran screaming towards them and they ran away, taking, as she thought, the mealies with them.

Can you imagine her utter shock when she discovered that the mealies were still there, but that the baboons had taken her baby boy.

This story resumes 12 years later when a boy was discovered running on all fours with a troop of baboons.

As unlikely as it seems, it appears from the evidence that Lindiwe’s baby was taken by a female baboon and was brought up as one of her own offspring.

The incident is related by FC Metrowich in his book “Assegai over the hills”. Two policeman, Holson and Murray, were on patrol duty in the Koonap District. They saw a troop of baboons running in the roadway and found a naked boy with them, jumping around on all fours, uttering queer guttural sounds.

The policemen caught him and took him to the Fort England Mental Hospital in Grahamstown. He was kept there for a few months, but the hospital authorities could do nothing with him as he was completely untamed and uncivilized. He appeared to be about 12 years old but could only bark and make other baboon noises. He was incapable of understanding any kind of language.

It is reported that the boy was extremely mischievous and was always getting into trouble. It was fast becoming impossible for the hospital to keep the boy. At that time, one of the hospital assistants, who knew a farmer in Bathurst District by the name of George Smith, persuaded him to take charge of the boy. The boy was given the name Lucas.

Smith took the boy back to his farm I the Shaw Park district. This took place in about 1919. In 1942 my father purchased the farm neighbouring Smith’s farm. I became aware of this amazing person, Lucas, in about 1944.

During the period 1946 to 1948, I saw Lucas on numerous occasions. Although he lived on the neighbour’s farm, it was at Kleinemonde during the December holidays that I really got to know him.

I would go down to the river where he was either collecting bait or cleaning fish which the Smiths had caught. We spent many hours talking. My interest as a small boy was not his life with the baboons but the way he walked and talked.

He always walked bent over and with his arms almost touching the ground. He talked and understood English reasonably well, having lived with the Smiths for more than 20 years, his sentences were, however, broken up into guttural grunts between each word.

Although he was at times, difficult to understand, it was these obviously baboon grunts which fascinated me.

The local population were terrified of Lucas. Many times when I was walking home from school, I would notice black people either running down the road or across the open countryside. I would then know that Lucas was on his way to the shop.

On one occasion I remember standing behind Lucas in the shop while he was trying to buy a sweet offering a sucker paper as payment. The store keeper was an extremely kind man and he accepted Lucas’ sucker paper in full payment for the sweet.

Had Lucas lived today he would have been a celebrity. Sadly during his lifetime among humans, he was regarded as a bit of a joke. What a pity. I saw him as a harmless and lovable character. I was most upset when I heard in 1948, that he had died.

This is an excerpt of a longer essay on the “baboon man” by Port Elizabeth resident Trevor Bradfield.

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