Have you ever fought Nazis? No, probably not. What about crocodiles, lions or leopards? Probably not those either. Have you ever blown yourself up with TNT and lived to tell the tale? What about delivering over 500 babies? What about learning 19 different languages? Yup, Jean-Pierre Hallet did all of that, and so, so much more. In this final edition of Historical Badasses, we’ll take a look at one of the most legendary Belgians in all of history.
Born: August 4, 1927, Louvain, Belgium
Died: January 1st, 2004, California
Occupation: Explorer, sociologist, conservationist, writer, filmmaker, photographer, freedom fighter
Jean-Pierre Hallet was born to Andre Hallet, an Impressionist painter, and his wife Berthe; even at a young age, he was making waves – Jean-Pierre was a fourteen-pound baby, and his mother needed six months of bedrest to recover after his birth (though she showed the same fighting spirit he did, living to over 100 years old).
As a painter, Andre’s art took them all over Europe and later to Africa, where they lived on the remote shores of Lake Kivu, in what is now Rwanda. As a young boy, Jean-Pierre lived among the Bantu tribes, learning their languages, dressing like them, and rebelling hard against his European parents. By the time he was six, he refused to speak French to them, so they shipped him back to Belgium to complete his formal schooling.
Things got crazier for Jean-Pierre Hallet as he got older. Here’s an abridged list of why the man is such a badass of history:
- When World War II broke out and the Nazis invaded Belgium, Hallet was too young for active enlistment, so he joined a guerrilla resistance force. While not technically a man, he still stood 6’5″ and 250 pounds at the age of fifteen in 1942. In 1944, he would enlist properly, and go on to win several medals for bravery in combat as the Allies fought to liberate western Europe.
- After the war, Hallet earned a degree in sociology from the Sorbonne (University of Paris), and packed up to head to the Congo as part of the Belgian administration responsible for its governance. He hit it off with pretty well every native tribe in the region.
- He became a blood brother of the Tutsi, lived amongst the Balego (who were notorious for killing and eating foreigners, so that’s pretty impressive he didn’t become dinner), and at age 23, became a formal member of the Kenyan Maasai, which is super impressive because apparently one of the initiation rituals for becoming a Maasai warrior involves you killing a lion by yourself with nothing but a spear while a circle of warriors chants you on.
- He was also made a member of the Bwama secret society – which in fact is so secret that nobody is quite sure what it actually even is.
- When Hallet was 30, he accidentally got shot with a Pygmy blowdart laced with a neurotoxin with a 99% fatality rate; despite being near death, he pressed on deep into the jungle to find a Pygmy witch doctor, who cut a big chunk out of his leg and saved his life… He ended up living with the Pygmies for 18 months, and when he left, he was fluent in their language, knew all their traditional customs such as building bows and arrows out of tree bark, and mastered a game known as “archery-ball”, which I couldn’t find any information on but is probably violent. He successfully petitioned the Belgian consulate to fully emancipate this tribe from all colonial laws upon his return to the official government offices.
- All in all, Hallet survived nineteen near-death experiences over his lifetime. Yup, you read that right. From poisoned blowdarts to pissed-off AK-armed rebels in the Congo War, Hallet dealt with all of it.
- The most insane near-death experience Hallet survived was when he was dynamite fishing in Lake Tanganyika. A local tribe was dealing with a nasty drought, and Hallet, ever the humanitarian, was out in a little boat throwing sticks of TNT off the side in order to catch enough fish to feed the village. When one backfired, he blew off his right arm at the elbow, sunk his boat, and tipped himself into crocodile-infested waters. Despite losing a massive amount of blood, he somehow swam to shore, fashioned himself a tourniquet using his good arm and his teeth, and hammered his truck over 200 miles through a winding dirt road to get out of the park and off to the nearest hospital. I legit have no idea how he survived this. He was also fitted with a prosthetic arm, but he never wore it, feeling it entirely unnecessary.
- A very short time after the accident, Hallet and two friends were attacked by a leopard in the jungle; Hallet fought with the cat for ten minutes before managing to pin it by the throat with his stump. A friend threw him a hunting knife, which he caught with his good hand and stabbed the leopard to death in one fell swoop.
- Hallet spent the last 45 years of his life dedicated to helping the Pygmy tribes of the Ituri Forest in the Congo; in 1974, he launched The Pygmy Fund, a charity dedicated to saving one of the most endangered human civilizations in the entire world. (Ituri Pygmies numbered about 35,000 in 1930, but by the 1970s their population had dwindled to only about 3800 in all, thanks to land encroachment, increased agriculture, food scarcity, and genocide from both fellow African tribes and white colonialists alike). He spent years travelling back and forth between the United States and Africa, raising money and providing improvements for these tribes in the jungle of the Congo, with such notable contributions as purchasing 500 acres of high-quality farmland for use by the Pygmies, teaching them to use modern tools, farm, read, write, do arithmetic, delivering over 500 children into the world, and documenting so much of their culture and way of life, including creating an 18,000-word dictionary of the language and dialects.
- Hallet spent many years giving academic lectures based on his writings; his three best-selling books, Congo Kitabu, Animal Kitabu, and Pygmy Kitabu (“Kitabu” is Swahili for “Bible”) are among some of the premier zoological and sociological documentation of sub-Saharan Africa, and have been translated into 21 languages including Russian and Mandarin Chinese. His writings on the Pygmies, in particular, are some of the most detailed on these peoples that have ever been written.
- He curated one of the largest collections of African art in the world, which he then sold off piece by piece with all funds going to his Pygmy Fund to help further his humanitarian goals.
- Hallet received a number of his awards for his work, including the National Order of the Leopard by the Democratic Republic of Congo, the US Presidential End Hunger Award, the Humanitarian of the Decade award for the 1970s (as merited by former US Vice-President Hubert Humphrey), and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize as well.
Talk about a life well-lived. That’s about as full as anyone could ever hope for. To end off this incredible life, when Jean-Pierre Hallet passed away from leukemia at age 74, his sons went to pack up all of his belongings at the offices of The Pygmy Fund. As they put away folders and cabinets of papers, forms, pictures, writings, and more, they also happened to stumble upon thousands of written letters – personal correspondence with just about every single person who had ever donated or supported the charity in any way – thousands of people all in all. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jean-Pierre Hallet was a true historical badass – and it’s great to see him use his badassery to do so much good in the world.
Thank you for reading Historical Badasses throughout this offseason! It’s been a pleasure to do so much research on so many incredible people to share with you all over these past few months, and I look forward to next January, when my next offseason series will launch. Be sure to check out the launch of the CFL Beat next Thursday as we lead up to the kickoff of the 2017 regular season on June 22nd!