Théo Lefèvre – ‘The Monkey Prime Minister of Belgium’

October 26, 2010

Théodore Joseph Albéric Marie Lefèvre was the 39th Prime Minister of Belgium and enjoyed a successful political career until his death in 1973.  His political know-how and influence is all the more impressive considering his remarkably unusual childhood.

Lefèvre was born in Ghent on 17th January 1914, his father, Guillaume Lefèvre, was a diplomat and had recently returned from the post of ambassador to Romania due to the uncertainty leading up to the start of the first world war.  After the war ended Guillaume took up a post in the then Belgian colony Senegal; where the academically gifted Théodore was taught privately by a team of tutors.

In 1921, when Lefèvre was 7 years old, fighting broke out in the nearby city of Ziguinchor and the family were forced to flee to Gambia, however during the journey their party was attacked and both of Lefèvre’s parents were killed.  Assuming Lefèvre had also been killed, and owing to the instability in the area, there was no major search operation and the matter was considered closed.

However, nine years later, villagers from a small settlement in the region trapped a 16 year old boy they had caught stealing food.  He was completely naked, didn’t seem to be able to speak or understand them and was obviously of European decent.  His climbing ability and style led to the belief that he had been raised by monkeys (although fairly rare, cases of feral children had been well documented in the area) and earned him the title ‘The monkey boy of Casamance’.

Over the next few months he quickly learnt commands in the local dialect, however it wasn’t until he was exposed to French during his examination by Belgian doctors that he first spoke (apparently reaching for a glass of milk and saying ‘lait’).  It didn’t take long to identify him as Théodore and his uncle, Adrien Lefèvre, arranged for him to be treated in a hospital in Brussels.

Once back in Belgium and in the care of his extended family Lefèvre’s progress was remarkable; within just a few months he had started talking again and had even started to re-learn to read and write.  After one year he left the hospital into the care of his uncle who organised for a team of doctors and tutors to devote themselves to his development round the clock.  Within three years (by the age of 20) he had, amazingly, managed to completely re-integrate into society, the only after effects of his ordeal being an underdeveloped education and occasional bouts of depression.  When later asked about this period of his life Lefèvre preferred to change the subject, stating that what little memories he did have were too hazy to be of any interest.

Driven by a desire to fit in with his peers, and finding comfort in the routine of study, Lefèvre’s academic progress was rapid and in 1937, at the age of 23, he began studying law at Leuven University.  Just 2 months after he graduated, however, the Second World War broke out.

Lefèvre signed up to the army in 1940 and his survival skills, discipline and confidence meant that he quickly climbed the ranks becoming a Major General shortly before the war ended in 1945.  After the war he was offered a position as a lawyer at the Ghent court of justice before quickly becoming a deputy of the Belgian parliament for the Christian Social Party.

In 1957 he became party leader, and then on 25 April 1961 he was elected Prime Minister (as part of a coalition with the Socialist candidate Paul-Henri Spaak) a position he held for four years until 28 July 1965.  Lefèvre continued to work in politics until his death in 1973.

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