With foreign affairs dominating the news for the first half of the year, now interrupted by incessant coverage of the self-inflicted local difficulties facing the UK government, the doctrine of ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’ had many an airing. That has always been my motto when walking past groups of habituated or feral monkeys which have the reputation of sometimes attacking passers by or stealing food from their bags or hands. I have wondered in the past if the dictum arose in a part of the world that had to deal with monkeys as well as with evil individuals of another primate species.
When I looked it up, I found that its noted adopter and promoter, Theodore Roosevelt, President of the USA from 1901 until 1909 as well a keen and very well-read amateur zoologist and natural historian, had indeed identified the proverb as having originated in West Africa:
I have always been fond of the West African proverb: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far."
The last time I had the opportunity of Roosevelt’s dictum was walking in the New Territories of Hong Kong where large bands of macaques (the origins of which I have discussed previously here) gather to await picnickers, walkers and joggers. At the start and end of a popular walk along a water catchment where monkeys tend to gather close to and on the path, there are piles of sticks gathered from the trees and shrubs, picked up and then discarded by walkers and joggers.
The following short video is of a large troupe of monkeys—around 50 individuals—on a popular path along a water catchment near the Jubilee Reservoir in the New Territories of Hong Kong in December 2017. When we first saw them they were descending a steep hill, covered in concrete at lower levels, to reach the path. They had to paddle through the trickle of water in the catchment and quite clearly did not like getting their feet wet. Later, they lined the path for about 100 yards. I had the ideal implement for the day—a walking pole was my big stick.