The Origins of the Left Handshake.

© Copyright: The Reverend Michael Foster 1999.

The Origins of the Left Handshake.
Brian Morris in an article on Ernest Thompson Seton published in the Journal of Contemporary History in 1970 suggests that the origin of the Left Handshake owes itself to Baden-Powell copying Seton.
Seton illustrated this handshake in one of his books as early as 1901 - The Lives of the Hunted. However not a few have been disquieted by this and point out that Baden-Powell gave his own explanation of the Left Handshake's origin. There are two problems associated with this explanation.
l. No mention of a Left Handshake is given by B.-P. in his diaries, or in the Eton 'scout' scheme of 1904 or in the Boys Brigade Scout scheme of 1906. It is only introduced in 1907/8 after the meeting and correspondence with Seton.
2. There are at least four different explanations of the origins of the Scout Left Handshake, two of which claim to originate from B-P, one based on friendship between two tribes, and the other, an alleged Ashanti tradition based on bravery. Of the other two explanations offered in a Scout Annual of 1960, it is hinted that the first was current in B.-P.'s day.

It just might have been possible to reconcile both accounts (i.e. laying dawn your shield is showing no fear - true bravery), however the contexts are different. B.-P. is part of one story as he is introduced to a regular tradition of the Ashanti. The other story is about a spectacular but single gesture of an event between two tribes.

From the introduction to the Left Handshake by Lord Rowallan #1.
"WHEN COLONEL BADEN-POWELL entered the capital city of the Ashanti people in 1896 he was met by one of the Chiefs who came to him holding out his left hand. B.-P. held out his right in return but the Chief said: "No, in my country the bravest of the brave shake with the left hand" So began the "left handshake" of the world-wide brotherhood of Scouts.

From 'Olave Baden-Powell' by. Eileen Wade #2.
The let handshake, common to Scouts and Guides everywhere, and peculiar to them, has a romantic reason underlying it.
The Founder, in explaining it, used to tell the story of two tribes in Africa that were constantly at war with one another, until suddenly one day the leader of one of them had a change of heart. He came to the border of his own territory and, when the chief of the opposing tribe appeared, flung down his shield and held out his left hand in friendship, saying that here was the proof at he had come unarmed and in a new spirit. The other chief responded at once and this giving of the left hand came to be regarded as a sign of love and trust for those who live by a common Law and Promise. Hence the expression "a disarming smile".

From 'Stetsons and Bare Knees' Pathfinder Scout Annual 1960, Sydney R. Brown #3.
The Left Handshake
In West Africa the left handshake is a mark of distinction reserved for use between a chief and his most trusted followers. B.-P. introduced it into the Scout movement.
It has since been explained that Scouts shake hands with their left hand because it is the hand nearest the heart.

The attempt to provide the "nearest to the heart" explanation, is clearly late on in time, and was probably due to the need, to cut through the confusion provided by three separate explanations circulating the Scout movement, at least two of which are attributed to Baden-Powell. The end result was to add to the confusion! The question remains what is the true origin of the Left Handshake ?

Baden-Powell had provided a whole mythology in the development of the scout movement. He provided romance, even down to the smallest detail. Nothing belonged to the realm of the mundane. Everything had meaning. The Scout membership badge, and the First Class badge, as soon as they were woven in cloth, the surround was given a Zulu shield shape. The five pointed stars introduced into the petals of the fleur-de-lis to produce an unique version so as to ensure its registration as a trade mark became no accident. Each point of the two stars represented one of the Scout Laws. The Law and Promise, originated from the Knights of old rather than the real location of a Victorian/Edwardian antiquated view of the Middle Ages. Whole training schemes could be invested in meaning. Each Wolf Cub acted out Kipling's Jungle Book. Rover Scouts were involved in Knightly Quests and were Invested after serving a squireship.

The explanation of the Left Handshake fitted in with this provision of meaning B-P with which endowed the movement. Both versions of the Left Handshake origins provided by B.-P. are given appropriate to certain specific contexts. Rowallan's version on bravery prefaces a book on scout heroics during the War Wade's version prefaces a view on international friendship. It would be difficult to place Wade's version as a preface to War exploits. It might well be that B.-P. provided all three stories - at different times, addressing in their original context similar circumstances. However this cannot be confirmed or disproved as nowhere in his writings are we provided with the origins of the Left Handshake. What is certain is the fact that B.-P. copied from Seton the idea of proficiency badges, Patrol Totems, the division between First and Second Class, the term 'Tenderfoot' for a novice. Only two isolated examples of B.-P. using the term 'Woodcraft' can be found prior to B.-P. meeting Seton - thereafter B.-P. used the term regularly in the context of the Scout training scheme. B.-P. also copied and renamed Seton's scouting games. B.-P. even re-manufactured Seton's tracking irons as his own. Given the overwhelming debt to Seton's Woodcraft scheme, the probability of copying the Left Handshake must be high. Yet to have said that the Left Handshake simply owed itself to the ideas of another man, robs tradition of romance and mythology - the twin ingredients that lifted Scouting above other youth movements of the day.

#1 - The Boy Scout Movement during the War, Hilary St George Saunders, Collins 1949.
#2 Olave Baden-Powell, Eileen Wade, Hodder and Stoughton 1971.
#3 Pathfinder Annual The Thames Publishing Co, London 1960, pages 30 - 32. Explanation of the Left Hand Shake, page 32.

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