Final Word

About spies and prostitutes


Has the person or group of people who leaked a massive number of secret documents from South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA) to outsiders prostituted their profession?

The writer Rudyard Kipling in 1888, in his story about a prostitute, started off with the sentence: “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world.”

 This notion has since become more or less convention wisdom, and not without solid backup from history. There is some debate about the definition of ‘prostitution’, but most commonly it is described as: “The practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment.”

According to an article on the Wikipedia website, “Prostitution was common in ancient Israel, despite being tacitly forbidden by Jewish Law. Within the religion of Canaan, a significant portion of temple prostitutes were male. It was widely used in Sardinia and in some of the Phoenician cultures, usually in honour of the goddess ‘Ashtart”’; and:

“The Biblical story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) provides a depiction of prostitution as practiced in the society of the time.”

It might even be an activity not unique to humans. Evidence exists that some animals engage in a form of prostitution. Female chimpanzees living in the Ivory Coast have been observed to trade sex for meat. In one experiment capuchin monkeys were taught to use silver discs as a sort of money (to be redeemed for grapes), and it wasn’t long before one monkey exchanged one of the tokens for sex.

Not far behind

When it comes to recorded history, the activity of espionage does not seem to be all that far behind prostitution.

In the fourth book of the Bible, Numbers (chapter 13), we learn that the Israelites after having fled from Egypt, reached Kadesh for the first time. Moses selected twelve spies from among the chiefs of the tribes and sent them forth to spy on the land of Canaan and to report back to him about conditions on the ground.

Also in the traditions of other ancient cultures evidence of incidents of espionage is to be found in, for example, the writings of ancient Chinese and Indian military strategists Sun-Tzu and Chanakya. The same can be said about the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

The first recorded interaction between the two professions also goes back to the history of the ancient Israelites. In the sixth book of the Bible, Joshua (chapter 2), we find the story of Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho who assisted the Israelites in capturing the city.

She also found her way into the New Testament where she is listed as one of the ancestors of Jesus and praised as an example of living by faith, while being justified by her works.

Modern history

The notion of selling special personal attributes for compensation, where the difference between espionage and prostitution becomes pretty thin, has lived on into modern history – including South African history.

In fact, a South African spy from the days of the Anglo-Boer War has become notorious for his ability to sell his skills in espionage to different pay masters when the opportunity presented itself.

Frederick (Fritz) Joubert Duquesne, a man with a special talent to master different languages and assume different identities, followed careers as a farmer, a soldier with the Boer forces and later the Germans, a big game hunter, a journalist and above all a spy.  

In the latter capacity he led spy rings and conducted missions under cover of changing identities in South Africa, Great Britain, Central and South America and in the United States. Captured several times, he always managed to escape.

During the Anglo-Boer War he succeeded in infiltrating the British army, became an officer, attempted sabotage in Cape Town and an assassination of Lord Kitchener, commander-in-chief of the British forces in South Africa. Escaping from Bermuda, he became an American citizen.

During World War I he became a German agent and sabotaged British merchant ships, often claiming damages from insurance he took out beforehand.

When caught in 1917 he feigned paralysis before he escaped two years later. In 1941, during World War II, he was again arrested, convicted and jailed in America, together with 32 other members of a spy ring he led.

Between wars, Duquesne had served as an adviser on big game hunting to American President Theodore Roosevelt, as a publicist in the movie business and a journalist. He pretended to be an Australian war hero and even once headed the New Food Society in New York.

Having served 14 years of his sentence, Duquesne was released in 1954, owing to ill health. He died in hospital in May 1956, aged 78.

James Bond

Duquesne’s reputation is only rivalled by the man who inspired the creation of the fictional agent 007 in 1953 by British author, journalist and himself a onetime naval intelligence officer, Ian Fleming.

The man in question was lieutenant Sidney George Reilly, a Jewish Russian-born adventurer employed as secret agent by Scotland Yard, the British Secret Service Bureau and later the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).

Like Duquesne, a master of deception, he is alleged to have carried out espionage for at least four nations. He died in November 1925 at a time when he was becoming famous due to his diplomat and journalist friend, Sir Robert Bruce, publicising their thwarted attempt in 1918 to overthrow the Bolshevik regime in Russia.

Arriving in English

According to the Oxford Dictionary it would seem that the word ‘prostitute’ and ‘prostitution’ arrived in the English language before ‘espionage’.

‘Prostitution’ dates back to the mid-16th century (as a verb): from Latin prostitute, meaning “exposed publicly, offered for sale” from the verb prostituere, from pro- (“before”) plus statuere, meaning to “set up or place”.

‘Espionage’ in turn was first recorded in 1793, coming from French espionnage, from Middle French, from espionner to spy, from espion (spy), from Old Italian spione, from spia, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German spehōn 'to spy'. 


by Piet Coetzer

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