Rimbaud In Harar

  He roamed all over Europe, enlisted with the Dutch army to go to Java, deserted, returned to Europe as an able-bodied seaman on a British ship, worked as a fore­man in a stone quarry in Cyprus, wandered from port to port along both shores of the Red Sea looking for em­ployment and eventually found some in 1880 as an assistant to a trader in Aden. His employer,* finding him hard-working, energetic and reliable, sent him to Harar in November to open a branch store. His job was to collect coffee beans, hides, wax, gum and ivory from Harar Province and to barter these for European goods, particularly cotton cloth. His salary was raised to nine shillings a day plus his keep and he was promised a 2 per cent commission on all profits.

  The Harar which met Rimbaud’s eyes had been under Egyptian occupation for six years. Though it had lost the prosperity it had enjoyed in the 16th and 17th cen­turies, some new buildings had been erected under Rauf Pasha’s rule. Many shops, drinking-booths and coffee­houses lined the streets. Rimbaud had high hopes of making a fortune quickly. Until the arrival of Father Taurin Cahagne, a Catholic missionary, the following year, he was the only Frenchman in the town and he thought he could gain a monopoly of all the trades. He wrote to his mother for a collection of cheap manuals, imagining that he would quickly learn to master all the crafts : iron-forging, thatching, glass-blowing, candle-making, brick-making, etc. He soon understood, how­ever, that all his energies would be engaged in keeping open his store, for all the Greek and Armenian shop­keepers resented his intrusion and tried to hinder him in every possible way.

  It is difficult to determine where exactly in Harar Rimbaud lived on the three occasions when he became a resident. On his first visit it is believed that he occupied a house of two storeys with a balcony opposite the old mosque (now the main mosque). It opened on to a large courtyard where caravans could be loaded and un­loaded ; on the ground floor was the store and above it, his living quarters. This house and courtyard may still be seen and have been depicted in Afework Tekle’s painting on next page ; the street in which it stands now bears Rimbaud’s name.

  Rimbaud remained in Harar for a year buying coffee and hides and sending them by camel to Zeila and thence by ship to Aden. All the time his discontent and loneli­ness grew as he felt cut off from his family and had difficulty in sending and receiving mail. At the end of 1881 he left for Aden hoping to find better luck in other parts of the world.

  A year later, however, all his projects had failed and his carefully accumulated savings were running low in Aden where the cost of living was high. He accepted his former employer’s offer to return once more to Harar as his agent. At the end of March, 1883, he crossed to Zeila and travelled back through the desert, disappointed to be still only another man’s employee. From Harar he set out to explore the Ogaden in search of fresh sources of gum, ivory and musk. He was the first European to penetrate so far south, though a few years later, two Austrians—Dominik Kamel von Hardegge and Philip Paulitschke—followed him. In a report on his expedition he describes having seen crocodiles, elephants, giraffes, hippopotami, rhinoceroses and gazelles as well as large flocks of ostriches. Every chief had several ostriches which he greatly prized. They slept with their owners, close to the fire and had guardians specially appointed to look after them. Rimbaud brought back many feathers—a valuable new export. This report, with its detailed account of the inhabitants and their lives, brought him some attention from learned societies but when the Societe de. Geographie asked him for biographical information he did not bother to reply. Had he done so, they might have helped him to lead a scientific mission which he would have greatly enjoyed, for he loved travel and had the stamina to resist its hardships.

  Rimbaud was now thirty. The days of his impatient, rebellious youth were over. Though he still could not tolerate being under any kind of obligation to another person, he began to look for companionship in the human beings around him. He had neither the interests nor the discipline of a scholar, but in his leisure time he would teach the Harari boys to read the Koran, for he had a great facility for languages and had mastered Harari as well as Arabic.

  In September, 1884, the Egyptians evacuated Harar and Emir Abdulahi, son of the last Emir, was made governor by the British. Foreign traders, fearing a return of Moslem fanaticism, closed their stores and left the town. Rimbaud was given three months’ salary in lieu of notice and departed. Like his fellow traders he was disappointed that the British had not stepped in to occupy Harar :

  " It is precisely the British with their absurd policy," he wrote home, " who have undermined and continue to undermine all the trade along the coast. They wished to improve everything and they have done more damage than the Egyptians whom they have successfully ruined. Their Gordon is an idiot and their Wolseley is an ass. Everything they touch is a never-ending progression of absurdities and waste."

  He brought with him to Aden a girl who was probably a Hariri. According to the servant of his employer who used to visit her, Rimbaud had her educated at a mission school and intended to marry her, but after a year she either went, or was sent back home. Rimbaud never mentions her in his letters to his family, although he mused to them about the possibility of finding a French wife to live in Ethiopia with him. On his deathbed he spoke only the name of Yami, his Harari servant, to whom he left some money. Yami never received it as he could not be found.

  In Aden, Rimbaud signed a further year’s contract with his firm, and by the end of it had saved a capital of £500. He decided to invest it in arms and ammunition, like most of the other Red Sea traders. Fortunes were being made at this time, selling obsolete arms bought cheaply in Europe to Emperor John and to Menelik, King of Shoa. As an arms trafficker, however, Rimbaud was a total failure. He set out from Tajoura in October, 1886, after many months of waiting, with a caravan of a mere thousand rifles. His partner died leaving hungry creditors who pursued him everywhere. Menelik was not in Ankober, his capital, so that Rimbaud was obliged to follow him to Entoto. When at last he was received in audience he found in Menelik a hard bargainer for the king had taken Harar and obtained the weapons in its arsenal. Furthermore, he had been informed that a large arms caravan was on its way from the coast. Rimbaud decided to cut his losses on an expedition which cost him 60 per cent of his capital and set out for Harar. He was the first foreign trader to take a caravan by the route which Menelik had opened and which the Jibouti-Diredawa-Addis Ababa railway was later to follow.

  Menelik had given Rimbaud a draught-order asking Ras Makonnen to pay it in Harar as he himself was short of ready money. The Ras, who had been made governor of the Province, paid Rimbaud and a sympathy developed between them which lasted many years. When Rimbaud lay dying in Marseilles, Ras Makonnen wrote to him :

  " How are you ? As for me, thank God, I am well ! I learnt with horror and compassion that they had been obliged to take off your leg. From what you tell me, I gather that the operation has been successful. I thank God for that ! I hear with pleasure that you are proposing to come back to Harar, to resume your business. I am glad of that. Yes ! Come back quickly, and in good health. I am always your friend.

  "—Written in Harar, July 12, 1891. " Ras Makonnen.* "

  Back in Aden Rimbaud offered articles to the Societe de Geographie but they refused on the ground that his fee was too high. Instead they were willing to publish for him, free of charge, any memoir he might care to write describing his travels. But Rimbaud was concerned more with keeping alive than with fame. He considered the possibility of becoming a war correspondent of a French newspaper in the then pending Italo-Ethiopian War, which terminated with the Battle of Adowa in 1896. With his experience of the country and his know­ledge of local conditions, he was well qualified, far better than the ordinary reporters who were sent out from France, but there was no one in Paris to support his application.

  For ten months he struggled on in Aden, but as a result of the war, normal trade was at a standstill. The only prosperous business was gun-running. By this time Rimbaud had scarcely any capital but he obtained a licence from the French Government and used it to go into partnership with an important firm of traffickers in arms (nominally coffee, hide and musk exporters) Tian and Savoure of Aden. This firm was known to deal also in another forbidden " commodity " namely slaves.

  By May, 1888, Rimbaud was back in Harar as agent for this firm. It must be assumed that in the course of his duties Rimbaud was in charge of caravans which travelled up from the coast with arms and ammunition, and returned with slaves. Although he protests in letters home that his conduct is irreproachable (November 10, 1888), Alfred Ilg, Menelik’s Swiss adviser, sends him the following letter (August 23, 1890) : " As to the question of slaves, please excuse me, I cannot consider the matter ; I have never bought any and I do not wish to start now. I would not do it even on my own account." Dr. Enid Starkie in her book " Rimbaud in Abyssinia," states that there is proof in a report to the Foreign Office in London from the Italian Foreign Minister that Rimbaud accompanied a slave caravan from Shoa to Ambos via Harar—a caravan which went under French protection to Tajoura. She also points out that Rim­baud was not the only one ; every French trader who wished to trade with the interior was dependent on the goodwill of the Abu Bekr family which controlled all the trade routes from the coast and lived chiefly by the slave traffic. Neither Menelik nor the French were strong enough to suppress it at this time.

  Menelik in a letter to the European Powers had early protested that he could and would suppress the slave trade if Ethiopia’s seaports were restored to Ethiopian control. Menelik also complained of the arras traffic which was operated through the ports held by the Moslem and European Powers. The arms purchased by the slave traders facilitated their hideous traffic in human beings.

  The friendship which after his death, the friends of Arthur Rim­baud alleged had grown up between him and Ras Makonnen could certainly not have existed had the Ras been aware that Rimbaud was taking part in the slave traffic from which some degenerate Europeans still managed to profit, though it was officially repudiated in their own countries.

  If the evidence cited against Rimbaud is authentic, one is obliged to conclude that whatever may be his merits as a poet, he was sadly tacking in character as a man.—Editor, " Ethiopia Observer."

  Once again Rimbaud travelled widely in Harar Province collecting coffee, hides, ivory and musk, "etc., etc.," as he puts it in letters home and selling chiefly arms—clandestinely at first, openly later when other Europeans were competing.

  After the vicissitudes of the past years Harar seemed to Rimbaud a kinder place than it had appeared on previous visits. He was glad to be back in a refreshing climate in a city which bore some slight resemblance to European towns. His facility for languages and his absence of racial arrogance made him popular with the local population. He was kind and generous, often when he knew he was being cheated. " The people of Harar," he wrote home in February, 1890, " are neither more stupid nor greater scoundrels than the white niggers of countries alleged to be civilized. They are merely of another kind, that is all. They are, if anything, less nasty and can, in certain cases, show gratitude and fidelity. It is only a question of being human with them."

  When he had been in Harar one year Menelik became Emperor. Prosperity returned to the Harari traders, but only ten foreigners remained in the town. It is probably at this time that Rimbaud became Ras Makon-nen’s friend. Ras Makonnen must have appreciated Rimbaud’s intelligence and witty conversation which is praised by several travellers who enjoyed his hospitality ; and Rimbaud must have felt less lonely intellectually in a town whose Governor was so cultured and humane a person. The fact that no reference is made to his friend­ship with the Ras in Rimbaud’s letters to his family does not prove that such a friendship did not exist. Although Rimbaud wrote vivid reports to his firm and articles for the press on life in Harar and its province, his letters to his mother and sister are mostly devoted to his financial affairs, requests for books, a camera, medicine, etc. They are full of complaints about the harshness of his life and the lack of news from his corres­pondents. And yet the house he had now built for him­self became a kind of foreign visitors’ club ; he for­warded mail, arranged camel transport, kept money on deposit. Robecchi Bricchetti, the Italian explorer, spent many nights as his guest ; so did Count Telecki, the Hungarian traveller, on his way back from West Kenya, and Jules Borelli, the French explorer, who became Rimbaud’s friend.

  In February, 1891, Rimbaud began to be seriously disturbed by a pain in his right knee-cap which he had ignored for many months, thinking it was rheumatism. Finally it began to swell and became intolerable. In great pain he wound up business and had himself carried to the coast. For thirty hours he was without food or drink, for sixteen days torrential Tain beat down on his stretcher. From Zeyla he crossed to Aden and from there to Marseilles, where his leg was amputated. On November 10, 1891, he died, a broken and disappointed man. Twenty years had passed since the poet had last spoken.


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