My life is gone, I’m no more than an immobile trunk.
Rimbaud, 10 July, 1891
All that we got is things we have lost.
I cannot now remember where I read the item about Rimbaud’s trunk: not the belted malle made of brown leather that is in the museum at Charlesville, the one he packed his cutlery (knife, fork and spoon) in when he went home to France to die; nor the trompe of one of those elephants whose phantom ivory he tried, in his last letter, to dispatch to Cairo; but the suitcase full of manuscripts that was . . . discovered in Dire Dawa, just north of Harar, when Allied troops entered the town in 1942. If they were not of the Gideon Force then they would have been men of the OETA, the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration, mostly seconded from the Colonial Office or from British East African dependencies, and more like looters than liberators: soldiers sailors embezzlers from ancient empires / deserters from strange legions . . . freeloaders and quislings . . . The OETA itself was pettifogging, perfidious, and penurious . . . rotten from top to bottom. It negotiated sweetheart deals with the politically suspect, continued fascist racial policies, organized courts and police forces, introduced the East African shilling as legal tender. We drove out one white man only to replace him with another, Ethiops complained. If this was the result of everything, then what was wrong with the Italians? All arms were requisitioned to stop them falling into the hands of the blacks. High ranking civil and military officers were deported to Kenya, many thousands of prisoners of war followed or were sent on to Uganda, Tanganyika and the Rhodesias to build roads and do public works. Others—mechanics, labourers, painters and the like—melted away into the countryside where the local people, who showed these artisans no animosity, sheltered them. Guerrilla bands, for a while, contended. That same year, on 31 January, Ethiopia was belatedly recognised by the British as a sovereign nation again and Ras Tafari Makonnen, His Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia, Elect of God, who returned from exile the previous year, was proclaimed once more in his own country. He left in May, 1936 via Djibouti by sea for Haifa and thence to Jerusalem where the Ethiopian royal family kept a house and where, as a direct lineal descendent of King Solomon and Queen Makeda, Empress of Axum, aka the Queen of Sheba, he had very long antecedents. He continued by way of Gibraltar to Geneva to address the League of Nations which, however, imposed only the weakest of sanctions against El Duce’s bloody conquest of the ancient land. Haile Selassie spent the rest of his exile, somewhat improbably, in Bath, where he bought a residence called Fairfield House—later donated to the city and now an old people’s home. Early on the morning of 5 May 1941 the returning Emperor motored into the town of Entotto just out of Addis Ababa and paused to pray at the Orthodox Ethiopian Church of Mary. Today is the day on which we defeated our enemy, he said. Therefore, when we say let us rejoice with our hearts, let not our rejoicing be in any other way but in the spirit of Christ. Do not return evil for evil. Do not indulge in the atrocities which the enemy has been practicing . . . As he entered the northern suburbs of Addis rows of fascist soldiers and police stood along the road smart and armed, saluting. The Emperor’s own escort—from the Gideon force under Colonel Orde Wingate, amongst whose officers was Wilfred Thesiger—was a collection of battered, dusty vehicles, containing a number of khaki-clad figures, rankless and ribbonless . . . and not a weapon or a flag amongst it. The Italians gave way to a densely packed guard of Arbegnochs, Patriots, whose wives and daughters ululated in delirious welcome of their revenant monarch. Later the following year, on 27 August 1942, Haile Selassie abolished slavery throughout the empire and imposed severe penalties, including death, for slave trading.
Did Rimbaud traffic in slaves as well as guns? Even if he had not it is unlikely he could have existed, even flourished, as a trader in Africa for ten years without some degree of complicity: Although (he) never tried to profit directly from the slave trade, it is quite clear that no European could do business in Abyssinia without it. Does it matter? A more interesting question: What might have been in the trunk? Scholars would no doubt hope to find there that jewel beyond price, an autobiography; one that would settle, definitively, all those vexed questions of Rimbaldian studies e.g.: was the young voyant indeed raped by a group of drunken militiamen in the Caserne de Babylone during the Commune? Did he compose the Illuminations before or after, or both before and after, or before, during and after Une Saison en Enfer? Why did he abandon poetry? Perhaps there might also have been therein an actual refutation of poetry, a disquisition upon the one word which is otherwise, in later life, his only known comment (with a snarl) upon the subject: rinçures. Which is cognate with English rinsings and can mean dishwater, slops and even bad wine. All these are so preposterous as to make their mention derisory. The trunk, if it existed, more likely contained notes from books whose titles we already know from the correspondence and which are exclusively non-fiction and severely practical in intent: dictionaries, explorers’ journals, photographic manuals, works on hydrography, mineralogy, trigonometry . . . the latest annuaire of the Bureau de Longitude. Interleaved with meticulously filed correspondence and fastidiously kept account books that included veritable lists of precise things: Cotton cloth, closely woven, warm, thick, with the strength of light sailcloth, striped lengthwise with red or blue bands 5 cm wide and 20 cm apart . . . 50 tassels of braided cotton, red or green . . . 20 metres of long carpet fringes, of the same colour and the same cotton, to hang in front of horses’ chests. His caravans set off for the coast, one of his biographers says, carrying ivory, hides, coffee, gold (in rings or ingots, ‘from very far away’), incense and musk of civet, priced according to the degree of adulteration; those that came up were like travelling warehouses: Indian cotton and Massachusetts shirting, knitted skirts and tunics, goatskin bags and string necklaces, flannel, merino, velvet, silk and damask, gold braid, novelty buttons and pearls . . . rice, sugar, butter, salt and flour; tobacco, quinine, oil and candles; scissors and rope; socks and sandals; guns and ammunition . . . saucepans, goblets, baking sheets and glass carafes ‘made to my own design’ for drinking the mead called tedj. One included a bale containing fifteen packets of ruled notepaper, of which a colleague remarked selling notepads to people who can’t write and don’t even know the secret uses of such implements is really asking too much. He himself, the ex-poet, was observed always to be writing but what he wrote is unclear: letters and accounts, most likely; journals, perhaps, but they would be factual itineraries not intimate diaries. His Rapport Sur L’Ogadine that was read out to the Société de Geographie on February 1884 and published by them in Paris later that year; his 1887 letter, 5000 words long, written in the Hôtel d’Europe in Cairo, to Le Bosphore égyptien that was printed by that newspaper in August; his itinerary of his journey, with the French explorer Jules Borelli, from Entotto to Harar which was likewise read out before the Société de Geographie on 4 November 1887; the lost book on Abyssinia of which these three items were, perhaps, anticipatory, even contributory. The Abyssinian book, if found, would tell us many things we do not know but it would not tell us anything we might want to find out about its author. And why should we want to learn these things? They will not illuminate the works that we have nor will they solve the mystery of the man, whose cultivation of the art of obfuscation was as consummate as his trading activities were rigorous, profitable and ultimately enigmatic: what did happen to all the money he made? His authorship, if that word may be used, of the absurdist port city and environs of Djibouti is both contentious and ultimately persuasive; he was a colonialist par excellence, as the French say; he had comprehensively re-invented himself and the voyant was no longer even a memory. A fragment of literary conversation from Cairo, 1887, nevertheless survives; he says, perhaps to Jules Borelli’s brother Octave, editor of Le Bosphore égyptien , that the Villon-Baudelaire-Verlaine poetic lineage is defunct; the future is with prose and the really important work has been done in the novel, post-Balzac and Flaubert. And after that? We are left with nothing. And everything.
pics : the railway station at Dira Dawa; Menelik II, Emperor of Abyssinia, 1889 – 1913