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Arthur Rimbaud: a sensitive 19th century poet turned mercenary & gun runner in Ethiopia

Nikola Budanovic

One of the most notable and certainly the most controversial French literary figures of the Symbolist movement, Arthur Rimbaud became the embodiment of the “haunted poet” in the somewhat decadent second half of the 19th century.

Hailed as the enfant terrible of the literary scene, the young poet managed to write all of his lyrical masterpieces by the age of 18. Rimbaud was deemed a force of nature―one that couldn’t care less for the conventions of his time, which was a trait that landed him many enemies.

His love affair with another French poet of the era, Paul Verlaine, was marked as turbulent, to say the least. Their relationship ended rather violently, with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the wrist with a revolver in Bruxelles.

Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud at the age of 17, by Étienne Carjat, c. 1872.

Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud at the age of 17, by Étienne Carjat, c. 1872.

But those are all episodes from his life that are far better known to general public. The mysterious period of the poet’s life adventure began after the above mentioned incident, which took place in Belgium in 1873.

Verlaine ended up in jail for wounding Rimbaud, while Rimbaud returned home to write his only prose work, titled A Season in Hell, a book that paved the road for modernist authors of the 20th century.

In 1875, the rebellious 21-year-old who had turned the Parisian literary scene upside-down decided on a radical turn of his own, proclaiming that he had finished writing forever. After spending time in Europe, almost crossing it on foot, he jumped a ship and sailed to the Dutch East Indies, where he enlisted as a mercenary for the colonial army.

Plaque erected on the centenary of Rimbaud’s death at the place where he was shot by Verlaine in Brussels Author: Tim Lambrechts (Quasium) CC BY-SA 3.0

Plaque erected on the centenary of Rimbaud’s death at the place where he was shot by Verlaine in Brussels Author: Tim Lambrechts (Quasium) CC BY-SA 3.0

The strict military life was far from ideal for the gentle poet, so he decided to bail after 13 days of service. He somehow managed to escape from the Sumatran jungle, under constant threat of being shot for desertion, and caught a ship back to his homeland.

From France, he headed to Hamburg, Germany, where he got a job as a circus cashier. He was constantly on the run; it seems his demons forbade him to spend too much time at one place. Rimbaud next moved to Cyprus, becoming a foreman for a group of construction workers. In Larnaca, Cyprus, he fell sick to typhus and traveled back home to France, in order to recover.

But he wouldn’t stay there for long. His heart was yearning for more adventures. Africa was calling him further south ― the mysterious and distant land promised many riches for those who dare.

Arthur Rimbaud managed to swindle his way into the coffee business in Ethiopia, and after showing a talent for the trade, he wound up in charge of a caravan headed to the almost mythical walled city of Harar.

Rimbaud in Harar in 1883.

Rimbaud in Harar in 1883.

Soon he became an independent merchant who, besides coffee, made a sale or two of used firearms for local bandits and shepherds.

Harar was sort of a merchant’s paradise in Ethiopia, before today’s capital, Addis Ababa, gained commercial dominance in the late 19th century. It was also the place in which, allegedly, the first cultivated plants of coffee originated.

Doing business with coffee was profitable, but it lacked the adventure Rimbaud sought. The road led him east, to the coast of the Red Sea.

It came to light many years later that the poet was in the middle of a murky gun-smuggling deal with some local tribe chiefs. In 1885 he wrote to his mother, complaining about his situation, but also uncovering his newest scheme.

Ethiopia was going through a turbulent period in its history. Egypt under Isma’il Pasha was constantly threatening to expand its lands deep into Ethiopian territory, while both the British and the French developed certain interests in the country on the Horn of Africa. On top of that, an emerging colonial power ― Italy ― was gaining its momentum in dreams of imperial conquest.

Bust of Rimbaud. Musée Arthur Rimbaud, Charleville-Mézières

Bust of Rimbaud. Musée Arthur Rimbaud, Charleville-Mézières

There was a big profit to be made in guns, and Rimbaud knew this. That is why he acquired more than 2,000 antique percussion riffles from Europe, together with around 60,000 cartridges, in the hope of selling them for five times the price he bought them for. The poet than ventured a journey with two partners to deliver the guns to the city of Entoto, near the modern-day capital, Addis Ababa.

He struck a deal with Menelik II, who was then the king of Shoa, one of Ethiopia’s most powerful kingdoms, and soon rose to power as the Emperor of Ethiopia, one that would successfully defend his land against all invaders.

Rimbaud, on the other hand, wasn’t so fortunate. The whole deal became a fiasco―both of his partners died, and the purchase was prolonged for 11 months, which the poet spent in solitude, in Djibouti, waiting for his permissions to transport firearms and hoping for the financial prize to pull him out of his miserable position.

After another four months of dangerous journey through the treacherous East African desert, he finally reached the city of Entoto, only to be welcomed by his late partners’ creditors who demanded part of the profit for themselves.

Rimbaud’s grave in Charleville. The inscription reads Priez pour lui (“Pray for him”) CC BY 2.5

Rimbaud’s grave in Charleville. The inscription reads Priez pour lui (“Pray for him”) CC BY 2.5

Rimbaud was desperate. The creditors nibbled at his earnings, leaving almost nothing for him. At the end of his unfortunate business, he proclaimed:

“I have emerged from the deal with a 60 percent loss on my capital, not to mention 21 months of atrocious exertions spent liquidating this wretched affair.”

Afterwards, in 1888, he returned to Harar, where he was loved and respected by the governor of the city, Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael, and whose son Tafari would become Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930.

Arthur Rimbaud was one of the rare foreigners to enjoy such trust and respect in East Africa. He was the first European ever to oversee the export of coffee from Harar, and the third European to ever set foot in the city at the time.

Read another story from us: Basil Zaharoff, the merchant of death who became Europe’s richest man

In 1891, the poet who said he cared least about his poetry died penniless in Marseille, after losing his leg to bone cancer. In the last days of his life, he was attempting to return to Africa, but his health further deteriorated and death caught up with him.

Arthur Rimbaud was only 37 years old at the time, but he had already changed history some 16 years before, when his poetry gained a large following during his absence from France. Today, he is considered one of the pioneering authors of modern literature―one who blasted through this world, leaving us forever in debt for his accomplishments.