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Arthur Rimbaud and King Menelik of Shoa

From 1875 onwards, Rimbaud completely gave up the practice of poetry, he became ‘a living amputee of poetry’, as Stéphane Mallarmé put it. Having left Europe, he crossed the Suez Canal and after looking for work ‘in all the ports of the Red Sea’, he disembarked in Aden in August 1880 and ended up hired by a coffee trading house, Mazeran, Viannay, Bardey & Co. From the end of November 1880 to December 1881, then from April 1883 to March 1884, he lived on the other side of the Red Sea, in the town of Harar, in Ethiopia – in what was then called Abyssinia. 

In Harar Rimbaud worked for the same firm, which had opened a branch in Africa. He had become an employee and worked as a merchant. Then in April 1884 he was back in Aden, after closing the trading post in Harar because the company had gone bankrupt (although it soon resumed business under a different name).

Aden, Agency Mazeran, Viannay, Bardey & co. Album Bardey, Musée Arthur Rimbaud, Charleville-Mézières.

Harar, Residence of Raouf Pacha, which serves as a warehouse for the Bardey trading house. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In May 1885, Arthur Rimbaud was terribly bored in Aden and considered leaving the Bardey firm for good. In a letter to his family, he wrote: ‘We are in our spring drying ovens, our skins are dripping, our stomachs are sour, our brains are confused, business is terrible, the news is bad’.  He dreams of new starts: Tonkin, Panama, Zanzibar… the latter a place so many times evoked, but never reached. Aden is unbearable. Then suddenly a new business opportunity arises: to associate with a Frenchman who is close to King Menelik of Shoa and who intends to deliver him a caravan of arms. 

Rimbaud therefore broke his contract in September 1885, before the scheduled end, unsurprisingly perhaps – and without notice – to embark on a new adventure. It will be with a rather dubious merchant, Pierre Labatut, a Gascon, a former peddler in France, who has his contacts at the court of Menelik, and who proposed to Rimbaud to deliver to the King of Shoa some outdated piston rifles and ammunition. The deal seems juicy: the arms, bought in Belgium, will be resold at a profit once delivered to the high plateaux of Abyssinia, where the King of Shoa buys everything he can find to arm his troops. Menelik wants to give himself the means to defeat the kings of the neighbouring kingdoms, he has territorial conquest in mind, and aspires to impose himself as Negusse Negest, the king of kings of Ethiopia.

It will take Rimbaud ten months, from December 1885 to October 1886, to form his gaflah (caravan) in Tadjourah (in modern-day Republic of Djibouti), and four months to lead it alone to Shoa. Labatut had meanwhile succumbed to throat cancer and died. Then Paul Soleillet, a French explorer also in Tadjoura and with whom Rimbaud is thinking of associating, also died of heart failure in a street in Aden. From Tadjourah, on September 15, 1886, just before leaving for the Shoa, he wrote to his family: ‘I am obliged to leave anyway; and I will leave alone, Soleillet (the other caravan I was to join) being dead’.

The journey begins with the crossing of endless deserts. In his ‘Letter to the Director of the Egyptian Bosphorus’ he will describe them as ‘Horrible roads reminiscent of the supposed horror of lunar landscapes’. We know nothing about Rimbaud’s anabasis (expedition up from the coast), except that the journey lasted twice as long as necessary and that he undertook this perilous journey towards the Shoa highlands without being supported by an armed troop, as was the custom. One can think, like the Afar poet Chehem Watta, that this adventure ranked amongst Rimbaud’s most adventurous, vivid and intimate experiences of Africa.

 King’s house or Ghebbi in Ankober. Photograph by Léon Chefneux, the 1880s. Musée Arthur Rimbaud, Charleville-Mézières.

The Ankober peak today. Photo © H. Fontaine, 2019.

The caravan reached Farré, the bridgehead of the caravan tracks going to the Shoa, in February 1887, only to encounter a major setback. Rimbaud comes across the king’s intendant, in charge of examining the contents of any arriving caravan. Rimbaud regards this visitation as a very unwelcome development, but it is only the prelude to other setbacks. ‘This sycophant of Azzaze, who arrived in Farré with his donkeys as I rode out with my camels, had immediately insinuated to me, after the greetings, that the Frangui (foreigner), in whose name I was arriving, had a huge account with him, and he seemed to be asking me for the whole caravan as a pledge. I calmed his ardour, temporarily, by offering him a telescope of my own, and a few bottles of Morton’s pills. And I sent him later what really seemed to me to be his due, but he was bitterly disillusioned and was always very hostile towards me; among other things, he prevented the other sycophant, the Abouna (Father), from paying me a load of sultanas which I brought him to make the little wine for the [Roman Catholic] masses.’

The azage Wolde Tzadek and his shield holder. Photograph by Léon Chefneux, the 1880s. Musée Arthur Rimbaud, Charleville-Mézières.

Le Tour du Monde, « Voyage au Shoa - Abyssinie méridionale : 1884-1888 » by Henry Audon.

We are fortunate to have a series of photographic prints with captions, which are kept by two institutions: the Arthur Rimbaud Museum in Charleville-Mézières and the Centro di Ricerca e Archiviazione della Fotografia in Spilimbergo (Italy), whose curators I would like to thank. These photographs, which most probably come from the material needed to make the engravings for the publication of an article in the periodical Le Tour du Monde, show us the landscapes Rimbaud crossed. They also present some portraits, among which the one of the azage Wolde Tzadek and his shield carrier, who Rimbaud met on his arrival in Farré, before reaching Ankober (then capital of the kingdom of Menelik). 

Portrait of Léon Chefneux in the early 1880s. © Musée d’ethnographie de l’université de Zurich, a detail of VMZ_346_17_021a.

They are photographs made by Léon Chefneux, an adventurer of Romanian origin (he later became a naturalised French citizen) who arrived in Ethiopia in 1878. Chefneux was to play a very important role with King Menelik in his dealings with Europe; he became his chargé d’affaires. Together with the Swiss Alfred Ilg, he will be in charge of the construction of the railway linking Djibouti to the capital of the Shoah. In the meantime, he photographed for the explorers Paul Soleillet and Henry Audon. His photographs illustrate the publications of the two travellers: Obock, le Shoa, le Kaffa, récit d’une exploration commerciale en Éthiopie and Voyage au Shoa - Abyssinie méridionale : 1884-1888.

Self-portrait of Jules Borelli as an Ethiopian warrior. DR.

When he learns of the arrival of Arthur Rimbaud, the French explorer Jules Borelli immediately goes to Ankober. Borelli was engaged in his own scientific exploration of Ethiopia (he stayed there for three years and two months and published in 1890 a large book of 520 pages, illustrated with engravings and maps: Éthiopie méridionale. Journal de mon voyage aux pays Amhara, Oromo et Sidama, septembre 1885 à novembre 1888). He had probably met Rimbaud in Tadjourah or on the shores of the Gulf of Aden when they were both preparing their caravans a few months before. It could well be that Borelli had not paid much attention to Rimbaud at that time. On the other hand, when he met him in Ankober, the encounter was obviously one of importance. Borelli gauges at a glance the situation and the qualities of the explorer. ‘In Ankober, on Wednesday 9 February: Mr. Rimbaud, a French trader, arrives from Toudjourrah with his caravan. Trouble had not spared him along the way. Always the same programme: bad behaviour, greed and the betrayal of men, hassles and ambushes of Adal, deprivation of water, exploitation by camel drivers. Our compatriot lived in the Harrar. He knows Arabic and speaks Amharigna and Oromo. He is tireless. His aptitude for languages, great strength of will and unfailing patience, place him among the accomplished travellers.’

In Ankober, unfortunately, Arthur Rimbaud did not meet King Menelik who had gone to Harar to fight Emir Abdullahï in order to gain his submission and seize the city. Rather, Rimbaud is confronted with the claims of the late Pierre Labatut’s Ethiopian concubine who, supported by a Frenchman, Alphonse Hénon, wants her share in the sale of the caravan.

Photographic portrait of Menelik, King of Shoa by Hénon. © Musée d’ethnographie de l’université de Zurich VMZ_346_01_004.

It is worthwhile to linger for a moment on this Hénon. The second lieutenant of cavalry in the 2nd Hussards, Alphonse Louis Hénon, was granted leave from the Minister of War to accompany (as a photographer and a topographer) a ‘scientific and commercial mission’ to the Shoa in January 1883, accompanied by M. Aubry, a mining engineer, and Dr Hamon, both of whom were sent by the Ministry of Public Instruction. Hénon stayed in Ethiopia until the end of 1887. He returned to France with topographical surveys (maps and reports) and an important collection of photographs (more than 500 glass plates). In the years 1883-84 he took several photographs of the King of Shoa and his generals. In particular, he took what I consider to be the most beautiful photographic portrait of King Menelik. Topped with a white muslin headband and a large black felt hat with wide edges, the king wears a burnous over a shirt of fine white cotton. He is holding a silk scarf in his hand. Seen in a three-quarter profile, Menelik looks to the right. Hénon had given the Swiss engineer Alfred Ilg a countertype (a copy of a negative) of this remarkable photograph, as it is now in the collections of the Museum of Ethnography of the University of Zurich, in an exceptional state of preservation. This is a real find, as the main part of the photographic production of Hénon (a talented photographer even if he turned out to be an unsavoury character) is unfortunately lost, and only survives in the form of a few engravings reproduced in the press of the time.

The King of Shoa, Menelik, surrounded by his generals. Engraving after a photograph by Hénon.

So, Arthur Rimbaud left Ankober to go to Entotto, a second royal establishment, where he witnessed the triumphal return of the king. ‘He entered Antotto preceded by musicians sounding at the top of their voices the Egyptian trumpets found at the Harar, and followed by his troop and his booty, including two Krupp cannons each carried by eighty men!’ Unfortunately for Rimbaud, Menelik’s victory did not serve his interests because the king had returned from Harar with a large cache of arms taken from the arsenals with which the British had equipped the Egyptians when they used to rule the city. And the king was no longer willing to pay for the delivery of the 2,040 old capsule rifles and 60,000 Remington cartridges he had requested from Labatut. In addition, the king claimed that this Labatut owed him money, and so he subtracted this sum from the amount he finally agreed to pay. It must be said that without the intervention of Menelik’s adviser, the Swiss Alfred Ilg, of whom we spoke earlier, Arthur Rimbaud would very likely have departed empty-handed. Alfred Ilg, like Léon Chefneux (and a little later Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet) was one of the few Europeans who won the confidence of the king and became his adviser. According to his biographer Conrad Keller (Alfred Ilg, sein Leben und sein Wirken als schweizerischer Kulturbote in Abessinien, Huber, Frauenfeld, 1918), Ilg arrived in the Entotto region in early 1879, accompanied by two compatriots, Zimmermann and Appenzeller, a mechanic and a carpenter. Responding to a request from Menelik to recruit European technicians to modernise Ethiopia (a request which passed through the Aden branch of the Swiss coffee exporter Furrer & Escher), Alfred Ilg, a young engineer from the Zurich Polytechnic Institute, set sail for Ethiopia in May 1878. He was twenty-four years old; he did not know then that he would spend the next twenty-eight years in Africa. After being held up for four months in Zeila, the three companions did not reach Ankober until the beginning of 1879. Ilg will remember this when he tries to convince Menelik, like several French merchants and adventurers, to build a railway to link the capital to the sea. Borelli described him in his diary (Antotto, 1 October 1886): ‘Mr. Ilg is a distinguished engineer who was seduced by a life of adventure’. Alfred Ilg was born the same year as Arthur Rimbaud, in 1854. Neither of them had any capital. Both were fatherless. Mutual esteem, if not friendship, will bind these two unfortunates together.

Portrait of Alfred Ilg in the early 1880s. Coll. H. Fontaine. 

Alfred Ilg thus took up Rimbaud’s defence. They will later become business partners: Ilg settled in Entotto and Rimbaud in Harar. From 1888 until Rimbaud’s departure from Harar in April 1891, a correspondence began between the two, which was published in 1965 by the late Basle-based academic Jean Voellmy. Voellmy writes that Ilg was for Rimbaud, who lived among the natives in the only company of traders and adventurers, ‘a kind of promoter’ and that ‘the engineer embodied for him the powerful and rich man of science of which he had then made his idol’ (Rimbaud’s letter of 6 May 1883). 

As often with Rimbaud’s time in Africa, we have to resort to the surviving testimonies of his contemporaries to know and interpret most of the events in his life. He is himself stingy with comments and descriptions, or else we do not have access to his notes, as it seems that he wrote a lot. Not poetry anymore, but notes in view, it seems, of a work of an ethnographic nature, as we would say today, which he wanted to illustrate with engravings and maps. Let us not forget that he was himself a photographer for a short time and that he had also ordered equipment for topographical surveys from France. In the meantime, Rimbaud’s meeting with King Menelik was not a great success. And one can read in his correspondence some rather sharp comments about the Ethiopian sovereign. The British considered him to be the most intelligent French spy in the region. He was certainly a keen observer of the situation and of the rivalries which then opposed the colonial powers: France, England and Italy in particular. After his somewhat unsuccessful arms sale, he will go to Cairo to rest. It is there that he published the famous 'Letter to the Director of the Egyptian Bosphorus' in which he recounts his journey from the Gulf of Aden to the Choa Highlands and his final return to Harar by a new road through the Tchercher Mountains.

I should also tell you how, walking with Jules Borelli for twenty days on that road between Entotto and Harar in order to get paid for a credit note that King Menelik had given him in the name of his cousin Makonnen as a payment for his caravan of weapons, Rimbaud may have regained a taste for photography. But that is another story.



Hugues Fontaine,  Paris, September 29, 2020.

Posted on:Wednesday 11th November, 2020