wrote this letter to a Cairo newspaper called The Bosphore Égyptien
when he visited Egypt in 1887, four years before his death. It is the
longest known work ever written by Rimbaud after he parted ways with the
"decadent poets" of Paris to become a businessman/gun-runner in Abyssinia,
which is now Ethiopia. This work was written in Rimbaud's post-poet days,
when he strove to disassociate himself from his prior work (which he considered
foolish) by concentrating on subjects he considered more objective, such
as anthropology, commerce, geography, etc. Contrary to popular belief,
Rimbaud did not stop writing in Africa--but he did quit writing poetry.
work has never been published in the English language--but now it makes
its cyber debut in the Exquisite Corpse. This translation is part
of a collection of obscure and previously untranslated works by Rimbaud
entitled From Absinthe to Abyssinia, which will be published by
Creative Arts in 2001.
Having returned from a journey in Abyssinia
and Harar, I would like to call your attention to the following notes
on the actual state of things in that region. I believe they will contain
some previously unreleased information. As for the opinions noted here,
they come from my seven years of living in the region.
Since this is about a circular journey between
Obock, Shoa, Harar and Zeila, allow me to explain that I went down to
Tadjoura at the beginning of last year with the goal of forming a caravan
to Shoa there.
My caravan was made up of a few thousand
percussion rifles and an order for tools and various supplies for King
Ménélik. It was held up for an entire year in Tadjoura by
the Danakils, who deal with all travelers by opening their road only after
having stolen everything they can from them. Another caravan, which disembarked
from Tadjoura with some of my merchandise, took fifteen months to get
underway. One thousand Remington rifles brought by the late Soleillet
at the same time are still down there, after nineteen months, beneath
the only grove of palm trees in the village.
About 60 kilometers from Tadjoura, with
just six quick stops along the way, the caravans descend to the Salted
Lake on horrible roads, like lunar landscapes we can only imagine. It
seems that a French company has actually been formed for the exploitation
of this salt.
Salt does exist on these vast flats, and
is probably quite deep, but no one has ever measured its depth. Analysis
would declare it chemically pure, even though it is found deposited without
filtration on the shores of the lake. Still, it is strongly doubted that
the sale of salt would cover the expenses for the building of a road for
the establishment of a Decauville between this beach and that of the Gulf
of Goubbet-Kérab. The expenses for personnel and labor would be
excessively high, and workers would have to be imported because Danakil
Bedouins do not work. And then there would be the maintenance of armed
troops to protect the work.
To return to the question of commercial
outlets, it should be noted that the saline of Sheik Othman, produced
near Aden by an Italian company under exceptionally advantageous conditions,
has apparently not yet found a market. Mountains of salt are still in
The Ministry of the Navy has granted this
concession to the petitioners who have conducted trade in Shoa in the
past, on condition that they procure the agreement of the interested chiefs
on the coast and in the interior. The government has put a tax on every
ton and has a fixed rate on unlimited exploitation by the natives. The
interested chiefs are: the Sultan of Tadjoura, who would be the hereditary
proprietor of a few mountains of rubble near the lake (he is quite disposed
to sell his rights); the Chief of the Debné tribes, who is on our
road from the lake to Hérer; Sultan Loïta, who earns a monthly
payment of 150 thalers from the government for bothering travelers as
little as possible; Sultan Hanfaré of Alussa, who can find salt
anywhere, but pretends to have the right everywhere among the Danakils;
and finally Ménélik, who the Debnés and others annually
bring thousands of camels to, for thousands of tons of salt. Ménélik
has made demands upon the government after being warned about the way
the company works, and learning of the gift of the concession. But the
part reserved in the concession is sufficient for the business of the
Debné tribe and for the culinary needs of Shoa, since grains of
salt do not pass as money in Abyssinia.
Our road is called the Gobât Road,
from the name of its fifteenth trading station, where our allies the Debnés
usually graze their herds. They are about 23 stops from Hérer,
through the most terrifying territory this side of Africa, which is highly
dangerous due to the fact that the Debnés, the most wretched foreign
tribes using the road for transport, are eternally at war with the Moudeïto
and Assa-Imara tribes on one hand, and with the Issa Somalis on the other.
In Hérer the Danakils and the Issas
generally graze their herds without any land disputes in pastures at an
altitude of around 800 meters, at about 60 kilometers from the foot of
the plateau of the Galla Itous.
From Hérer, one can get to the Hawash
River in eight or nine days. Ménélik has decided to establish
an armed post on the plains of Hérer for the protection of the
caravans; this post would be linked to those of the Abyssinians in the
On the road from Hérer, Dedjatch
Mékonène, representing the King in Harar, has shipped from
Harar to Shoa 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition, and other munitions that
the English commissaries ordered to be abandoned for the profit of Emir
Abdoullahi during the Egyptian evacuation.
This whole road was impressively constructed
for the first time by M. Jules Borelli on his recent trip to Harar in
May 1886. It is geodesically connected to the topography and is parallel
to the Itous Mountains.
Arriving at the Hawash, one is stupefied
to think back on the canal-digging plans of certain explorers. Poor Soleillet
had a special boat built in Nantes for this purpose. The Hawash is a small
winding channel, obstructed every step of the way by trees and rocks.
I have crossed it at several points hundreds of kilometers apart, and
it is absolutely impossible to descend, even during floods. Furthermore,
it is bordered on all sides by forests and deserts, far from the commercial
centers, and it never branches off with any road. Ménélik
had two bridges built on the Hawash; one on the road from Entotto to Gouragné,
the other on the road from Ankober to Harar, made by the Itous. These
are simple foot-bridges built from tree trunks, and are meant for the
passage of troops during the rains and floods. They are remarkable works
- Upon arriving in Shoa, all expenses paid,
the transport of 100 camel-loads of my merchandise cost me 8000 thalers;
that's 80 thalers per camel, for a distance of only 500 kilometers. This
proportion is not consistent with any of the other African-caravan roads,
yet I traveled with the utmost economy, and a lot of experience in these
regions. In all respects, this road is disastrous, and has unfortunately
been replaced by the road from Zeila to Harar and from Harar to Shoa,
built by the Itous.
- Ménélik was still in the
Harar area when I reached Farri, the point of arrival and departure for
the caravans, and the outer limits of the Danakil race. News soon arrived
in Ankober of the victory of the King and his entry into Harar, along
with the announcement of his return, which took about twenty days. He
entered Entotto preceded by musicians blasting Egyptian trumpets obtained
in Harar, and his troops and booty followed, along with two Krupp cannons
hauled by 80 men each.
For a long time Ménélik has
been intending on capturing Harar, where he believed a formidable arsenal
to be, so warned French and English political representatives on the coast.
In the last few years, the Abyssinian troops who established themselves
there have been regularly ransoming the Itous. Also, ever since the departure
of Pacha Radouan with the Egyptian troops, Emir Abdullaï has been
organizing a small army and has been dreaming of becoming the Mahdi of
the Muslim tribes in central Harar. He wrote to Ménélik
claiming the Hawash frontier and advised him to convert to Islam. When
an Abyssinian trading post was set up a few days away from Harar, the
Emir sent a few cannons and some Turcs were still in his service to disperse
the Abyssinians. The latter were beaten, so Ménélik, irritated,
went by foot from Entotto with about 30,000 warriors. The meeting took
place in Salanko, 60 kilometers west of Harar, where Pacha Nadi had beaten
the Galla tribes of the Méta and the Oborra four years before.
The engagement scarcely lasted a quarter
of an hour. The Emir only had a few hundred Remingtons, and the rest of
his troops fought with no weapons at all. Three thousand warriors were
cut up with sabers and crushed in a blink of an eye by the King of Shoa.
Nearly 200 Sudanese, Egyptians, and Turcs left with Abdullaï after
the Egyptian evacuation, and perished with the Galla and Somali warriors.
This is why it is said that when the Shoan soldiers (who have never killed
any whites) returned, they brought back from Harar the testicles of foreigners.
The Emir was able to flee to Harar, then
left the very same night to seek refuge with the Chief of the Guerry tribe,
to the east of Harar, in the direction of Berbera. Ménélik
arrived in Harar a few days later without resistance. He positioned his
troops outside the city and no pillaging took place. The monarch contented
himself by slapping a fine of 75,000 thalers on the city and the countryside,
and under the Abyssinian Law of War, he confiscated the land and property
of the conquered warriors killed in battle, and took everything he wanted
from the houses of the Europeans and everyone else. He demanded all weapons
and munitions stored in the village, which were previously owned by the
Egyptian government, and returned to Shoa leaving 3000 of his riflemen
camped on a hill near the village. He entrusted the administration of
the village to the uncle of Emir Abdullaï, Ali Abou Béker,
whom the English took prisoner in Aden during the evacuation, and was
later made a slave in the house of his nephew.
Later on it came to pass that the Ali Abou
Béker administration was not agreeable to Mékonène,
Ménélik's chief representative, who descended on the village
with his troops, lodging them in the houses and the mosques, and locking
up Ali before sending him in chains to Ménélik.
The Abyssinians entered the village to reduce
it to rubble, demolishing the houses, ravaging the plantations, and terrorizing
the population as only the negroes know how to do to each other. Meanwhile,
Ménélik continued to send reinforcements from Shoa, followed
by multitudes of slaves, while the number of Abyssinians actually in Harar
probably numbered about 12,000, of which 4000 were riflemen armed with
guns of all types, from Remingtons to flint-locks.
Collecting taxes in the surrounding region
only happens through raids, in which villages are burned, livestock is
stolen, and populations are taken away in slavery. Ever since the Egyptian
government easily stole 80,000 pounds from Harar, the Abyssinian treasury
has been empty. The revenue from the Gallas, customs, trading posts, markets,
and other receipts, are stolen by anyone who can get at them. The people
of the village are immigrating and the Gallas are not farming any more.
In a few months the Abyssinians devoured the sorghum supply left by the
Egyptians, which could have been enough for several years. Famine and
plague are imminent.
The transactions of this market, in which
location is very important, have ceased for the Gallas closest to the
coast. The Abyssinians have prohibited the use of old Egyptian currency
which was used as change for thalers, for the exclusive privilege of a
worthless copper currency. However, in Entotto I have seen some silver
coins which Ménélik had his effigy cast into, which he proposes
to put into circulation in Harar, to settle the issue of currency.
Ménélik would love to keep
Harar in his possession, but he knows that he is incapable of seriously
running the country through collecting revenue, and he knows that the
English have looked unfavorably upon the Abyssinian occupation. They actually
say that the Governor of Aden, who has always worked hard for the development
of the British influence on the Somaliland coast, will do as much as he
can to decide for his government whether to occupy Harar in case the Abyssinians
expel him, which could happen through a famine or complications with the
war in Tigré.
In Harar, from the Abyssinian point of view
in Harar, they think they see the English troops appearing every morning
on the mountain slopes. Mékonène has written to the English
political representatives in Zeila and Berbera not to send any more of
their soldiers to Harar. These representatives made sure each caravan
was escorted by a few indigenous soldiers.
The English government, in response, has
imposed a tax of 5% on all thalers entering Zeila, Boulhar and Berbera.
This measure will contribute to the disappearance of this already very
rare currency in Shoa and Harar, and it is doubtful that it will favor
the import of rupees, which have never been introduced into these regions.
The English, for some reason, have also imposed an import tax of 1% on
Ménélik has been strongly
vexed by the prohibition on bringing in weapons on the coasts of Obock
and Zeila. Since King John dreamed of having his seaport in Massaouah,
Ménélik, even though he has been in exile far off in the
interior, flatters himself by hoping to soon obtain a small outlet on
the Gulf of Aden. Unfortunately, he wrote to the Sultan of Tadjoura after
the establishment of the French protectorate, and proposed selling his
territory to him. Upon his entry into Harar, he declared himself ruler
of all tribes from there to the coast, and ordered his general, Mékonène,
not to miss the opportunity of capturing Zeila. However, since the Europeans
have spoken to Mékonène about artillery and warships, Ménélik's
views on Zeila have changed; he recently wrote to the French government
demanding the ceding of Ambado.
We know that the coast, from the bottom
of the Gulf of Tadjoura to beyond Berbera, has been divided between France
and England in the following manner: France gets the whole coastline of
Goubbet Kérab to Djibouti, a cape located a dozen miles to the
northwest of Zeila, and a strip of land quite a few kilometers into the
interior, of which the boundary on the side of the English territory is
formed by a line drawn from Djibouti to Ensa, the third trading station
on the road from Zeila to Harar. We therefore have an outlet on the Harar/Abyssinia
road. Ambado, which Ménélik aspires to own, is a cove near
Djibouti, where the Governor of Obock, for a long time, has been sticking
the tri-colored flag that the stubborn English agaent from Zeila kept
pulling out, until the negotiations were over. Ambado has no water, but
Djibouti has some fine streams, and of the three stops on our road to
Ensa, two have water.
In short, the formation of caravans can
be a reality in Djibouti as soon as there is an establishment supplied
with indigenous merchandise and armed troops. Until now, the place has
been completely desolate. It goes without saying that a French port must
be placed there if we want to compete with Zeila.
Zeila, Berbera and Bulhar remain with the
English, as well as the Bay of Samawanak on the Gadiboursi coast, between
Zeila and Bulhar, the point where the last representative from the French
Consulate, M. Henry, stuck the tricolor, prompting the Gadiboursi tribe
to ask for our protection, which they still enjoy. Over the last two years,
such stories of annexations and protectorates have been raising spirits
on this coast.
The successor of the French representative
was M. Labosse, the French Consul in Suez, who was sent in the interim
to Zeila where he settled all disputes. There are now around 5000 French-protected
Somalis in Zeila.
For Abyssinia, the road to Harar is quite
advantageous. Whereas one arrives in Shoa by the Danakil road only after
a journey of 50 to 60 days through a terrifying wasteland amidst a thousand
dangers, Harar, in the foothills of the Ethiopian meridional mountains,
is separated from the coast only by a distance easily traversed in fifteen
days by caravan.
The road is very good, and the Issa tribe,
accustomed to transport on it, is very conciliatory. There is no danger
from the neighboring tribes.
From Harar to Entotto, the actual residence
of Ménélik, it is a twenty-day trek through the Itous Galla
plateau, at an altitude averaging 2500 meters, with provisions, means
of transport, and security guaranteed. In all, it takes a month to go
from our coast to central Shoa, though the distance to Harar is only twelve
days, and this latter place, in spite of invasions, is certainly destined
to become the exclusive commercial outlet of Shoa and all Galla tribes.
Ménélik himself was so struck by the advantageous position
of Harar that upon his return, recalling the railway idea often suggested
by Europeans, he began searching for someone to give the commission or
concession to, from Harar to the sea. But then he changed his mind, remembering
the presence of the English on the coast! It goes without saying that,
in case this happens (and this will happen in the future, sooner or later),
the government of Shoa will not contribute anything to the expenses of
Ménélik completely lacks funds,
always remaining in the most complete ignorance of (or indifference to)
the exploitation of the region's resources, which he has forced into submission.
He only thinks about accumulating guns in order to allow himself to send
his troops to levy men from the Gallas. The few European traders who have
gone to Shoa have brought to Ménélik, in total, 10,000 standard
rifles and 15,000 percussion rifles in the space of five or six years.
This was enough for the Amharans to make the neighboring Gallas submit.
Meanwhile in Harar, Dedjatch Mékonène proposes to descend
on the Gallas and defeat them, all the way to their southern border, toward
the coast of Zanzibar. He even has the order of Ménélik
for this, who was made to believe that he could open a road in this direction
for the importation of weapons. Since the Galla tribes are not armed,
they can travel quite far from the coast.
Above all, what drives Ménélik
to invade toward the south is the fake neighborliness and vexing lordship
of King John. Ménélik has already left Ankober for Entotto.
It is said that he wants to go down to Abba-Djifar, the most flourishing
Galla region in Djimma, to establish his residence there, and he has also
talked about establishing himself in Harar. Ménélik dreams
of the expansion of his domains to the south beyond the Hawash, and he
is now considering leaving the Amharic areas (which are part of the new
Galla regions) with his guns, his warriors, and his wealth, to establish
a meridional empire like the ancient kingdom of Ali Alaba, far away from
One wonders what is and what will be the
attitude of Ménélik in the Italio-Abyssinian war. It is
clear that his attitude will be determined by the will of King John, his
immediate neighbor, and not by the diplomatic means of governments which
are at an unreachable distance from him - means he does not understand,
yet nevertheless, is wary of. It is impossible for Ménélik
to disobey King John, and the latter, well-informed of diplomatic plots
when dealing with Ménélik, would do well to stay away from
him. King John has already ordered him to choose his best soldiers, and
Ménélik had to send them to the Emperor's camp in Asmara.
In case of disaster, King John would retreat to Ménélik's
territory. Shoa, the only Amharic country possessed by Ménélik,
isn't worth one fifteenth of Tigré. His other domains are all precariously
submissive Galla regions, and it would be very hard for him to avoid a
general rebellion if he compromises himself in any way. One mustn't forget
that patriotic sentiment does exist in Shoa, and with Ménélik
as ambitious as he is, it's impossible that he sees neither honor or advantage
in listening to the advice of strangers.
He will therefore conduct himself in a way
that will not compromise his already very embarrassing situation, and
since these people do not understand, and since they only accept what
they can see and touch, he will personally act according only to what
the nearest neighbor will make him do, and nobody is more his neighbor
than King John, who will make Ménélik avoid temptations.
This is not to say that he does not listen compliantly to the diplomats;
he will pocket what he can gain from them, and at an appointed time, King
John, having been warned, will share with Ménélik. But,
once again, the general patriotic sentiment and the opinion of Ménélik's
people figure into the question. They do not want strangers, nor their
meddling, nor their influence, nor their presence, under any pretext,
no more in Shoa than in Tigré, or in Galla.
- Having promptly settled my business with
Ménélik, I asked him for a promissory note in Harar, desirous
as I was to travel the new road opened by the King through the Itous,
a heretofore unexplored route which I attempted in vain to use at the
time of the Egyptian occupation of Harar. At this time, M. Jules Borelli
asked the King for permission to take a trip in this direction. Thus,
I had the honor of traveling in the company of our kind and courageous
compatriot, whom I sent the entirely unpublished geodesic works on this
region to, in Aden.
- On this road there are seven stops on
the other side of the Hawash, and twelve between Hawash and Harar on the
Itou plateau, a magnificent region of pastures and splendid forests at
an average altitude of 2500 meters with a charming climate. The crops
there are not widely spread, the population not being very dense - or
perhaps these people strayed from the road, in fear of the King's troops.
There are, nonetheless, coffee plantations. The Itous supply the largest
part of the few thousand tons of coffee annually sold in Harar. These
regions are very healthy and fertile, and are the only ones in East Africa
that have adapted to European colonization.
- As for business in Shoa, there is currently
nothing to import there, since the arms prohibition on the coast. But
anyone who can come up with 100,000 or so thalers can use them throughout
the year to buy ivory and other merchandise, since there have only been
a few exporters these last few years, and currency has become quite rare.
There are opportunities. The new road is excellent, and the political
state of Shoa will not be disturbed by the war, as Ménélik
is making sure, above all, to maintain order in his abode.