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Volume 52, Number 5September/October 2001

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Arthur Rimbaud, Coffee Trader

Written by Richard Goodman
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

On a sweltering day in August 1880, a tall, thin blue-eyed Frenchman walked into the offices of Viannay, Bardey et Cie. in Aden, Yemen, and asked for a job. He said he was from the Jura, and had lately overseen a gang of laborers in Cyprus; the work had been finished, so he'd come south to find something else. He had a letter of introduction. He knew some Arabic, too.

Well, said co-owner Pierre Bardey, we might have something for you, Monsieur...? Rimbaud? Viannay, Bardey et Cie, whose main office was in Lyon, exported coffee, among other things, and Bardey thought they could use a foreman in their coffee sorting warehouse. Lodging would be included, and meals. The pay? Well, not much, to be truthful, just seven francs a day. But if one were careful... Yes, it was indeed hot in Aden this time of year. Over 38 degrees (100°F) indoors. But one could get used to anything.

For the next eleven years, until he died miserably in a hospital in Marseille, Arthur Rimbaud, France's great 19th-century enfant terrible, whose poetry was to exert enormous influence on French literature, lived mostly in Aden and in Harar, Ethiopia, working in the coffee trade. He was, in fact, a pioneer in the business, the first European to oversee the export of the celebrated coffee of Harar from the country where coffee was born. He was only the third European ever to set foot in the city, and the first to do business there. How his life swung from the sublime to the commercial is one of the most perplexing mysteries in the history of modern literature.

When Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) abandoned poetry altogether in 1873, at the age of 19 or 20, he left behind a small, incendiary and revolutionary body of work that included "The Drunken Boat," A Season in Hell, and Illuminations, a series of mystical prose poems. He had come out of nowhere, from the small town of Charleville in the Ardennes. His parents were not literary. He began writing poetry at 13, serious poetry at 16. He came to Paris and befriended the poet Paul Verlaine. They had a tempestuous relationship which culminated in Verlaine's shooting Rimbaud in the wrist in a fit of hysteria. Verlaine went to prison; Rimbaud, after completing A Season in Hell, burned his papers and stopped writing altogether. All this in three short years.

From that point onward, Rimbaud led an itinerant life marked by an insatiable restlessness and, especially in the end, a concerted and frustrated quest for money. His wanderings took him from one unlikely place to another: from Indonesia, where he deserted from the Dutch colonial army; to Scandinavia, where he interpreted for a touring Danish circus; to Cyprus, where he supervised road-building gangs; and, finally, in 1880, to Aden in the British protectorate of Yemen near the southern entrance of the Red Sea. Intermittently, he returned—or was repatriated, sick or penniless, by the French diplomatic corps—to his family in Charleville. It was a life from which literature was completely absent. As far as I can determine, in all the letters he wrote to his family during these last years, he never once mentions literature. (He does mention books, but they are invariably technical or instructional ones.) He certainly never wrote poetry again. He did write, though: He published several pieces on East Africa, including a treatise on Ogaden that appeared in the bulletin of the French Geographical Society. It was decently, though not memorably, written, but its author hardly seemed the same Arthur Rimbaud who had upset and forever altered the French literary world.

In fact, like many before him and after, Rimbaud reinvented himself. The problem for posterity has been that with this reinvention, Rimbaud discarded his marvelous ability to spin words in the stars. When, some years later, Pierre Bardey's brother Alfred happened to learn that Rimbaud had written poetry and was revered in certain small circles in Paris, he confronted Rimbaud with this. Rimbaud seemed aghast: "Absurd! Ridiculous! Disgusting!" he said to Bardey. The Rimbaud who had written "The Drunken Boat" and A Season in Hell was dead and buried. The new Rimbaud wanted to make money. And, perhaps, to do some exploring and a bit of photography. This was the Arthur Rimbaud who arrived in Aden, Yemen in August of 1880: a different person entirely.

At that time, coffee had become extremely popular in Europe, and especially in France. Though the plant was being cultivated elsewhere— notably in Java by the Dutch—the best coffee was considered to come from Yemen. Coffee had come into its own there. The name of the port of al-Mukha in Yemen had become synonymous with coffee, and still denotes a certain superior quality today. For years, Arab merchants and traders had kept coffee entirely to themselves. Releasing it at last to the outside world, they then held a monopoly on its trade. They knew a good thing when they saw one.

Coffee's origin is placed variously in Yemen and Ethiopia, with most food historians now believing it to be the latter. Some believe that the word "coffee" derives from the name of the Ethiopian province of Kaffa. It was discovered perhaps as early as the ninth century, and the legend of its discovery was described by the French traveler Jean de La Roque in A Voyage to Arabia the Happy, published in English in 1726. La Roque writes that a goatherd noticed that after eating the berries of a particular bush his goats "leaped and frisked about all night." A local cleric heard of this and gave some of the berries to his disciples "to hinder them from sleeping, when they were called up to their prayers...."

It was not a great leap from munching the berries to making a decoction of them, and from that to roasting the "beans" they contained before boiling them in water—and the revivifying cup of coffee was born. For hundreds of years since, everyone from college students in need of stamina to writers in need of stimulation—Balzac drank up to 20, or possibly 50, cups a day—has turned gratefully to the Ethiopian bean.

The coffee tree—really a large bush—grows to some six meters (20') in height, but is usually pruned to around four meters (12') in cultivation. Its flowers, which have an appealing jasmine-like scent, drop off and are replaced by red berries. It is what is inside these berries—the coffee beans—that is coveted. Machines remove the pulp, and then, usually, the beans are washed and dried. They are shipped green, eventually to be roasted. (The roasting of beans began in the 13th century.) The peak harvest in Ethiopia—it's still done by hand—is in November and December.

Arabs had been drinking coffee for hundreds of years when Europeans finally got a taste of this stimulating drink. They eventually broke the Arab monopoly and began importing coffee beans themselves. Coffee was introduced in France in 1660 by some merchants from Marseille who had acquired the habit of drinking it in the Middle East, where they traded. Upon returning from the Levant, they decided they couldn't live without it. It reached Paris in 1669 when the Turkish ambassador began holding lavish coffee parties for the French nobility. After that, it was only a matter of time before the general population got in on it. The Café Procope, Paris's first genuine coffeehouse, opened in 1689. (You can still drink coffee there today, as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin did in their day.) By 1880, the date of Rimbaud's arrival in Yemen, half of the entire Yemeni export coffee crop went to France.

Alfred and Pierre Bardey, businessmen from Lyon, were well aware of their countrymen's thirst for coffee. They traveled to Yemen—then under British control—and opened a branch of their company. (You will find it called by different names in different reincarnations: Bardey et Cie.; Viannay, Bardey et Cie.; and Mazeran, Viannay, Bardey et Cie.) They would export the great treasures of Yemen and those of East Africa, just across the Red Sea: ivory, gum, hides—and coffee. In exchange, they would barter the finest Massachusetts shirting, among other eagerly sought items. The entire process would be much simpler now that the Suez Canal was open. (In the 18th century, La Roque had traveled around Cape Horn to reach Aden.)

The newly hired Arthur Rimbaud was to work as the foreman in the Bardey's coffee-sorting house. He was now at the epicenter of the coffee trade. (The coffee trade in Yemen at the time of Rimbaud's arrival is ably explained by Charles Nicholl in his book Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, 1880-91, published in 1999 by the University of Chicago Press. I have relied heavily on its insights.) The coffee, which was grown in the highlands of Yemen, was transported to the capital city of Aden by camel. It normally arrived as berries from which the pulp had to be removed; the resulting beans then had to be cleaned, graded, packed in large burlap sacks and sent off to Marseille.

One can imagine the heat and dust of such a warehouse in August, when Rimbaud reported the temperature rising to 43 degrees (110°). The sorters and baggers—mostly Indian women, the wives of Indian soldiers posted there— worked from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Rimbaud learned quickly, and almost immediately became a valued employee. In just one month, he was able to write his family that he was "very up to date on the present coffee trade. I have the absolute confidence of my employer." The only problem was that he loathed the town of Aden with all his heart. "Aden is a terrible rock," he wrote his parents, "without a single blade of grass or a drop of good water." The heat was awful. "We sweat liters of water here every day," he told them. He was looking for a way to get out, and declared he'd probably go to Zanzibar. When he heard that Bardey et Cie. wanted to establish a branch in Harar, in the interior of Abyssinia, he jumped at the chance to go.

Alfred Bardey had made an exploratory trip to Abyssinia and was excited about the possibilities for trade and profit. In early November, 1880, Arthur Rimbaud wrote his family, "The company has founded an agency in Harar, a region that you'll find on the map in the south-east of Abyssinia. We'll export coffee, hides, gum, and so on... The country is very healthy and cool due to its elevation." Bardey et Cie. offered Rimbaud a posting there, and on November 10 he signed a three-year contract with the firm. He was to receive 1800 rupees a year, plus food, lodging and one percent of the net profit coming out of Harar. (It is often difficult to follow the monetary transactions of the time, as they flow freely from rupees to francs to Austrian thalers.)

So, there he was, age 26, the equivalent of at least one lifetime already behind him, ready to plunge into Eastern Africa on a search for coffee.

Rimbaud, it turned out, was not unequipped for the job. He had a great facility for languages. He already knew Latin, English, German and probably Dutch, and had even studied Arabic in his home town of Charleville. He would thus be well prepared to learn the language spoken in Harar. (There were two, in fact.) He was genuinely interested in the culture of the lands where he resided, and he was charitable. Indeed, "charitable" is the word most often used by his contemporaries in Yemen and Africa to describe his relations with the locals. For a man who was to become obsessed with making money, hoarding and accounting for every sou, this seems ironic.

Though often frustrated by his dealings with local traders, he was, it turns out, a very sharp merchant. Much later, someone who knew him in Africa but who had only subsequently learned of his artistic past said, "Far be it for me to judge his past as a poet, but I can state with absolute conviction that he was a passionate trader." Who would have predicted that the author of the shimmering, gorgeous "Voyelles"—which by itself would have assured Rimbaud a place in the history of French literature—had a talent for trading?

Near the end of November 1880, Rimbaud left Aden and took a boat across the Red Sea to the Somali port of Zeila. He then joined a caravan. He and his fellow travelers made a 20-day trek across the desert on horseback—the same route by which the coffee would return—to the Abyssinian city of Harar, 1830 meters (6000') feet above sea level. Until just a few years earlier, it had been a closed city. In the end, Rimbaud would reside there on three different occasions and spend more than eight years there altogether—the longest time he spent in any single place in his life, except Charleville. Eleven years later, he would make his last return trip by this route, unable to walk, his leg swollen with a huge tumor, carried in a litter by hired porters.

It is hard to imagine the world into which Arthur Rimbaud entered. Harar, a city of some 20,000 inhabitants, was still primitive. The sanitary system consisted of throwing refuse—including dead bodies—over the town walls after dark to expectant hyenas. Just five years earlier, in 1875, the city had been conquered by the Egyptians, and a garrison of Egyptian soldiers was stationed there when Rimbaud arrived. Although the city had been closed to non-Muslims for centuries, one very unusual European Christian had been there: the amazing Richard Burton. Fresh from his impudent trip to Mecca, he again disguised himself as an Arab and, in 1855, made the same overland journey Rimbaud would make 25 years later. Burton described his visit in First Footsteps in East Africa, where he wrote that "the coffee of Harar is too well known in the markets of Europe to require description." This coffee had long been exported when Rimbaud arrived—but not by Europeans.

What was it about coffee from Harar that made it so desirable then—and still today? Joel Schapira, in The Book of Coffee & Tea, says that Harar coffee is the "finest of Ethiopian coffees," with a taste "characterized by a winy pungency, an exquisitely piquant aroma." An Ethiopian trading company praises its "medium acidity, full body and... distinctive deep mocca flavor." It is a form of Coffea arabica, the variety, indigenous to Ethiopia, that accounts for 90 percent of world production.

Arthur Rimbaud entered Harar unhindered. He situated himself and began trading immediately. From the first, he liked the climate. "Cool and not unhealthy," he described it. He started bartering—not just for coffee but for hides and ivory as well, for the Harar branch of Bardey et Cie. could not subsist on the coffee trade alone. He began gathering coffee and sending it by caravan back to Zeila and then by boat across the Red Sea to Aden. His office was usually filled with sacks of coffee beans, and he would occasionally sleep among them. In February, two months after his arrival, he wrote his family and said that he was having 20 kilos of café moka sent to them at his own expense, "if the customs duty isn't too much."

Then, almost immediately, he grew bored. It's not hard to see why. Even if he had forsaken his literary self, he remained a highly intelligent, keenly observant and very emotional man. He needed intellectual stimulation, and he did not find it in Harar. "Thankfully, this life is the only one we have," he wrote home, "and that's for certain, because I can't imagine another life more boring than this one!" This is the man who, ten years earlier, had enthusiastically written to the poet Théodore de Banville, "I will be a Parnassian! I swear, cher Maître, I will always worship the two goddesses, the Muse and Liberty." Now, his hopes—and, increasingly, his despairs—were more bourgeois. "What good is this coming and going," he wrote to Charleville, "this hard work and these upheavals among strange peoples, these languages I stuff my head with and these nameless tortures, if I can't someday, in a few years, take my ease in a place that suits me pretty well, and have a family—or have, at least, a son whom I can spend the rest of my life bringing up the way I think he should be, whom I can adornand arm with the most complete education it’s possible to get in this age, and whom I can see, become a renowned engineer, a man whose knowledge makes him rich and powerful. But who knows the length of my days in these mountains? I may simply disappear among the population, and never be heard of again...."

Partly to alleviate his pressing boredom, Rimbaud took up photography. He had a camera shipped to him from France and began taking pictures. To this we owe the last of the rare photographs we have of Arthur Rimbaud. They are self-portraits. In a simple statement filled with great poignancy, he sent them home to his family so that they "would remember my face." Looking at the photograph of the man in white cotton tropical garb standing in front of a coffee bush, it's difficult to believe he was 29 when it was taken: He looks 50.

He did well at his trade, though— so well that, in 1883, Alfred Bardey renewed his contract for three more years. He would, in the end, leave Bardey et Cie. to work for another French exporter, César Tian.

And he was to turn to trading of a different sort. He ran guns for King Menelik II of Shewa, helping him conquer the province of Harar. Rimbaud, who knew the region well by then, thought that aiding Menelik would be a reasonably easy way to make money. He was wrong: Menelik cheated him of most of his profits.

By the time he began working for César Tian, he arguably knew more about Ethiopian coffee than any European alive and, albeit inadvertently, had done much to further France's intimacy with the select coffee of Harar. In the late 1880's, Paul Verlaine, out of jail and back in Paris, published Rimbaud's Illuminations. Verlaine had tried unavailingly to contact Rimbaud and assumed that he was dead, and the book was attributed to "the late Arthur Rimbaud." Thus there may have been a moment in a Paris café when someone was reading Rimbaud's Illuminations while drinking a cup of Ethiopian for and exported. Such are the hidden ironies of life.

Frustrated in his effort to accumulate a fortune, Rimbaud left Harar for the last time on April 7, 1891, his leg terribly swollen by a synovial tumor. For 15 agonizing days, his leg hurting "at every step," he was hand-carried in a covered litter to the coast. It was almost equally agonizing for him to pay the porters, parting with some of the money he had slavishly devoted himself to earning during hard years in Africa. Beyond the capacity of local treatment, he was put on a steamer for Marseille, and there was taken to the Hospital of the Immaculate Conception. Near death, he still worried about the expense!

His tumorous leg was amputated in May, and his despair soon increased. "I begin to understand," he wrote to his sister Isabelle, "that crutches, wooden legs and prostheses are just jokes. All you get from them is the ability to drag yourself miserably around without being able to actually do anything. And just when I had decided to return to France this summer and get married! Goodbye marriage, goodbye family, goodbye future! My life is over; I'm nothing but an immobile lump...."

His cancer widespread, Rimbaud died on November 10, 1891, alone and miserable. Though he was by then aware that some of his poetry had been published and had attracted attention, he had not a clue of the magnitude of his eventual, posthumous fame. Would he have cared? In one of his last letters, also written to his sister, he wrote, "Our life is a misery, an endless misery! Why do we exist?"

He was 37.

Richard Goodman is the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France , to be published in a 10th-anniversary edition by Algonqum Books in Spring 2002.

Norman MacDonald ([email protected]), a Canadian illustrator, is a frequent contributor to Saudi Aramco World. He lives in Amsterdam.


This article appeared on pages 8-15 of the September/October 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 2001 images.