Saturday, 3 November 2007

Cyprus, Rimbaud and the British empire

Long ago, if my memory serves me, my life was a banquet where everyone’s heart was generous, and where all wines flowed.
One evening I pulled Beauty down on my knees. I found her embittered and I cursed her.
(Rimbaud: A Season in Hell).

In return for the Ottoman empire ceding it Cyprus in 1878 under the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin which ended the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, Britain agreed to continue its support to preserve Turkey against perceived Russian ambitions in the Balkans and the Caucuses.

Britain’s support for Turkey was hugely controversial domestically. Gladstone was appalled that Britain was backing Turkey in the Balkans, particularly after the atrocities committed by the Turks in suppressing the Bulgarian uprising in 1876.

‘Let the Turks’, Gladstone wrote, in his famous pamphlet The Bulgarian Horrors and the Eastern Question, ‘carry away their abuses, in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Blmhashis and Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province that they have desolated and profaned.’

The Anglo–Turkish Convention, it seemed to Gladstone, was a tawdry deal – ‘an act of duplicity not surpassed and rarely equalled in the history of nations’ – another demonstration of Disraelian showmanship and vanity in which Britain committed itself to preserving the Ottoman empire, a murderous and base entity for Gladstone, in exchange for Cyprus, a pointless adornment to the British empire, which was accumulating colonies like a thief accumulating swag.

But Disraeli was convinced that Cyprus would be a vital asset for the British empire – an Eastern Mediterranean Malta or Gibraltar – a military and naval bastion to protect Turkey in Asia Minor and British imperial interests in the Suez Canal and the Middle East.

During the 300 years of Ottoman rule, Cyprus had lost its reputation for prosperity acquired under the Lusignans and Venetians and suffered neglect, depopulation and the arbitrary oppression associated with the worst excesses of the Ottoman empire.

Indeed, the British appear to have been taken by surprise by the extent of the destitution the Turks left behind on Cyprus and soon realised that if the island were to serve the interests of the British empire its infrastructure and sanitary conditions would have to be dramatically improved.

Thus the British occupation of Cyprus began with grand plans for roads, railroads, harbours, forts, hospitals and canals – hardly any of which materialised, but did initially encourage an influx of Europeans and European capital looking for employment and profit.

One of those to arrive on the island in 1878 was Arthur Rimbaud, the brilliant French poet/ex-poet/anti-poet, aged 24, who, helped by his knowledge of Greek, found work at a quarry in Larnaca and then – after catching typhoid and returning to France to recuperate – as a foreman on the project to build the new British governor’s summer residence in the Troodos mountains.

(Sir Garnet Wolseley, the first British governor of Cyprus, was so appalled at the state of Ottoman Nicosia – and was ‘very anxious to get out of [it]… it is one great cesspit into which the filth of centuries has been poured’ – that one of his first acts was to order the construction of a villa in the more salubrious surroundings of Troodos from which to rule the island).

Regarding Rimbaud’s Cypriot sojourn, we know through letters he wrote to his family in France of the arduous conditions of his work, that he complained about the heat of the plains and the cold of the mountains, that he requested arms to protect himself from the workers under his authority dissatisfied with irregular pay, and that he left the island suddenly – either because of illness, an argument with his employers or, according to Ottorino Rosa, who knew Rimbaud a few years later in Ethiopia – where Rimbaud was a merchant, gunrunner and, possibly, a slave trader – because Rimbaud had killed a subordinate in a fight.

But the details concerning Rimbaud’s year in Cyprus remain sketchy – Christopher Hitchens mischievously speculates that Rimbaud may have had a homosexual relationship with Captain Herbert – later Lord – Kitchener, who was on the island at the same time as Rimbaud, conducting the British Survey of Cyprus – and all that’s left of Rimbaud’s presence on the island is a plaque in the governor’s – now president’s – summer residence, which reads: ‘The French poet and genius Arthur Rimbaud, heedless of his renown, was not above helping to build this house with his own hands.’

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