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The Suez Canal had opened just seven years before Rimbaud’s voyage. It was the engineering marvel of the world, which reduced the passage from Europe to the Far East from a minimum of three or four months to six weeks, and averted the perilous voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.
The daily newspaper Java Messenger later reported that the Prins van Oranje entered the Red Sea on 29 June. From the starboard side, Rimbaud had a leisurely view (at four marine miles per hour, the speed limit in the Canal) of the Sudan and Somali coast, where he would live the last years of his life. Fearful of pirate raids, then as now, the captain made no stops except when there was a man overboard and tenders were sent to chase him down. A German soldier named Lansemann made a successful jump in the Red Sea on 2 July. Rounding the Horn of Africa the ship cruised near Aden, where Rimbaud would arrive in 1880 to live.
When the long passage across the Indian Ocean commenced, the soldiers were issued their tropical uniforms: white linen shirts, blue and white striped trousers, and a tartan beret. Shipboard routine was far from strenuous, the meals frugal yet hardly Spartan: coffee at eight, oatmeal and molasses at nine, a midday meal that might include meat (with pudding on Sundays), and tea and biscuits at four. The men were entitled to a glass of wine with lunch and on Saturday a nip of gin. The day was whiled away with reading and card games, with just one hour of instruction daily.
On 19 July, Padang, the principal port on the west coast of Sumatra, precisely one degree south of the Equator, transpired hazily into view. The ship’s log reported a man overboard off Padang, but he was recaptured. The ship cruised south toward the Sunda Strait, where Rimbaud got his first glimpse of Java. Before the Suez Canal opened, when ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope came to Asia from the southwest, the first sighting of land was the westernmost tip of the island, called Java Head. Joseph Conrad wrote about this place in a tale called Youth. He describes a sailor’s first sighting of the lighthouse at Java Head from an open boat, after being shipwrecked:
And this is how I see the East. I have seen its secret places and have looked into its very soul; but now I see it always from a small boat, a high outline of mountains, blue and afar in the evening; like faint mist at noon; a jagged wall of purple at sunset. A red light burns far off upon the gloom of the land, and the night is soft and warm. We drag at the oars with aching arms, and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odours of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night – the first sigh of the East upon my face.
After rounding western Java, on the forenoon of 22 July the Prins van Oranje cruised into the outer harbour of Batavia (modern Jakarta) and dropped anchor. In a scene reminiscent of Melville’s yarns of the South Seas, which Rimbaud may have read in popular French translations (or in English), Javanese peddlers clad only in sarongs rowed out to the ship in pirogues, small native craft, to sell the passengers fruit and sweet rice cakes.