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After the harbour formalities and a sanitary inspection on board, the men were ferried by pirogue to the Haven-Kanaal, the single, narrow canal that served as the port of the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Phinisi, brightly painted wooden schooners built by Bugis shipwrights, were packed along the quay, proud-looking craft broad in the beam, with their rust-red sails furled. Sinewy Malay lascars poured out of the narrow holds of the ships in single file, carrying bales of tobacco and bags of tea and sugar and spices on their backs.
The soldiers were greeted dockside by a welcoming committee of colonial dignitaries and received a loaf of fresh bread and a half-bottle of wine each. They marched through Old Batavia, as ever to a rousing drumbeat. As they exited the port they passed the immense, stately godowns of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, many of them two hundred years or more old. Then they headed south down Prinsenstraat, a wide avenue lined with graceful trees, tamarind, canary-nut, and flame-of-the-forest, their arching boughs offering relief from the tropical heat. At the end of Prinsenstraat, they boarded horse-drawn trams for the long ride – 16 kilometres (nearly ten miles), with five changes – to their barracks in the agricultural exurb of Meester Cornelis, where they would spend one week recovering from the voyage and undergoing further training.
In 1876 Batavia was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, with a native population drawn from throughout the archipelago, planters and merchants from Europe and the United States, as well as settlements of Indians, Arabs, a contingent of Mexican and Peruvian Indians, and, of course, a Chinese community. The soldiers’ tram rumbled through Chinatown, where red-tiled shop-houses flanked a network of narrow canals, their stucco walls marbled with black mildew and furred by patches of bright green moss. Red ceramic dragons guarded the sloping roofs of the Chinese temples, tinkling with bells and smoking with incense. Then the battalion passed through the new commercial district, lined with hotels and shops with big glass windows that displayed fancy goods from Europe.
The soldiers made one of their tram changes at Konigsplein, Batavia’s grand central park (now Merdeka Square). In his memoir, The World Was My Garden, the American botanist David Fairchild described the great square in the late nineteenth century: “It was surrounded by enormous Ficus trees and in their shade turbaned Javanese wandered barefoot, swinging their beautiful bamboo hats or carrying on their shoulders long bamboo poles with baskets at each end. Tiny ponies trotted along, pulling some white-clad official sitting back to back with the driver in one of the two-wheeled carts called dos-à-dos.”
Nearly one kilometre square, claimed by the Dutch as the largest parade ground in the world, the Konigsplein was surrounded by an array of whitewashed neo-classical piles, including the museum of the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences, with its entrance guarded by a bronze elephant donated by the King of Siam, a public reading room, the splendid offices of the Royal Steam Packet Company, fine churches, and the palace of the governor-general, now the residence of the President of Indonesia.
By the end of the afternoon the soldiers had reached their barracks in Meester Cornelis, a former tea “factory,” as commercial depots in the East were called. Here they joined other recent arrivals to await their postings. Rimbaud was assigned to a company of fusiliers in the first battalion of the infantry posted at Salatiga, in the cool hills of central Java. While they were at Meester Cornelis, soldiers were given liberty to drink at the bars that had sprung up around the camp, but there was no opportunity to return to the city. The commander was ordered to establish a perimeter around the camp, beyond which soldiers were forbidden to go. Any man caught beyond this radius was subject to punishment, typically forfeiture of pay and fifty strokes of the rattan cane.