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On 30 July, Rimbaud and the rest of his company returned to the port and embarked on the tramp steamer Fransen van de Putte bound for Semarang, 236 marine miles east of Batavia, a two-day cruise along Java’s north coast. Semarang was then Java’s second city. In 1879 the popular travel magazine Le Tour de Monde, a French prototype of National Geographic, described Semarang as a “very pretty town.” As he walked the streets of the city the article’s author, Desiré Charnay, encountered many Arabs and Chinese. The Javanese men, he wrote, wore sarongs, woollen vests, and winged caps. “Thus attired, with a kris on his belt, the little Javanese lord advances, grave, stiff, and taciturn, his sad disposition weighing him down like a heavy yoke.” One district of Semarang was populated by black veterans of the Dutch Colonial Army from the Gold Coast of Africa and their descendants.
The soldiers transferred directly to the train station, which had opened nine years before. For Charnay, this meant a half-hour hike across a muddy plain, with nothing to divert the eye but bamboo thickets. The men boarded a train, which had one carriage dedicated to the sick, bound for a place called Kedung Jati; there they changed to a smaller train for the short ride to the village of Tuntang.
Java’s commercial train system – the first in Asia outside British India – was inaugurated on 10 August 1867 with a 25 kilometre (15 mile) line from Semarang to the town of Tanggung. The Semarang line had six steam locomotives, made to order in Berlin and Manchester, which pulled carriages finished inside with varnished teakwood, its windows barred against the sun. By 1873, the network extended throughout central Java, connecting Semarang with Yogyakarta and Surakarta, the city usually called Solo.
As the company marched, the ground rose to meet them, the atmosphere cooling as they progressed toward Salatiga, 600 metres (1,968 feet) above sea level. A Dutch traveller named Van Doorn visited there in 1857 and wrote an exaggerated tribute to the cool climate: “At night, it was necessary to cover oneself up well, with a sarong piled on top of the blanket, whereas at Batavia and Semarang one needed nothing at all. The wine and potable water, which required cooling in Batavia and Semarang, was here so cold it made my teeth ache.”
The soldiers bunked in barracks near the alun-alun, the town square. Officers would have been lodged in colonnaded bungalows. One such bungalow, in 1876 the Assistant Resident’s house and now a part of the mayor’s office, has a marble plaque commemorating Rimbaud’s sojourn there, installed in 1997 by the French ambassador. The morning after their arrival, one of Rimbaud’s compatriots, Auguste Michaudeau, aged 28 from Tours, died. Rimbaud’s attendance at his funeral was compulsory.
Now military training began in earnest with daily drills, all orders given in Dutch. For the first time Rimbaud had direct contact with the native soldiers, mostly Javanese and Moluccan, who constituted three-quarters of the infantry. Discipline at the camp was far from strict by modern standards. Opium use was against regulations, though it could be easily obtained at Chinese shops, and drinking alcohol was actively encouraged. An Army manual still in use in 1893 urged frequent, generous rations of gin on the grounds that it aided digestion. The men were also allowed to bring girls, whatever camp followers Salatiga had to offer, to their rooms.
On 15 August a Jesuit priest named De Bruyn celebrated the feast of the Assumption with a mass at the chapel of Dionysos of Salatiga, on the north side of town. Rimbaud was not in attendance: two weeks after arriving in Salatiga, he had deserted.