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Bruce Chatwin (Nicholas Shakespeare)


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  Bruce was once more in Ouidah in December 1976, while waiting for the final proofs of In Patagonia. He planned to spend three months in West Africa and Brazil researching a straightforward biography of de Souza. He invited the art dealer John Kasmin to accompany him on the African part of the journey.

They landed in Cotonou, Yoruba for "mouth of the river of death", on 21 December. Dahomey was now the Marxist Republic of Benin. A curfew began at 11 p.m. and officials of President Kérékou were suspicious of foreigners unless they were from North Korea, the country's closet ally. They travelled in constant fear of expulsion.

They had arrived in a stiff sea wind in the traditional season for warfare and slave collecting. In Porto Novo, they visited the pathetic museum and its retired director, Clement de Cruz. "After many askings we find our chap and enter his house," Kasmin wrote in his diary. "A room Howard Hodgkin would love, a little round table and four 1940 chairs, and that's all. What a chat--in semi-intelligible (to me) French from this very opinionated, and I suppose, intellectual savant of culturation, tradition, extended families etc., but he is helpful to Bruce who relishes this stream of vapid profundities."

On 23 December, they proceeded to Ouidah, two hours along the coast. Bruce was pleased to find the same guide as he had in 1972, "a young, honey-coloured mulatto with a flat and friendly face, a curly moustache and a set of dazzling teeth". Sebastian de Souza was a direct descendant of Cha Cha.

In the garden of the Portuguese fort, sitting beside the last governor's burnt-out Citroën DS, Bruce and Kasmin consumed "a stylish lunch": a bottle of William Lawson whisky and a tin of Malassol caviar, a parting gift from the sculptor Anthony Carol. They visited the Python Temple and the compound of the voodoo chief priest, the Hounon Dagbo. "This Dagbo refuses to shake B's hand," Kasmin wrote in his diary, "which embarrasses B who, stepping backward, trod on the bare toes of a stout lady joining the party."

Bruce and Kasmin walked the red track from the Viceroy's house, under the yellow berries of the Auction Tree, and three miles through plantations to the sea. At a conservative estimate, two million men and women filed along this route between 1640 to 1870. Canoes rowed through the choppy shark water to de Souza's ships. Bruce and Kasmin looked at the straight line of white breakers and absorbed the incredible fact of how the intoxicated rulers of Dahomey bartered their people for Birmingham rifles and roll after roll of tobacco. On every cargo, de Souza took a percentage.

Christmas Day found Bruce and Kasmin 12O miles north in Abomey, the former royal capital. They explored the low thatched halls of the nondescript palace and imagined the mud walls hung with hooks bearing human heads, "as thick as they can lie one by another". The kings of Dahomey, practitioners of human as well as of animal sacrifice, hunted their victims in season, like pheasants. The army's crack troops were the tall soldier-women who fought with a ferocity, according to one witness A. B. Ellis, "that most resembled the blind rage of beasts". Skertchley and Burton, whose texts Bruce used for reference, described them as Amazons. Skertchley elaborated in details that Bruce would remember. "Whenever a woman becomes unsexed, either by the force of circumstances or depravity, she invariably exhibits a superlativeness of evil... What spectacle is more calculated to inspire horror than a savage and brutal woman in a passion?" The Amazons beheaded their prisoners, out of sight, in the palace compound, where they poured the blood into pools three feet square and set miniature canoes afloat on it. Sometimes they mixed the blood with gold dust and sea-foam and patted it into the walls. "Pretty nasty feeling of blood and slaughter hangs here," wrote Kasmin, "but, as B says, it is all colour eventually."

Forbidden to take photographs, Bruce could not resist sketching the palace's grisliest attraction: two thrones mounted on human skulls. The taller, five feet high and carved from a kapok tree, belonged to the Viceroy's pox-scarred patron, King Ghézo. It stood beneath an open black umbrella, bolted into four cracked, nicotine-coloured craniums. Next to it, embellished by two skulls, was the stool belonging to Ghézo's mother, Princess Agontimé. According to Dahomey tradition, Ghézo's half-brother Adandozan, whom he usurped, had sold her to Bahia as a slave.

Their visit concluded in an audience with the present king, in a simple room adjoining the museum. Kasmin describes Ghézo's grandson as "an ancient gent in many robes and skirts and spectacles". His throne was a 1930s office chair covered in green leatherette and for the interview a bare-bosomed lady held a decorated umbrella over his head. "We launched into an exchange that most nearly resembled those recorded last century. The king declaiming and telling stories via the interpreter--occasional newcomers crawling in and kissing the floor and rubbing dirt on thejr foreheads as in olden days. A delight. He was in full control and displaying a clear memory, this grandson of the great Ghézo. The story was of de Souza, the first Cha Cha, and his search for Ghézo's mother who had been sold into slavery. B was most turned on and saw his book quickening."

Bruce wrote: "A man came in and kissed the concrete floor. The King went on with the story. He came to the end and we paid a thousand francs. He told another story and we paid a little less. He could go on all day. He liked telling stories. He liked getting paid for them. There was not much left for a king to do."

Upon payment, King Sagbadjou, who claimed to have been born the year of Richard Burton's visit in 1863, told Bruce what he knew of the Brazilian. "He was a tall man," he said, "bigger than the two of you together. My grandfather lifted him over the prison wall. My grandfather, you see, was even bigger than de Souza."

Ghézo's half brother King Adandozan had incarcerated de Souza after an argument, dunking him periodically in vats of indigo to dye his fair skin. Ghézo, hating the man who had sold his mother into captivity, discerned in de Souza a useful ally. Once he had lifted him over the wall they made a blood pact. Years later, de Souza repaid the favour. He earned his title of Viceroy after rescuing Ghézo from prison.

"The story is wonderful, already forming in my mind, but I've hardly touched on it yet," Bruce wrote to Elizabeth. "I think it will have to be written in the high style of Salammbô." He extended his usual invitation. "If you liked and could afford it you could come out in Feb for 3 weeks--fare to Cotonou £320. I will have lodging in Pto Novo hopefully, but it is hot and sticky and I'll be working. x x x B."

For another fortnight, Bruce toured the north. He and Kasmin visited a game park and entered Togo where a barman asked:

"Êtes-vous aventuriers?", Kasmin wrote: "B. is delighted." Bruce, meanwhile, wrote to Elizabeth that travelling with Kasmin was "quite exhausting, because one could never tell when he would begin one of his British sense-of-fair-play outbursts." In Ouidah, they were allowed to witness a ceremony for the initiation of novices. The God of War was paraded, according to Kasmin, "on the shoulders of a boss-eyed tough who looked like Dudley Moore". Without warning, state officials rushed in, interrupted the dance, and took Bruce and Kasmin angrily aside. It was forbidden to photograph such events: they must hand over the film, or go to the police. "The dance continued, but B and the chief priest defended our position & after a nervous period of noisy discussion we were allowed to leave & with the film too. We got out of town fast. Who had forgotten to tell us that photography is not allowed in Benin without a permit from the Tourist Bureau? I was v. indignant, but B oiled the people as he always does. Were I alone I would have been arrested many times."

On 7 January Kasmin flew home to London. Bruce told Elizabeth: "One or two near scrapes, but he was an excellent fellow traveller and we both enjoyed our little tour." Kasmin was nevertheless aware that he had left behind a companion who was "quite disconsolate" about what form his book would take.

The original plan, to write a biography of Felix de Souza, was floundering in the poverty of documentary material. In Benin, no archives survived for the de Souzas. The last Portuguese governor, in I96I, had burned down the fort in Ouidah, destroying all records since 1725. In a bid to delve more history out of the slaving families, Bruce crossed the border into Nigeria.

He spent a week in Ibadan, staying with Keith Nicholson Price, a friend of Gerald Brenan. Bruce arrived out of the harmattan covered in a fine, white powder and looking prematurely grey. He wore jeans, a multi-pocketed jacket and carried a large leather shoulder bag, producing from it a two-year-old letter of introduction.

Price is one of several who wanted to hold on to the experience of meeting Bruce, to fix it in their journal. Afterwards he wrote a record of Bruce's visit. He described a character who bustled with energy: "his self-discipline, his inner tension and sense of hurry, his insensitivity and selfishness...were a kind of blinkering in his reactions to the outside world. He had work to do and perhaps he knew instinctively he would have very little time in which to do it."

After dinner on the second night, they talked about writing. "His first book In Patagonia was about to be published and he felt extremely sensitive about it. He doubted the confidence that his publishers had shown in him. Also Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express had just been published and was selling well. Bruce greatly admired the work and considered it "'a truly brilliant book... I'm sure its success will affect my sales and if that happens any future books of mine will be affected and so will my income and my only real loves, travelling and writing'."

Next morning Bruce was up and away before seven, having instructed Price's steward to prepare an early breakfast. He returned late. With every day Price noticed a growing reticence "which seemed to come from fatigue and an increasing frustration."

Bruce had pinned much on a meeting with Pierre Verger, then teaching at Ibadan. Verger was typical of the experts whose insights he commandeered. Bruce did not so much appropriate their work as popularise it. He knew how much to repackage the esoteric, make it palatable for a broad market. Like Bob Brain in the cave at Swartkrans, or Mateo Martinic in Patagonia, or Theodor Strehlow later in Australia, Verger had devoted 20 or 30 years of investigation to his subject when Bruce appeared out of the blue, bubbling over with contagious enthusiasm, trying to find out everything he knew. "Bruce always went straight to the fountain-head," says Paddy Leigh Fermor. "He found the best authority he could and asked hundreds of questions and then he would come back the second best informed man on that particular subject in the world possibly."

Verger had been working on the cultural links between Bahia and Africa since 1946. His exhaustively researched Flux et Reflux de la traite des Nègres entre le Golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos, du XVII au XIX siècle was Bruce's primary source on de Souza.

Verger was an autodidact. Born in Paris in 1902 of prosperous Belgian parents, he had begun working in his family printing business and knew the painful process of transforming himself from a dandy into a scholar. Drawn, in the words of the anthropologist John Ryle, to "the allure of otherness embodied in non-European peoples" Verger escaped first through photography (from the 1930s he was the front-line photographer of Life magazine in Algeria, Cuba and Mauritania); and then through the meticulous documentation of the slave trade and religious practice in north-eastern Brazil and West Africa. Initiated into the voodoo priesthood in Dahomey, he was a "babalao" or father of secrets.

He was cynical, and what he liked about African and Brazilian religions was that morally they were cynical too. Their witchcraft was based on malice, which he saw as corresponding to his deeply morose view of human nature while at the same time giving rein to a sensous delight in the world.

Bruce had hoped that Verger would energise his quest for de Souza, but their brief meeting was not a success. He wrote to Elizabeth., "I met the famous Afro-Brazilian scholar of encyclopaedic knowledge but little practical use. Tight with information. A fantastical old queen, having a riff with his Yoruba boyfriend." Verger, who once called scholars "colourless parrots", may have felt the same towards Bruce. He thought The Viceroy of Ouidah "OK--but why did he have to change the names?"

Bruce's failure to charm Verger into revealing his secrets depressed him. After the meal, which Bruce had only picked at, he slumped onto his usual chair looking ill and exhausted. His face was ashen and there were dark rings around his worried eyes. 'Wish I hadn't started this,' he mumbled. He had been trying to interview some of the Brazilian families of West Africa--the de Souzas, the Mendozas and de Silvas--to obtain more memoirs of their slave-trading ancestors." Price was not surprised. "Their reserved and suspicious manner would deter the most hardened investigator."

One day, when Bruce was out, Price heard a chant of "thief, thief" in the street and looked out to see "a mob of about a hundred" harassing a young girl who was being dragged along by two men. Apparently, she had stolen a loaf of bread. "Her bodice had been ripped and from the look of her small exposed breasts she was no more than 13 years old."

Price watched her disappear into the police barracks opposite. He thought no more about the incident until the next morning when he found Bruce up and about, correcting his notes.

"What was that noise?" Bruce asked. "That screaming? I couldn't sleep at all." Price had heard nothing.

Bruce's bedroom window faced the police barracks. That evening Bruce stormed into Price's sitting room.

"It's started again."

"What's started again?"

"That screaming. Can't concentrate with that noise, it's so distracting."

Leaving Bruce in the house, Price went across to the barracks, where he knew the lieutenant on duty. He asked what was going on. The policeman grinned. "A thief... The boys are having some fun."

He had a writer staying, Price told the policeman. The screaming was a distraction.

"I was hoping that the mention of the close proximity of a writer might have some effect on him. The lieutenant was unimpressed.

"'Try and stop them,' he said and shuffled some papers on his desk. ~You want her?' he asked without looking up. 'Want a bit of fun?'

"A short piercing scream came down the corridor.

"'Fun? Doesn't sound like she's enjoying it much.'

"'She's young, a learner. You want her?' I nodded and he tossed me a key."

By the time Price arrived the girl was alone, half-naked on the floor and seemingly asleep. "She was a pitiful sight." Angrily, he kicked the boarded window and the boards fell away. "She was as light as a feather. I lifted her and placed her outside the window. Her wrap fell off completely and I noticed blood on her thin legs." Price in a whisper urged her to leave. After first falling to her knees she crawled away.

When he returned, Bruce went white. "You're mad."

"I agree. But she got away and now you can write."

"You shouldn't have interfered," said Bruce.

Before returning to Benin, Bruce shook Price's hand and promised to send him a signed copy of In Patagonia. "This is something I would have treasured, but it never arrived." Price's last words were: "Just take care. The current regime think that every white man is a mercenary intent on killing the president." Bruce laughed. "I'll be fine."

On 14 January, by the light of a guttering lamp, Bruce wrote a rambling letter to Elizabeth from Porto Novo, Benin's capital. He had rented a room in Sebastian de Souza's family house, "in a street lined with Portuguese houses built by creole nabobs who returned from Bahia in the 1850s. It is infernally sticky and I have to confess the whole of this part of the trip is something of a trial."

Cha Cha's story still eluded him. Verger had impressed on him the absence of records. Bruce had taken this as a cue to switch genres from a biography to fiction. "I've been reading some Balzac and think the only way to treat de S is to write a straight Balzacian account of the family, beginning with a description of the place and then switching back to him and writing through to the present. Quite a mouthful."

He had changed his mind about Elizabeth joining him. "Frankly I don't now see any point in your coming out because it isn't a joyride and the only way is to get it over as soon as I can." He concluded: "Going with Sebastian de Souza to a football match in Togo and will write from there again with more news."

Hours after finishing this letter his research was cut short in a dramatic fashion.

On Sunday 16 January 1977, Kasmin dined with Maschler and updated him on the progress of the "Dahomey book." The publisher saw "a big future for B". Kasmin had just finished writing these words in his diary when the telephone rang. There had been a coup in Benin.

Not until the 21st did Kasmin hear from Bruce. "Woken at 7.30 this morning by Bruce calling from Abidjan. He escaped from Cotonou yesterday and related his experiences during the mysterious coup of last Sunday. Was arrested, roughed up and locked up with hundreds of other Europeans and some blacks. Some shootings, much brutality and chaos... His story of hiding in a de Souza closet and then at the Gendarmerie, a mercenary type being brought in with gun and dressed in camouflaged combat suit who transpired to be the French Ambassador, found while out on a partridge shoot; and the Amazon who kicked him for being slow at undressing on command. Poor B. was worried whether he was wearing underpants or not."

Kasmin was not the only person Bruce telephoned from Abidjan. A week after the coup, the Sunday Times interviewed an anonymous "refugee" who claimed while in detention to have been assaulted and deprived of food and water. The report, written by James Fox, his former colleague on the magazine, described "a French scholar who wishes to remain anonymous in the hope of continuing work in Benin". It added this detail: "The mercenaries even had time to hold "'a drinks party' in a thatched chalet in the grounds of the Hotel de la Croix du Sud." Then what the "refugee" called a "witch-hunt" for foreigners took place. Stripped to their underpants, the informant and 600 others were told variously that they would be held incommunicado for five days, tried by a military tribunal, or "shot at five a.m. the next morning".

The coup had begun late, at 7.30 a.m. and had lasted five hours. People who heard the initial explosions mistook the noise. "I heard boom boom and told my mother there's going to be a lot of rain," says Latif de Silva. The members of the coup comprised a hundred or so Africans, Belgians and French, sponsored by exiled Beninois wishing to overthrow Kérékou's Marxist state. From a training camp in Morocco they flew to Gabon, picking up arms in France-- Ville. The pilot radioed ahead to Cotonou: his DC8 was bringing personnel for a festival.

But someone had betrayed them. In Cotonou, the army were waiting. And Bruce, on his way to the football match in Togo, was caught in the crossfire.

The story grew in the retelling. The first version bears little resemblance to the last, published in Granta as a "story"--a word, wrote Bruce, "intended to alert the reader to the fact that however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work." In the gap between the two versions is found the clue to Bruce's storytelling process. The inflations, distortions, confabulations are all there.

His initial account of the coup is written in his diary. It starts in Porto Novo, just after he has finished his letter to Elizabeth. "Sunday morning began with me under the mosquito net in the bedroom in Sebastian de Souza's yard." Sebastian appears, dressed in brown, elegant for the football match in Togo. The two of them walk to the autogare in Porto Novo and squash into the back of a crowded Peugeot 40s. On the coast road to Cotonou, they notice people waving from cars. The driver, thinking a wheel might be coming off, stops the car.

"C'est la guerre à Cotonou," he is told.

"I knew it," Sebastian says. "I knew it would happen." He has been longing for Kérékou's "yapping police state" to collapse. The others in the car are delighted too. They about-turn and drive back to Porto Novo, rejoining Sebastian's anxious wife. They sit down on her leatherette chairs and listen to Kérékou broadcasting on the radio. Mercenaries have landed at Cotonou airport in a DC8. "L'heure est grave." AII citizens are urged to block the roads and go with guns to secure the airport. The speech would play several times that day to the background of spliced applause bought in from the BBC.

Possibly, this is the moment when, as he told Kasmin, Bruce hides in Sebastian de Souza's closet. "Trembling voices" he writes. Sebastian is taken off to the Douanes. Bruce waits a short time before "gingerly" stepping outside.

In the street, a waving crowd shouts: "Mercenaires, mercenaires." He is wearing khaki shorts with patch pockets ("the badge of a mercenary"). He finds a gendarme who bundles him into a van--"For your own protection." He is taken to the gendarmerie and later marched at gunpoint to the Centre de Recherches where he finds the French Counsellor and a doctor friend in hunting rig. Both men had been seized from the bush with a booty of dead birds and their ancient twelve-bore shotguns. Bruce seems to find the details more ridiculous than dire. "Looked absolutely mercenary, dressed for la chasse, dressed to kill."

Later, they are joined by three Swiss birdwatchers captured with precision binoculars and a long lens camera, the size and shape of a mortar.

By afternoon, the talk is of mercenaries retreating towards the marshes of Ouidah. Bruce and his companions are ordered into a police vehicle and driven to Cotonou. At the Camp Ghézo, they join a cheerful crowd of between 300 and 400 blacks and whites, all down to their underpants. They are herded into a shed, made to strip. "Separated from all my possessions including pack. Thought I didn't have on underpants. Sent into a corner and sat down. After 5 minutes asked to redress and I clung to my bag desperately."

There is no mention in his notes of the brutal "Amazon" he told Kasmin about on the telephone. Nor does Kasmin recollect seeing on their journey any female soldiers.

After being stripped--he is wearing "pink and white boxer shorts from Brooks Brothers"--Bruce is ordered back aboard the truck and taken to the Sûreté Nationale and made to sit in a waiting room. Questioned at last by an amiable policeman, who complains of his ruined weekend, he is led before the commandant, a man with thin red eyes and white woolly hair. When Bruce tells him he is a tourist, the commandant says: "Leur cas est plus compliqué. "

These are the words Bruce writes next: "Foreign prints: "'Kicked by Amazon'". It is not dear what they describe. In his journal, nothing much happens at this point. At 9 p.m. he is placed in a room with a wobbly fan where he passes the night. But in his Granta article, published seven years later, there appears at this point a fearsome woman in the mould of Ghézo's warriors: "I stood like a schoolboy, in the corner, until a female sergeant took me away for fingerprinting. She was a very large sergeant. My head was throbbing: and when I tried to manoeuvre my little finger onto the inkpad, she bent it back double; I yelled 'Ayee!', and her boot slammed down on my sandalled foot." (One cannot but be reminded of how, a few days earlier, he had trodden on a woman's toes in Ouidah.)

Then to what do the words "Foreign prints: "'Kicked by Amazon'" refer? Was Bruce assaulted? Or was he projecting himself into a scene from a print which a moment before he has seen hanging on the commandant's wall: a print that illustrated, say, the pages of his Skertchley or Burton? As Kasmin says of Bruce on their Benin trip: "His model was Burton." If so, it is a paradigm of how his imagination worked: to escape an uncomfortable situation by seizing on a piece of art and, as in a Borges story, incorporating himself into it.

 
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Excerpted from Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare. Copyright © 2000 by Nicholas Shakespeare. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.