On 12th September, 1947, Allen Ginsberg shipped out as a utility man on a collier, the S.S. John Blair, for the Ponchelet Marine Corporation. He departed from Freeport, seventy-five miles south of Houston, going through Galveston, passing near Cuba and Haiti, whose mountains Allen watched pass by, and headed for Dakar, capital of the federation of French West Africa, in what is now known as Senegal. Dakar, on the western coast of Africa, had a long colonial history, although like most European colonial possessions, in 1947 this one was nearing the end of its subjugation. Once a major trading port for African slaves, Dakar had a strategic location that ensured its privileged position within the French Empire. The French West African territories were placed under the control of a single governor, who was located in Dakar, and so it had become a seat of power in the region. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, it had become a major city in the empire. As rights were slowly and inconsistently handed out to “French subjects” – ie the Africans whose homelands had been annexed by the French – the people born in Dakar were first to be given the right to vote, and it was from here that the first ever black African elected to the French government was born, Blaise Diagne. A year before Allen’s visit, the French Empire had rebranded itself the French Union to give the appearance of equality, and more limited rights were being rolled out; however, more substantial change was in the horizon, with independence just over a decade away.
Though Ginsberg professed to care deeply for a “free humanity” and in equal rights for all men, at times wondering if he should curtail his efforts into poetry as a means of devoting himself to an older goal of becoming a labour lawyer and fighting more directly for people’s rights, he was nonetheless drawn to somewhat colonial era ideas of Africa. He was “longing for” Africa as a “mysterious” dark land where he could find a native boy to fuck. He was also keen to find opium and experience life in this exotic land, no doubt excited to follow in the footsteps of his poet hero, Rimbaud – albeit on the opposite side of the giant continent. His less literary influences were Tarzan and Bomba, the Jungle Boy – a slightly more racist version of Tarzan in comic book and movie form from his youth – which he noted in Dakar had coloured his expectations of Africa.
The 5,000 mile journey to Africa involved twenty days on the way out, ten days in port at Dakar, and twenty days back. As the S.S. John Blair approached Dakar, the westernmost point of Africa, Allen was in yet another fit of despair, and contemplating suicide as Hart Crane had done. As recounted by Bill Morgan in his biography, I Celebrate Myself, Ginsberg stood on deck, holding the rail, staring into the dark seas. He was going to jump into the water – a silent, romantic death – but then the lights of Dakar appeared and the crew set about preparing for their arrival, forestalling his suicide. He hadn’t left a suicide note, he realized – although he had previously drafted several in his journals.
His chief poetic output from the journey to Dakar is a series of poems collected as “Dakar Doldrums.” As with the “Denver Doldrums” he’d previously written, these sorrowful poems address his mental state as he pities himself for loving Neal Cassady. Throughout the poem, written in classical language, rather than the “hepcat” voice he previously developed, he laments the suffering during his “sacramental passage.” They also act as a sort of journal – which Ginsberg later called a “psychic diary” – for his experiences at sea.
Twenty days have drifted in the wake
Of this slow aged ship that coal
From Texas to Dakar. I, for the sake
Of little but my casualessness of soul
Am carried out of my chill hemisphere
To unfamiliar summer on the earth.
I spend my days to meditate a fear
Each day I give the sea is one of death.
This was another poem about a voyage that would win Ginsberg a poetry prize – the Columbia Boar’s Head competition in 1948. Although his own journeys – at sea and on land – were marked by depression, they were artistically fruitful, giving him time to write, subject matter for his poetry, and often allowing him time to develop breakthroughs in form, structure, or voice. Here, Ginsberg subverted the traditional mode by secretly dedicating the poem to Cassady. A reader in 1948 would have assumed the first line: “Most dear, and dearest at this moment, most” was addressed to a woman.
In spite of his self-pity, Ginsberg felt strongly enough about his work to submit “Dakar Doldrums” to the competition, though he had remarked in a letter to Cassady: “I have two hundred beautiful lines from Dakar and I don’t care about it except to show you and have you praise me for them.”
When they arrived at Dakar – the first time Ginsberg ever set foot on foreign soil – they were surrounded by “dozens of blacks” who dressed in white shorts or trousers and typically went shirtless or worse ragged shirts. Lots of local boys attempted to sell things to the sailors, including women and marijuana. Ginsberg, who had studied French in school, was able to communicate with them, including “one of the natives” who was willing to do all of his work for him, which was mainly kitchen porter duties like scrubbing pots and pans and peeling potatoes. All Allen had to do was light the fire and make sure the “native” was doing his job, while he sat back reading and writing until the evening. For someone ostensibly opposed to colonialism, it was a surprising thing to boast about in his letters. It is nonetheless interesting observe the development of this skill, which Ginsberg had developed in previous journeys, of avoiding doing too much work so as to maximise his literary efforts. He had managed this during his first voyage at sea, and then later in a Denver department store.
Despite remarking to Herbert Huncke that Dakar “looks like a perfect second hand copy of Texas,” and saying that he felt very much at home there, he also described it in terms that rather set it apart from Texas or, for that matter, anywhere he’d previously visited:
Lots of adobe huts, grass shacks, modernistic plastic government buildings, nutty colonials, beggars etc . . . people in fantastic costumes dancing around the fire with [a] dozen tom-toms.
He seemed to thoroughly enjoy Dakar, in contrast with the depression he’d suffered on board the S.S. John Blair. He told Huncke that he was “sent,” which means “ecstatic” in hipster talk, and said, “this place is so mad I’m overwhelmed.” To his father, he wrote that he “having a wild time” and echoed his remarks above about it begin similar to Texas. He was able to easily acquire marijuana for “a penny a stick” but lamented that “sex is nowhere here” although he had commissioned someone to find boys for him to fuck. His terms were that the boys must be fifteen or sixteen years old, desperate for money, and handsome. It was only on his final day in Dakar that Allen’s sources found him a boy. Alas, the boy in question appears to have been handicapped, and although desperate, Ginsberg could not bring himself to take advantage of the poor kid, whom he paid off before returning to the ship. Dakar had not been as exciting as he hoped, and he had failed to find either the opium or uninhibited homosexual intercourse that he had wanted, but it is clear from his letters that was an overall positive experience. Several years later, he would be telling stories “about Dakar witch doctors and New Orleans whorehouses,” making himself out to be quite the experienced voyager.
In addition to his long poem, “Dakar Doldrums,” another significant piece of work that emerged from the trip to Africa was his short story, “The Monster of Dakar.” In fact, it is clear that when comparing the so-called short story to Ginsberg’s actual experiences, it was more of a creative memoir than a piece of fiction, and a few years later, in his journal, he contemplated editing it into an actual short story, whereas it was currently “an actual confession.” Whereas in his “Dakar Doldrums” poetry, he simply disguised his lover’s gender, he labelled his prose as fiction and allowed his narrator to admit his homosexuality. This, too, would be submitted to a literary competition after a few years.
Ginsberg’s protagonist is looking back on 1947 from the future, remarking that in the middle of that year he was “out on my own in the world for the first time” and briefly reflects upon his failed relationship with Cassady. From there, he recounts his life on the seas, colourfully portraying a mixed race crew of misfits, including a handsome Texan who appears like a hybrid of Lucian Carr and Neal Cassady. He says of his expectations for Africa:
We were headed for Dakar which in my mind I had already equipped with a white stepped Casbah, incense, opium, hashish, Arabian boys, a foreign colony of broken down middle European intellectuals, everybody talking French of Arabic, and the backwoods jungles, with moth-eaten or beautiful Africans, as the case might be. (The map showed a desert and that was fine.) I longed to see Africa, it was my first trip to that great continent, I knew all about it instinctively.
My plan for Africa was an orgy of drugs and native boys: to smoke opium at last, something I had never done, and buy a man and have a totally uninhibited ball for the first time in my life. I had visions of a dark hotel room or a mud hut, nakedness, fire light and a dirt floor.
Interestingly, mirroring his work from Denver, Dakar as a physical place warranted little description: “The town itself was nothing. It’s just a new port town with no traditions of its own.” Instead, Ginsberg describes his own thoughts and desires and activities. He is the titular monster, drawn to prey upon the uneducated, underaged, and possibly mentally-handicapped local boys – “That’s why I set out from America to begin with,” he claims. He also captures the people – the sailors on the ship from Puerto Rico and Texas, as well as the local men and boys in Dakar, including a group of lepers.
-an excerpt from a forthcoming book, World Citizen: The Travels of Allen Ginsberg