Some will know of the Irishman, Roger Casement, because of the infamous ‘Black Diaries’ in which he reputedly detailed his homosexual relationships, and which were published in the British press at the time of his imprisonment in Pentonville Prison in 1916. Some will also know that he was stripped of his Knighthood and hanged as a traitor for collaborating with the Germans against England during the First World War.
Some will know of him from William Butler Yeats’s poem, which begins: “I say that Roger Casement/ Did what he had to do/ He died upon the gallows,/ But that is nothing new”. Yeats saw him as an Irish patriot but that view was controversial, even in Ireland, and only recently has he been widely recognized as a hero of the Irish struggle for independence.
Few will know of his work in the Congo and in Amazonia, where he documented the atrocities perpetrated on the native population by colonizing powers for the sake of those valuable commodities – rubber and ivory. In both places, the reports he wrote for the British Foreign Office were instrumental in bringing about changes, and in 1911 King George V knighted him for exemplary service to the United Kingdom.
Few men rise so high: and few sink so low as to be tried for treason and end their lives on the gallows.
Mario Vargas Llosa begins his novel in Casement’s cell in Pentonville Prison, where he awaits news of his appeal against the death sentence. But the bulk of the novel is made up of his memories. First of his years in Africa, then in Brazil and Peru, and finally in Ireland.
Casement was born in Kingstown, Co. Dublin, and grew up in an Anglican family, although his mother, who died when he was nine, had been a Catholic and had secretly had him baptized as a Catholic on a holiday trip to Wales. At the age of fifteen, he joined the Elder Dempster shipping line in Liverpool as an apprentice and, in the four years that he worked for them, he made three trips to West Africa and liked it so much that he gave up his job and moved there. In 1884, he joined an expedition into the Congo led by the famous Welsh explorer, Henry Morton Stanley. This was his first experience of the mixed intentions of Europeans in the Congo: “on one hand sowing desolation and death…and on the other opening routes to commerce and evangelization”, but for the next two years he travelled extensively as an agent for the Sanford Exploring Expedition, which was developing trade throughout the Upper Congo for King Leopold II of Belgium.
During these years, Casement became increasingly disillusioned with the idealistic vision of being able “to emancipate backward and ignorant people through Christianity and Western enlightenment”. By the time he met Konrad Korzeniowski, who was newly arrived in the Congo, he was able to share with him the horrors he had seen perpetrated by Belgian government agents and by the military Force Publique employed by them to enforce order. He prepared him for the terrible experiences which Conrad would eventually write into his novel, Heart of Darkness.
In 1888, Casement resigned from his job in disgust and went to work at a Baptist Mission as a book-keeper for three months before returning to England. Already, he was arguing vehemently against the exploitation, violence and moral corruption he had seen perpetrated in the Belgian Congo Free State in the name of commerce.
In Britain, reports of atrocities in the Belgian Congo were causing public outrage. Casement had a great deal of experience in Africa and a facility for languages which allowed him to talk with some of the native peoples in the Congo. His views about the situation there were also becoming more widely known. So, in 1892, he was appointed by the British Foreign Office as Travelling Commissioner to the Niger Court Protectorate and, shortly after that, as British Consul in the Congo port town of Boma. His express task was to investigate and report on human rights abuse in the Congo Free State. He undertook this task with “apostolic zeal” and presented his report in 1904. Pressure was brought to bear on the Belgians by the British government and changes were made. Casement became an important public figure in the cause against corruption and he was made ‘Companion of St Michael and St. George’ for his services in the Congo.
Through his African experiences, however, Casement had “discovered the great lie of colonialism” and had begun to think about his own country – Ireland. He became an Irish patriot and leaned all he could about Ireland’s history, culture, mythology and language. And in 1905, he began to collaborate with the newly formed Sinn Fein. Later, after his Amazonian experiences, he return to live in Ireland and made a visit to the United States to meet John Devoy, the leader of the powerful nationalist Clan na Gael, and find support for his own Irish Volunteers.
Casement’s experiences in the Congo were repeated when he was appointed Consul General at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and began to document the conditions of labourers working on the remote Putumayo rubber plantations for the Peruvian Amazon Company. His report on these was published in Britain and was instrumental in bringing about the downfall of the PAC. And in 1911, he was awarded a Knighthood which, despite his Irish patriotism, he accepted.
Ill health, and a desire to return to Ireland made Casement resign from the British Foreign Office in 1913. From then on, he became increasingly involved in the Irish Republican movement, bringing his fanaticism for justice to the cause. At the outbreak of World War I he was convinced that a rising timed to coincide with a German attack on England was the best way for the Republicans to succeed. His negotiations in Germany, his return from there to Ireland in a German submarine to supervise the distribution of arms supplied by the Germans, his subsequent betrayal by a British spy, and his capture and imprisonment, bring Llosa’s story full circle.
Roger Casement was undoubtedly a man governed by his principles to the extent that even close British friends ultimately broke off contact with him, and many Irish friends believed he had gone too far in liaising with the Germans. The ‘Black Diaries’, purportedly written by him during his years in Africa and Amazonia, and suggesting that he had indulged in sexual perversion, paedophilia and sexual exploitation, aroused disgust in many who would have supported a petition for clemency. These diaries, and his undoubted support for the Germans and theirs for him, led to him being stripped of his Knighthood and, ultimately, being hanged as a traitor.
Mario Vargas Llosa indicates Casement’s homosexuality and love of photographing beautiful young boys, but he goes into little detail and suggests that much of the content of the diaries was the indulgence of fantasies by a lonely man. Llosa’s graphic accounts of the atrocities in the Congo and Amazonia are hard to read; and the extremism and fanaticism of Casement himself make him a difficult man to like. However, Llosa creates a convincing picture of Casement as a man of many parts – good and bad – and he brings back into focus the many important changes that Casement’s work did achieve. Llosa rounds off his novel with a summary of Casement’s gradual acceptance in Ireland as “one of the great anti-colonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time and a sacrificial combatant for the emancipation of Ireland”. Something about which W.B.Yeats had no doubts when he wrote his poem.
Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/