Roger Casement: Flawed hero

Roger Casement is escorted to the gallows in 1916.

London’s former Bow Street Magistrates Court is now a luxury hotel owned by an Irish company which is appropriate as the building has played an important and recurring role in Irish history. Over the years, the court has tried the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, Nazi propagandist William “Lord Haw-Haw” Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement. If Wilde is probably the most famous dead gay Irishman in history, Casement is surely the second (Leo Varadkar may change that equation some day).

Casement is mostly unknown these days but he was an Irish patriot, poet and revolutionary, and an important human rights advocate who also happened to be a British diplomat. His investigations carried out on behalf of the Foreign Office, into outrages committed against indigenous people enslaved to supply rubber for a new age of western manufacturing, brought him respect and renown. In 1911, he was knighted for his courage and integrity in his duties and his name and reputation were associated with the long struggle against international slavery.

Yet in 1916 Britain hanged Roger Casement for treason. He had been arrested in Kerry after trying to smuggle in 20,000 guns from a German U-Boat for the Irish republican cause. Casement got the death sentence despite being a knight of the realm who had served a long and distinguished 30 year career in the British Foreign Service. He was British Consul for Mozambique (1895-98), Angola (1898-1900), Congo (1901-04) and Brazil (1906-11). He gained international recognition for fighting slave labour in the Belgian Congo in 1903 and in the Amazon in 1910.

None of this counted in his defence despite Casement becoming a cause celebre in the Bow St trial. Many of his famous friends initially leaped to sing his praises. However the prosecution produced a startling document that stopped the campaign to save him, dead in its tracks.

Casement was a fervent diary writer and often stayed up late at night to fill in two and sometimes three different diaries. Firstly there was the official diary for his work as consul; secondly there was his private diary known as the “White Diaries” in which gave a detailed account of his activities against the slave trade in the Congo and the Amazon. However the third diary was the most damaging in the trial and was deliberately leaked by the prosecution. These diaries known as the “Black Diaries” were kept for the years of 1903, 1910 and 1911, during his missions in the Belgian Congo and Brazil. These diaries recounted his sexual conquests and discussed their penis size in great detail. It was the publication of these diaries that hung Roger Casement. The existence of these diaries and whether or not they are forgeries remains controversial to this day.

Roger Casement was born of Ulster Protestant army stock in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) County Dublin, in 1864. His mother Anne Jephson was Catholic who secretly re-baptised her son when he was three. Both his parents died before he was 13 and he was brought up by an uncle in Magherintemple, Co. Cavan. After leaving school he was sent overseas on a family company ship, the SS Bonny, making three round trips to West Africa.

Casement returned to Africa in 1884 as an employee of the International Association a collection of committees dedicated to “civilising” the Congo, under the chairmanship of Belgium’s King Leopold. Casement returned from this assignment disillusioned with Leopold’s intentions for the Congo. The king was taking the profits from the rubber trade and turning the colony into his personal fiefdom. Casement joined the Consular service in 1892 aged 28. His first job was in the Oil Rivers Protectorate (now Nigeria). He was promoted to Consul in Lourenço Marques, capital of Portuguese Mozambique, in 1895.

In 1903, Casement travelled back to the Congo to report on the slavery situation there. His subsequent report was a damning indictment of King Leopold’s personal kingdom. Casement said Leopold used his agents in Africa to establish a brutal exploitative regime for the extraction of rubber, the profits of which he used to beautify Brussels. Casement visited Lukolela where in the 16 years since he was last there a population of 5000 was reduced to 600. This catastrophic decline was due, said Casement, “to sleeping-sickness, general ill-health, insufficiency of food, and the methods employed to obtain labor from them by local officials”.

In a 40 page report, Casemont proved killings and mutilations were commonplace as well as kidnapping and beatings by soldiers of Leopold’s native force. It was presented to parliament and Britain sent it to Belgium which had signed the Berlin Act in 1885. That act governed European intervention in Africa and specifically suppressed slavery. The Congo administration was forced to investigate the atrocities which led to the arrest and punishment of white officials responsible for the killings, scapegoats for Leopold. Casement returned home a hero where he began to look at issues in his own backyard and find the first stirrings of Irish nationalism.

Nonetheless he diligently applied service to the Empire. He transferred to South America in 1906 and became Consul of Sao Paolo’s port city Santos. He moved to Rio two years later where he heard reports of another slave trade. This time the victims were the Putumayo River Indians in the Amazon Basin. The Putumayo is a major river in its own right, 1900km long, rising in the west coast mountains of Colombia, forming the border with Peru and joining the Amazon in Brazil as the Içá. As in the Congo, the locals were enslaved to service the rubber export trade. British-registered Peruvian Amazon Company owned by Peruvian Julio Cesar Arana monopolised trade. PAC enslaved tribal peoples using the local form of debt bondage known as peonage with reports of rape, murder and torture of the Indian tappers.

In May 1910 the Foreign Office asked Casement to draw on his Congo experience and investigate the Amazon claims. Britain was careful not to infringe the Monroe Doctrine and upset American sensibilities. It justified the investigation on the grounds of PAC’s brutality of Barbadian British subjects. Casement made meticulous examinations of the area in 1910 and 1911 and he issued the 1242 page Putumayo Report in 1912. It was another damning indictment of the rubber slave trade. He calculated 30,000 natives had been murdered directly or killed by deliberate starvation brought by crop destruction. A parliamentary inquiry demanded Arana’s imprisonment. Arana fled back to Peru until the First World War put an end to the inquiry.

In 1913 Casement was knighted for his British heroism and eulogised from the pulpit at Westminster Abbey. But Casement was quickly dropping his British side. He resigned from the Service in 1913 and launched himself into Irish politics. In 1914 he made a speech to the Limerick Volunteers on his experiences during the Boer War (1899-1902) where he was an intelligence officer. He said the Boers were a volunteer army and put up the “greatest fight against the greatest army in the world.” Casement said he had gone into the war in support of the empire but by the end he was a supporter of the Boers. The war led led to his rejection of the oppressive forces of empire and to embrace the dreams of an independent and sovereign Ireland, where a new form of international compassion might flourish.

When the Northern Irish Unionists imported weapons in their fight to avoid Home Rule, Casement was inspired to do the same for the Nationalists. En route to Berlin, he was betrayed by his Norwegian manservant and lover Adler Christensen who told the British consul in Christiana (renamed Oslo in 1923) the true nature of both their relationship and the mission they were on.

Casement got little help from the Germans who saw him as trouble and who were glad to return him to Ireland on a U-Boat. They also sent 20,000 guns on a German boat disguised as the Norwegian “Aud Norge”. Britain intercepted telegraphic dispatches that announced Casement’s return. He was put ashore on Banna Strand near Tralee Co. Kerry. The local volunteers were not there to meet him having expected him to land on a different beach. Casement hid in the nearby abandoned McKenna Fort where he was found and arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Casement was taken to the Tower of London and charged with treason. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. The Black Diaries of his homosexual encounters in Congo and South America were used to prevent a reprieve. In his famous speech from the dock Casement claimed judicial assassinations were reserved for Irishmen. “The law that I am charged under has no parentage in love, and claims the allegiance of today on the ignorance and blindness of the past,” he told the judge.

It fell on deaf ears. He was convicted and executed August 3, 1916, a month short of his 52nd birthday and was buried in quicklime. From 1924 onwards, Irish governments supported the Casement family’s petition for his body to be returned home for burial in County Antrim. But with Antrim in partitioned Northern Ireland it made more sense to send his body to the Republic. He was finally returned to Ireland by new British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1965. Casement was re-interred under a simple, dignified slab at Glasnevin National cemetery in Dublin in a state funeral as an Irish hero. The funeral stepped delicately around the diaries.

The British allowed Michael Collins to see the Black Diaries during the 1921 Treaty negotiations. Fellow negotiator Eamon Duggan said Collins recognised Casement’s handwriting and said it was “disgusting”. The British placed the diaries under Official Secrets Act and De Valera, anxious to protect Casement’s reputation, refused to ask for them. The diaries were finally published in Paris in 1959. The Congo diaries made reference to “Agostinho, 17 ½ ‘kissed many times”. The 1910 diary had him ‘deep to the hilt’ and ‘in very deep thrusts’ with Brazilian natives. Penis size was a constant fixation. Mario in Rio was 8 ½ + 6”, the biggest since 1904 and “perfectly huge” while Welsh Will in London was a “splendid 6’ 3 1/2” .

Those anxious to protect Casement’s growing reputation denounced the Black Diaries as forgeries and a British conspiracy. They claimed the diary could be disproved by internal analysis as well as handwriting analysis and was in any case someone else’s diary. The view was most widespread in Ireland where horror of homosexuality remained common. In 1997 Angus Mitchell’s analysis of the three Putamayo diaries said Casement had been the victim of “a brilliant, though sinister, scheme hatched by British ntelligence to prevent him attaining martyrdom upon his execution for treason in 1916”.

In 2002 the results of the first ever fully independent forensic examination of the Black Diaries (commissioned by the BBC and RTE) were announced in London. Dr Audrey Giles, an internationally respected figure in the field of document forensics said: “The unequivocal and confident conclusion which the Giles Document Laboratory has reached is that each of the five documents collectively known as the Black Diaries is exclusively the work of Roger Casement’s hand, without any reason to suspect either forgery or interpolation by any other hand. The Diaries are genuine throughout and in each instance”.

It should not matter whether they are true or not. Roger Casement should be judged on his magnificent human rights record, not his personal life.

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