Roger Casement was born in Dublin to an Anglo-Irish family, he joined the British colonial service
after working in the Congo for Henry Morton Stanley whom he came to detest, and the African International Association, a front set up by King Leopold II of Belgium in his takeover of the Congo Free State which included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo.
After serving in different parts of Africa he transferred to the Foreign Office as British consul in the eastern part of the French Congo. In 1903 the British government commissioned Casement to investigate the human rights situation in that region.
Human rights and the British empire rarely, if ever, worked in tandem. This inquiry was seen by the British government as a way to clip the wings of an imperial rival. However Casement took his duties seriously and travelled for weeks in the upper Congo Basin to interview people throughout the region, including workers, overseers, and mercenaries. He delivered a long, detailed eyewitness report to the Crown that exposed abuses:
"the enslavement, mutilation, and torture of natives on the rubber plantations,"
In 1906 the Foreign Office sent Casement to Brazil: first as consul in Santos, then transferred to Pará, and lastly promoted to consul-general in Rio de Janeiro. He was attached as a consular representative to a commission investigating rubber slavery by the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC), which had been registered in Britain in 1908 and had a British board of directors and numerous stockholders.
Again Casement traveled extensively this time to the Putumayo District, where the rubber was harvested deep in the Amazon Basin. He explored the treatment of the local Indians of Peru.
He reported the Indians had been forced into unpaid labor by local management of the PAC, who exerted absolute power over them and subjected them to near starvation, severe physical abuse, rape of women and girls by the managers and overseers, branding and casual murder.
Casement's report has been described as a "brilliant piece of journalism", as he wove together first-person accounts by both "victims and perpetrators of atrocities". "Never before had distant colonial subjects been given such personal voices in an official document."
After his return to Britain, Casement repeated his extra-consular campaigning work by organising an Anti-Slavery Society and Catholic mission interventions in the region. Some of the company men exposed as killers in his 1910 report were charged by Peru, while most fled the region and were never captured. Some entrepreneurs had smuggled out cuttings from rubber plants and began cultivation in southeast Asia in colonies of the British Empire. The scandal of the PAC caused major losses in business to the company, and rubber demand began to be met by farmed rubber in other parts of the world. With the collapse of business for PAC, most foreigners left Iquitos and it quickly returned to its former status as an isolated backwater. For a period, the Putumayo Indians were largely left alone.*
Throughout this period Casement never hid his allegiance to Ireland. He joined Sinn Féin in 2005, 11 years before the rising. He was also a member of the Gaelic League and on good terms with the leaders of the Irish Parliamentary Party, although he never believed in home rule as he was convinced the House of Lords would always veto it.
Casement retired from the British Foreign Office in 1913 believing in doing so he no longer had any allegiance to the British state nor Crown. In November that year he helped form the Irish Volunteers. He and Eoin MacNeill co-wrote the Volunteers' manifesto.
For the rest of his life he worked tirelessly for an independent Ireland. He part funded and worked with Erskine Childers, another anglo Irish son, to organises the Howth gun-running in late July 1914.
When Childers yacht Asgard transported arms from Europe to Ireland.
In 1916 Casement was charged with treason after having been taken by the British three days before the Dublin Easter Rising began. In Ireland he is regarded as the 16th Easter martyr of the Rising. The British state clearly wanted its pound of flesh as he was the only one to be brought to London, charged of Treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London. A nonsensical charge as Casement as an Irish Republican had long before renounced his loyalty to the British crown and state, which he regarded as a foreign state and occupying power of his native land.
This was the English ruling class at its most vengeful. Winston Churchill's words when he heard Erskine Childers, another anglo Irish rebel had been captured and executed, could equally have been said after Casement's execution such is the hateful and vengeful attitude of the English ruling class:
I have seen with some satisfaction that the mischief making murderous renegade has been captured. This strange being actuated by a deadly hatred of the land of his birth, such as he is may all who hate us be.
Even a class prejudiced bigot like Churchill must have known Casement had a great love for his country, Ireland. Rather than respecting the man as a worthy enemy who had done much good in the world, he ranted like a mini Mussolini.
* Above information about Roger Casement comes from Wikipedia.
Patrick Cockburn writes a timely piece about Roger Casement who was labelled a traitor in the aftermath of the Easter Rising.
|Roger Casement is escorted to the gallows of Pentonville Prison in London|
The 100th anniversary of the Easter uprising of 1916 saw the beginnings of a deeper appreciation of the achievements of Sir Roger Casement, who was hanged as a traitor in Pentonville prison on 3 August 1916. Over the following century he has never lacked for notoriety, famous as an Irish patriotic martyr, but discussion of his life has frequently focused on his sexuality and revolved around the “Black Diaries” that were covertly used by the British government to blacken Casement’s name and sabotage the campaign against his execution.
The controversy over whether or not the diaries were forged never discredited Casement – in Ireland, if anything, they further sanctified his name as a victim of British machinations – but it did divert attention from his work in exposing the mass murder and enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Congo and Amazon. He detailed how they were not only being mistreated, but actually wiped out by the terror imposed by those seeking to obtain rubber through forced labour.
To understand what Casement was trying to stop, it is best to quote some of the Congolese interviewed by him for his report, published in 1903, which describes the atrocities being carried out by King Leopold II of Belgium and his private army in the Congo. The witnesses are identified only by their initials or are unnamed. RR said “I ran away with two old people, but they were caught and killed, and the soldiers made me carry the baskets holding their cut-off hands. They killed my little sister, threw her in a house, and set it on fire.” UU gives a similar account of the reign of terror, saying that:
as we fled, the soldiers killed 10 children, in the water. They killed a lot of adults, cut off their hands, put them in baskets, and took them to the white man, who counted 200 hands … One day, soldiers struck a child with a gun-butt, cut off its head, and killed my sister and cut off her head, hands and feet because she had on rings.
A refugee from the rubber producing regions of the Congo interviewed by Casement gave a description of the ghastly mechanism by which people were forced either to collect natural rubber or to die:
We had to go further and further into the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved. Wild beasts – leopards – killed some of us when we were working away in the forest, and others got lost or died from exposure and starvation, and we begged the white man to leave us alone, saying that we could get no more rubber, but the white men and their soldiers said: ‘Go! You are only beasts yourselves.’
Casement stresses that these abuses were exterminating the entire local population as they were slaughtered and their villages and towns burnt. As a British consular official, Casement suspected that he was finding out more than the British government would want people to know, but he felt he had no choice but to expose what was happening in order prevent it. He wrote later in a letter cited in 16 Lives: Roger Casement by Angus Mitchell that “I burned my boats deliberately, and forced the Foreign Office either to repudiate me, or back my report”.
Casement combined several qualities which made him uniquely qualified to investigate and expose the horrors he saw in the Congo and the Peruvian Amazon. He was a fearless and experienced traveller. Joseph Conrad, who met him in the Congo in 1890, wrote of seeing him “start off into an unspeakable wilderness swinging a crook handled stick ... with two bulldogs”. Conrad met him a few months later, a little leaner and browner, still with his bulldogs and otherwise looking little changed.
Physical courage and moral outrage are not enough to combat the beneficiaries of exploitation and mass murder. A politically sophisticated and cosmopolitan Irish nationalist, Casement saw that his reports alone would not be effective against the powerful commercial and political interests headed by the King of Belgium. He wrote that the rubber profiteers were united “and only systematised effort can get the better of them”. He supported, semi-secretly because of his official position, British and Irish politicians, writers and journalists agitating against Belgian misrule in the Congo. Thanks to his Irish background, Casement said he could understand that exploitation of the weak by the strong and of small nations by big nations has the same basic motivation and mechanics regardless of whether it took place in Ireland, Congo or Peru.
I had heard about Casement and in a hazy way admired him when I was a child, through a brief but dramatic encounter between my grandfather and Casement when he was a prisoner. He had been arrested on Banna Strand in Kerry after landing from a German submarine, three days before the Easter Rising began in Dublin on 24 April. He had been in Germany trying to persuade Irish prisoners to fight against Britain and obtain arms for an insurgency in Ireland.
I knew Casement’s name, though not much else, because when I was seven or eight I was shown a drawing of him that was hanging on the wall in Myrtle Grove, a Tudor house belonging to my uncle Bernard Arbuthnot, just inside the medieval town walls of Youghal in County Cork. I was told that the sketch was by my grandfather, Jack Arbuthnot, a major in the Scots Guards who was also an artist and had drawn Casement in his cell in the Tower of London sometime between his arrest and his execution. The words “Tower” and “execution” caught my attention, but otherwise I was uninterested in the little picture.
My father, Claud Cockburn, was interested in the story, had seen the drawing and had known Jack Arbuthnot, whom he liked. He described him as a genuine kind of High Tory who felt that regulations were all very well for others, but should not “interfere in any way with what seemed good to him at the time”. Though a career army officer, he was also part time journalist – speeding from Fleet Street to Windsor Castle to take up guard duty – as well as a cartoonist and artist. My father believed he was Casement’s full time jailer in the Tower and had sketched the prisoner days before he was hanged, though actually the connection was a little different, and the sketch was made before Casement’s trial.
The connection between Major Arbuthnot and Casement is confirmed by a diary written by Gertrude Bannister, Casement’s cousin. This is now in the National Library of Ireland where it was read by the author and historian Kieran Groeger who kindly passed on to me a copy of the relevant pages in the diary. After Casement’s arrest and imprisonment, Gertrude and her sister had been desperately searching for him, but British officials refused to say where he was held. Eventually, the sisters received a hint that he was in the custody of the Life Guards, which Gertrude thought unlikely, but they went to Whitehall where “at last, we saw a certain Major Arbuthnot who showed courtesy and sympathy”. He told them that they should really apply to the Governor of the Tower and they said they had already done so and had received no reply. “He said, ‘I will write personally.’ He then told us that he had seen Roger. He said he needed clothes and suggested we should send in some.” Casement had been kept for weeks in the same clothes in which he had been arrested, in what was presumably an effort to demoralise him.
Gertrude and her sister went to the Tower and waited a long time until Casement was brought in by two soldiers and Major Arbuthnot. Gertrude asked “couldn’t you leave us alone?” By her account, he hesitated and then ordered the two soldiers out of the room and stood outside himself. “The interview was terrible,” she wrote. “Roger thought he was to be shot and that was why we had been brought to say goodbye.” In reality, he was still to be tried and was some months from his execution. He had been told by his interrogators that his family, who were hunting for him all over London, were refusing to see him because of his “treachery”. After some time, Major Arbuthnot returned and told Gertrude that “Roger must go”, and the soldiers took him away.
The sketch of Casement which my father and I saw at Myrtle Grove must have been drawn soon after this visit and before he was transferred to Brixton prison. It has since gone missing, though hopefully it is only misplaced and will be found again one day.
By Patrick Cockburn’s Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East is published this month by OR Books