The Ghost Of Roger Casement Is Beating On The Door

Liam Ó Ruairc assesses the  role of Roger Casement. Liam O'Ruairc is former joint editor of The Blanket.

There are solid grounds to think that Roger Casement is the most interesting and inspiring of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders. His appeal is truly universal. He appeals to the Congolese anti-imperialist and the British socialist, can be the subject of W.B.Yeats' poems or the novel El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt) of the 2010 Peruvian Nobel Laureate in Literature Mario Vargas Llosa; is a source of fascination for a Spanish diplomat or Irish republican prisoners.

It is thus not suprising that the first Casement biographies were published in German and in Italian before any were in English. In Germany, the anti-fascist intellectual Balder Olden, forced into exile with the rise of Hitler, wrote a biography of Casement, paying particular attention to his attitude to Africa and South America.

Casement crosses boundaries from fiction to reality, from the local to the global. Arthur Conan Doyle used Casement as an inspiration for the character of Lord John Roxton in his 1912 novel The Lost World and the anthropologist Michael Taussig in his 1987 book Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild has argued convincingly that Casement can be linked to Colonel Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's novel The Heart of Darkness, not to mention Mark Twain's references to him. He was both a significant figure in Irish history and someone who played an important role in Latin America and Africa. Casement's legacy cannot be claimed exclusively by any one political group in Ireland as his achievements are universal.

His role and influence were truly global, his struggle tricontinental, reaching far beyond the shores of Ireland. He served with distinction in the British consular service. His reports on the Congo and Putumayo attracted worldwide attention and acclaim, services for which he was knighted in 1911. He was committed to truth and justice. He spoke the truth both to power and the powerless. He was the authentic voice of the dispossessed in Africa, Ireland, South America and elsewhere. Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that: "In the colonies the truth stood naked, but the citizens of the mother country preferred it with clothes on."

Casement's allegiance always went to the naked truth, and never attempted to dress it up. His reports were in effect the 'strip-tease' of European humanism whose truth content he showed. When he exposed the crimes of King Leopold in Congo, this enabled the Congo Reform to become the largest sustained protest against imperialism in the decades before the Great War. Kwame Nkrumah, the President of Ghana, the first independent country in Africa, expressed the debt owed to Casement by all "those who have fought for African freedom". W.E. Du Bois wrote in 1916 an obituary of Casement saying that the Irish should be forgiven for their murderous attacks on African Americans during the Draft Riots as a mark of respect for all that Casement had done fighting oppression in the Congo. In 1919 Marcus Garvey invoked Casement’s name as he prompted revolt on the New York waterfront.

Casement had also exposed the atrocities and murderous rubber slavery committed against the Putumayo Indians by the Peruvian Amazon Company, a British company engaged in the extraction of rubber on the Brazil-Peru border. Rosa Luxemburg referenced Casement's Putumayo investigation in her indictment of the relation between capitalism and militarism in her Junius Pamphlet and Trotsky acknowledged his reading of it in a 1916 article.

Interestingly, Casement emphasized time and again that it was his Irishness that drove him to combat colonial oppression in Africa and Latin America. To Alice Stopford Green he wrote that King Leopold's exploitation of the Congo was "a tyranny beyond conception save only, perhaps, to an Irish mind alive to the horrors once daily enacted in this land." To William Cadbury he said: "It was only because I was an Irishman that I could understand fully, I think, the whole scheme of wrongdoing at work in the Congo." This enabled him to rise from the particular to the universal. Most remarkably by 1916 he stated that : "I had come to look upon myself as an African." (Brief to Counsel, 8 June 1916).

 The extraordinary fact that in 1916 Casement had looked upon himself as an African and not just some Irishman clearly shows that he identified with the subaltern globally, not just locally in Ireland. On 24 April 1904 he wrote to Alice Stopford Green that "the more we love our land and wish to help her people the more keenly we feel we cannot turn a deaf ear to suffering and limited to Ireland. " In a letter written to Wilfrid Blunt on 12 May 1914 Casement spoke fondly of a time "when Irishmen preached not freedom for themselves alone but freedom for all others". This was the essence of his own conception of freedom. Not a particular conception of freedom, simply for Ireland, but a universal one. Not freedom for 'ourselves alone' but freedom for 'all others'. On 8 April 1911 Casement wrote to E.D. Morel:

Tackling Leopold in Africa has set in motion a big movement – it must be a movement of human liberation all the world must remember that the cause of human freedom is as wide as the world.

It is to Casement's credit that he placed the Irish struggle in a context "as wide as the world", "a movement of human liberation all the world over" whose fundamental aim was "human freedom" not just national independence. He encouraged the subaltern to think transnationally about history and the political. Casement wrote articles on the Swadeshi movement of India, Egyptian nationalism, the Maoris of New Zealand.

Casement is not just significant because of his internationalism ~ the same could be said of Connolly for example ~ he dealt not simply with international problems but issues of universal importance. Casement dealt with universal problems, and still speaks to all those concerned with rights and freedom in the universal sense. Nowhere is this more clear than in his 1916 speech from the dock.

Casement's speech from the dock had a profound impact that still resonates after many years. From Bengal to Accra, nationalist leaders across the Empire were inspired by its words. As Angus Mitchell points out:

Apart from its attention to style and content, the speech is full of rhetorical devices and rhytms that codify many of the intellectual struggles of his life into a single statement about rights: natural rights, sovereign rights and human rights. It resonates to the very core of discussion about universal questions to do with imperial power, national self-determination and the relationship between law and history.

Wilfrid Blunt described it as "the finest document in patriotic history, finer than anything in Plutarch or elsewhere in Pagan literature". When languishing as a political prisoner in the 1930s, Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of independent India commented how "it seemed to point out exactly how a subject nation should feel". As recently as 2010, the former Conservative British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, claimed it as the greatest speech of all time. (Angus Mitchell (2013), Roger Casement, Dublin: The O'Brien Press, 309 and 313)

More controversial, from the perspective of today, are Casement's positive assessments of the German state and the German Empire; what Casement described in a memo as "my pro-Germanism". (Line of My Defence, 2 June 1916). Casement's views on the British and German imperial systems were set down in a pamphlet entitled British Versus German Imperialism: A Contrast, published anonymously in New York in 1915. He argued that British imperial power descended from a supreme and absolute England to subject people including "Ireland, India and Scotland".

Conversely the German empire was founded on state self-government and common control of foreign policy by the constituent countries. Connolly expressed similar views; possibly informed by Casement's writings. Both viewed the Great War as the 'crime against Europe', the aggression of industrious Germany by the pirate English nation and savage Cossacks. Casement's work in both the Congo and Putumayo had made him an authority on the use of atrocity reports for political and diplomatic ends.

When the British government released the Bryce report on German atrocities during the Great War in May 1915, in an article entitled 'The Far-Extended Baleful Power of the Lie', Casement attacked its author as a historian, as a witness and most controversially as the wielder of a lie. Surprisingly with the current nostalgia for the Great War against the Hun there have been no recent anti-republican polemics using this article to accuse Casement of atrocity denial. Interestingly, Raimund Weisbach, Captain of the U-19 submarine which conveyed Casement back to Ireland and Banna Strand in April 1916, had fired the torpedo which sank the RMS Lusitania passenger liner near the Irish coast on 7 May 1915 killing 1,198 civilian passengers; an event that the pro-German Connolly trivialised at the time in his Workers' Republic newspaper.

It should be noted that when Casement attempted to raise an Irish Brigade in Germany during the Great War, it was intended to fight not just in Ireland but also in Egypt and possibly India; what in the 1960s would have been called 'creating two, three, many Vietnam'.

The title of this article comes from W.B. Yeats' 1937 poem The Ghost of Roger Casement which introduced the trope of haunting into the subject. After his execution, Casement was transformed into a ghostly presence within Irish history, and his spectre returns perpetually to haunt Irish politics. The spectral presence of Roger Casement brings to mind Jacques Derrida's 1993 book Spectres of Marx - which was published when the future of Marxism never seemed bleaker where he reflects on the persistance of utopian revolution despite its apparent eradication from the scene of politics and history. Communism takes on the a ghostly aspect – present and not present. This is common ground between communism and Irish republicanism. "Time is out of joint" writes Shakespeare in Hamlet, and ruling powers are unable to exorcise the spectral presence - the spirit of Marx and Casement and its emancipatory promise.


Angus Mitchell's work on Roger Casement is particularly worth reading. Many of his articles are available free of charge here.

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