Mended or ended: the legacy of Roger Casement

Words: Liam Caldwell

Before 2020 became the year of falling statues, the town of Dún Laoghaire in County Dublin announced a plan to build one. When complete, it will represent Roger Casement, born in nearby Sandycove in 1864. According to the sculptor, Mark Richards, the €120,000 figure symbolises Casement’s return to the place he was born. 

Casement was arrested for his involvement in the Easter Rising of 1916, a failed insurrection in which Irish Republicans stormed the General Post Office of Dublin and attempted to proclaim independence from Britain. 

Sixteen of the rebels were executed, including Casement. Many of them, particularly Padraig Pearse and James Connolly, have been celebrated in Irish history. But through the twentieth century, Casement’s legacy was sullied by revelations about his sexuality from his supposed diaries. His name was mired in debates about the ethics of homosexuality that have overshadowed his role both in the Irish Republican movement, and in exposing the abuses of colonialism and slavery.

In 1884, Casement successfully applied for a job with the International African Association, an organisation managed by Belgium’s King Léopold II for his colonial interests. Casement was stationed in the Belgian Congo to, in his own words, ‘aid in what was then represented as a philanthropic international enterprise, having only humanitarian aims.’ 

Casement was quickly disillusioned. According to Angus Mitchell, a biographer of Casement, King Léopold ‘preached philanthropy, promoting the idea of liberating Africans from slavery and implementing law and justice as building blocks towards a civilised future’. In reality, it was ‘a harsh new world driven by the trinity of imperialism, racism and militarism.’ 

The Belgian Congo was a rich source of rubber, the market for which boomed in the 1890s after the invention of the pneumatic tyre. As rubber became more popular, Léopold’s regime became crueller: according to Mitchell, ‘torture, violence, indentured slavery and mass killings’ were employed liberally in order to meet rubber quotas.  

Casement’s first complaint about brutality was as early as 1887. He received a response informing him that he had ‘no right of intervention’. Casement spent the next few years earning that right, proving his capabilities as a dedicated ‘explorer and administrator’, sending back several reports and memoranda that meticulously catalogued day-to-day consular business. In 1890, he was officially offered a consulate, just as reports of state violence against the Congolese were reaching the UK. Casement wrote several letters, memoranda and reports detailing what he saw, at one stage proclaiming: ‘I shall see its rotten system of administration mended or ended.’ 

In 1903, British Foreign Secretary Lord Lansdowne ordered Casement to travel to the Upper Congo to write a report of ‘authentic information’. Casement collected first-person testimonies of local victims that described slavery, beatings, murder and cannibalism, as well as an account of a village wiped out to make room for a military training camp, and an entire town set ablaze. Casement wrote to Lansdowne that ‘the one dreadful, dreary cry that has been ringing in my ears for the last six weeks has been protect us from our protectors.’ 

In his final report, Casement was careful how he presented the facts, ensuring that nobody could accuse him of not being dispassionate. When his report was finally published, it caused a sensation. The response from Brussels was indignant and defensive, claiming the report was factually incorrect and too reliant on ‘native evidence’. 

After the publication of the report, Casement, along with E.D. Morel, set up the Congo Reform Association, an NGO pressure group that pre-dated Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. They were interested in fighting for the rights of enslaved people on an international level, as well as calling for the end of free market capitalism, which reflected Casement’s emerging belief in international socialism. One of their key causes was the plight of enslaved people in South America, where Casement’s diplomatic work next took him. 

In 1906, Casement was sent to another consular position in Brazil. His experiences there further cemented his belief that change could not be achieved within the confines of the system, but only through organised resistance. This coincided with his developing Irish republicanism: his writings reveal problematic comparisons between the slavery he witnessed and the struggles for Irish independence.

In 1910, a scandal broke over revelations of slavery by a British rubber company`in the Putomayo mountains – an area of disputed territory between Brazil, Columbia and Peru. Casement persuaded the foreign secretary to send him as the British representative to report on the issue. He sailed across the Amazon, writing a diary of what he saw, often describing the victims’ scars and accompanying his writing with photos. At one point, he writes of ‘the lash, the chains, the bullets, the machete [that] give its shareholders a dividend’. 

In July 1912, the British Government published some of his reports, generating international coverage which even led the Pope to write an Encyclical condemning the slavery of South Americans. The negative publicity led to a waning of international investment in the South American rubber market. 

Casement resigned from the Consular Service in 1913 and threw himself into the Irish nationalist cause. On Good Friday 1916, he was arrested off the coast of Kerry and charged with illegally attempting to import guns from Germany to equip the rebels for the Easter Rising. The execution of the rebels proved unpopular, both at home and internationally, and drew waves of sympathy for the republican cause. 

Casement was the last to be hanged; the British Government had time to change their mind, but did not. According to Colm Tóibín, ‘they wanted to hang Casement’, so deep was his betrayal of the government he once represented. Before executing him, they circulated extracts of his ‘personal diaries’, revealing his sexual relations with men and undermining campaigns for clemency on his behalf undertaken his influential connections including Arthur Conan Doyle.

These ‘personal diaries’, commonly known as the Black Diaries, are deliberately assigned quotation marks. A century later, debate still lingers around whether they are forgeries. One of the Black Diaries was written alongside a more official ‘White Diary’ for his Putamayo journey: for Mitchell, it is odd that Casement would have written two diaries covering the same period. Other scholars make similar observations – for example, that one diary is written in pen and the other in pencil, that the entries in the Black Diary are shorter, and that in one, Casement’s handwriting deteriorates due to his bad eyesight, but in the other it does not.  

Mitchell argues that the debate is pointless. But that isn’t true. Queer history is difficult to piece together, and Casement is part of this history: he was condemned for being gay, whether he was or not. Nonetheless, it’s valid to note that there is more focus on Casement’s diaries than there is on his work exposing brutality and paving the way for modern human rights campaigns. It’s taken more than a century for his statue to be commissioned in Dún Laoghaire, the same year that statues of King Léopold in Brussels and Antwerp have been respectively vandalised and set on fire. British justice may have sentenced Casement; the justice of history is settling the score.

learn more

  • BOOK: Roger Casement: The Black Diaries – with a study of his background, sexuality, and Irish political life – Jeffrey Dudgeon
  • BOOK: 16 Lives: Roger Casement – Angus Mitchell
  • BOOK: Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almódovar Colm Tóibín

Liam Caldwell recently graduated from the University of Glasgow in English literature and French. He was Deputy Editor of Qmunicate Magazine, and his poetry has also been published by The Glasgow Pedestrian. He will be undertaking a Masters at Queen’s University Belfast in September 2020 in English – Poetry. Follow him on Twitter.