On June 29th, 1916 Roger Casement stood in the dock facing the jury who had just convicted him of treason. He was speaking (he said) not to those present in the courtroom, but to his fellow countrymen. With a balanced, passionate and water-tight argument he challenged the legitimacy of the charge being brought against him, and defended his inalienable right to fight, as an Irishman, for home rule in Ireland. In concluding this final public statement he said the following:
If there be no right of rebellion against the state of things that no savage tribe would endure without resistance, then I am sure that it is better for men to fight and die without rights than to live in such a state of right as this. Where all your rights have become only an accumulated wrong, where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to gather the fruits of their own labours, and even while they beg, to see things inexorably withdrawn from them – then, surely, it is a braver, a saner and truer thing to be a rebel, in act and in deed, against such circumstances as these, than to tamely accept it, as the natural lot of men.
Casement was tried amidst the fallout from the failed Easter Rising of 1916 in which Irish Republicans had attempted and failed to force the case for Home Rule in Ireland. His words, however, were at the same time an invocation of the principles according to which he had lived and worked for the last twenty years of his life. This was, however, to the British establishment for whom he was, by now, a sworn enemy, of no consequence. He was made a pariah in the public eye, and as such is remembered today not for the selfless humanism and championing of the voiceless millions enslaved in the colonial territories, but rather for the charge of which he was found guilty and executed, and the scandal surrounding the trial.
Shortly before his trial began, his diaries were discovered and made public. Their authenticity remains a subject of debate but his fate was sealed by their publication. The diaries contain explicit details of the sex life of a promiscuous homosexual, and in the eyes of a 1916 jury, he was inevitably perceived as an immoral, treacherous pervert: the outcome of the trial was never in doubt.
The realities of Casement’s private life will perhaps never finally be known and moreover there is no need to discuss them here: rather, I think our time is better spent expanding on the certainties of his earlier life, and celebrating the purity, strength and principles of spirit that drove the wedge ever deeper between him and the British establishment.
Casement was born in 1864 in Ireland to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, just outside Dublin. By the age of thirteen he was orphaned, and lived for three years with relatives in Ballymena, Northern Ireland before moving to Liverpool at the age of 16 to take a clerical job with a shipping company. In 1883 he took a job on a trading ship plying the route to West Africa, and in 1884 began working for the Association Internationale Africaine in the Congo – an organisation owned by King Leopold II, engaged in the expansion of rubber production in the vast Congo basin. When the organisation became the de facto government of the area in 1886 (with Leopold its head of state), Casement left to work first for a variety of trading companies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and then from 1890 as a civil servant first in the Niger delta and then in Angola and Mozambique. By the turn of the century, however, he was back in the Congo, and beginning the work that would become his life.
In 1903, in the post of British Consul at Boma (the then-capital of the Congo Free State), he published a report on the treatment of Africans by Europeans in the region. The horrors committed under Leopold’s control rival anything seen before or since. Forced labour, starvation, murder, disease and corresponding lack of medical care contributed to a population reduction estimated at anywhere between five and fifteen million during the years 1876-1908. Failure to meet rubber quotas was punishable by death, and Belgian soldiers collected the severed hands of victims as proof of the deed. Baskets of severed hands became a defining symbol of the Congo Free State – for soldiers and post-commanders they became an end in themselves, as much a commodity as the rubber shortfall they were supposed to account for.
Casement’s report detailed these atrocities. The fallout was threefold. First, he was commended by the British government for the depth and precision of his work, and awarded the CMG (which it was not in his power to refuse). Second, without a trace of irony, he was removed from his post for fear of damage to British trading relations with Belgium. Third, back in London, and furious at the self-serving duplicity of his paymasters and their tacit consent for the atrocities he co-founded the Congo Reform Association, bringing to public knowledge the conditions under which labour in the Congo was carried out. (In 1905, Mark Twain published King Leopold’s Soliloquy. In 1909 Arthur Conan Doyle published The Crime of the Congo (www.kongo-kinshasa.de/dokumente/lekture/crime_of_congo.pdf). Both were ardent supporters of the Association – and their contribution is unimaginable without Casement’s report.) In 1908, thanks largely to the efforts of the CRA, European public condemnation of Leopold’s methods made them unsustainable, and the Congo Free State was abolished, with Leopold forced to cede control to the socialist Belgian government.
In 1906 Casement was sent to South America to work as Consul in various parts of Brazil. While there, he worked amongst the Putumayo Indians of Peru, and found the conditions of their forced labour (also on rubber plantations) as barbaric as those he had exposed in the Congo. In 1911 he produced a report detailing the atrocities and exposed a number of senior figures as complicit in the events. This time his report could not be ignored, and from 1911 conditions improved significantly for native workers. On his return to the UK later that year he was knighted for his work (which once again he was unable to turn down).
From that time until his death, Casement organised non-governmental projects for the Anti-Slavery Society, as well as for a number of missions operating in remote corners of the empire. Increasingly though, he devoted his time to the Irish question, believing British rule on the island as much a colonial enterprise as any other instance of foreign rule. Having retired from Consular Service in 1913, he helped establish the Irish Volunteers, and formed links with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Clan Na Gael. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, he travelled to Germany in an attempt to secure arms and manpower for the planned Easter Rising of 1916 which, he proposed, would be mutually beneficial. His clandestine mission was a failure. Secretly put ashore in County Kerry from a German submarine three days before the Rising, he was quickly discovered and arrested by British authorities, on charges of treason, sabotage and espionage. He was transported straight to the Tower of London, where he remained until his trial and subsequent execution.
Casement asked that he be judged as an Irishman, but in this he was denied. By the time of his trial he bore the stigmata of the British Establishment: in claiming his country for their own, they had claimed the man as well. By being made British, he was made a traitor. His primary motivation, however, always stood outside of a particular national bias – his devotion, first and foremost, was to justice, and in this he was unwavering.
Artwork by John Mcloughlin