Roger Casement: Remembering a Forgotten Hero
Roger Casement spent his life fighting for the oppressed, but died isolated and reviled by many because of his sexuality.
I walk past the Tower of London remembering the sea of red poppies that flowed over its walls last year in commemoration of the millions of lives lost in the First World War a hundred years ago. Another precious life was also lost then, a true hero of the struggle against the brutality of colonialism, imperialism, enslavement and cruelty. A man who used all his skills and energy to highlight the suffering of the people of the Congo and Peru, a man who took up the fight against the colonialization of his own people, a hero of the Irish struggle for self-determination, a man who was executed despite his critical role as a true humanitarian, whose reputation was destroyed because he was said to love other men—the last man ever to be imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Now as we approach the solemn ceremonies to remember the 1916 Easter Uprising, we must also remember the extraordinary story of Roger Casement—so vividly evoked in Adam Hochschild’s powerful history King Leopold’s Ghost, describing the brutal exploitation of the Congolese people by the Belgian King Leopold, and retold so beautifully by Mario Vargas Llosa in his novel the Dream of the Celt.
So, what was the dream of this brave and honorable Celt? That people should be treated with love and respect, that enslavement and brutality must be challenged, that we all have a part to play in the fight for freedom. But his dreams also included love and sexual passion for other men. It was for this that he died on the gallows in Pentonville prison on August 3, 1916.
King Leopold’s Ghost
Casement was revered in the United Kingdom and across the world for his role in uncovering the terrible cruelty inflicted on the people of the Congo and Peru. He was the founding father of international human rights campaigning, today owed a debt by the likes of Amnesty International. Unlikely to ever have been a prisoner of conscience, like Nelson Mandela he supported a war of resistance to oppression and fought in the struggle for liberation.
He was well-positioned to speak out and witnessed the horrific treatment meted out to the Congolese people and later the indigenous people of Peru. He was credible, passionate, determined and a powerful communicator—writing, speaking and taking photographs in order to tell this terrible human story. Casement importantly recorded the first-hand accounts of those directly affected, considered radical at the time—that African people could give direct, trusted evidence. He worked tirelessly with committed campaigners back in the UK, especially E.D. Morel, the tenacious founder of the Congo Reform Association, and Alice Stopford Green, founder of the Africa Society. They took their campaign to Parliament, to the media and to the people.
Roger Casement lived in the Congo for over 20 years, originally working for a shipping company and eventually becoming the British consul. This provided him with a powerful platform to highlight the brutality of the rapacious regime of King Leopold of Belgium and his insatiable greed that envisioned the Congo and its riches as the king’s personal fiefdom, the people who lived there as his personal slaves.
Casement was revered in the United Kingdom and across the world for his role in uncovering the terrible cruelty inflicted on the people of the Congo and Peru.
Casement sacrificed his own health to travel to the most remote parts of the Congo, to give first-hand accounts of the pain the suffering and the many thousands of deaths of the people of the Congo who were seen as utterly marginal, without value when compared to the rich profits delivered to the king of Belgium and his brutal henchmen in the rubber trade. The brutality had caused the population to shrink by anywhere between 15% and 50%. The atrocities recorded included numerous hand amputations—punishment for not delivering impossibly high rubber quotas—and slaughter of thousands of women and children.
Casement’s commitment and passion and the work of the association enabled them to bring world attention to these systemic abuses. The outrage that followed delivered real impact and constrained some of the worse abuses. Public outcry and the work of the of the Congo Reform Association forced the private profiteering outside any rule of law perpetrated by King Leopold to end when the Belgian state eventually managed to wrest control of the Congo from the king in 1908.
Casement’s courage, compassion and determination were put to further use when he was asked by the British government to travel to Putanamayo in Peru to report on the human price of the rubber trade in the Amazon, where once again human rights and so many lives were being sacrificed heedlessly for private profit and greed. The Peruvian Amazon Company was a London-registered enterprise with three British directors—John Russell Gubbins, a friend of Peruvian President Augusto Leguía; Herbert Reed, a banker; and Sir John Lister-Kaye, an aristocrat. This forced the British government to order an investigation into the ruthless search for rubber, enslavement of indigenous people and terrible atrocities that came close to wiping them out in a sustained act of ethnocide. Over 100,000 innocent people are thought to have been killed.
Silence and Neglect
However, when Casement became increasingly concerned with the human rights abuses and oppression in Ireland, he paid for it with his good name, his reputation, his knighthood and eventually his life.
The struggle for liberation and self-determination in Ireland had reached a critical stage and the British response increasingly vicious. During his visits to the UK, Casement became more involved in the cultural and political life of Ireland. He was deeply influenced by the progressive historian and Irish nationalist Alice Stopford Green—one of the few people who supported him unconditionally throughout his imprisonment and up until his tragic death. She was later the first woman elected to the Seanad Eireann in 1922.
Marking that historic occasion she wrote: “No real history of Ireland has yet been written. When the true story is finally worked out—one not wholly occupied with the many and insatiable plunderers—it will give us a noble and reconciling vision of Irish nationality. Silence and neglect will no longer hide the fame of honorable men.”
Roger Casement was a most honorable man, having resigned his government post in 1913, losing status, salary and security in order to join the Irish Volunteers and commit himself totally to the fight for Irish independence. His powerful skills as a speaker, writer, campaigner and committed humanitarian were valuable weapons against the increasingly harsh response of the British state, determined to hold onto power and the riches of Ireland. Resources flowed into the pockets of the powerful in Britain their agents in Ireland, at the expense of the benighted people of Ireland.
A quarter of Ireland’s population was lost in the previous decades. A million people died from starvation during the Great Famine of 1845-1852 and another million was lost to forced emigration. Those who remained were living under an exploitive colonial regime that denied them the most basic human rights—punished for speaking their own language, denied any say in their own affairs, disenfranchised, forced to work as sharecroppers or “serfs.” The best and most fertile lands reserved for the ruling colonialist, the system of justice used only to benefit the British and terrorize the Irish.
To the Gallows
Casement’s efforts on military matters, though courageous, were less effective than his advocacy and his plan to smuggle in weapons to Ireland on a German submarine ended in disaster. He was arrested in Kerry, the plan scuppered and his connection with Germany at a time of the First World War lost him many supporters, including his dearest friend and fellow campaigner E.D. Morel.
We should cover the Tower of London with a sea of green, for the freedom of Ireland, and pink for the freedom of LGBT people everywhere, to remember Roger Casement, to honor the memory of a great man whose life was cut short by a cruel, dishonest and vindictive state…
Despite his support of the Irish struggle and the association with Germany, he still had the respect and affection of many influential people. Although he was charged with high treason—by a prosecutor who was known to strongly oppose the Irish cause—there were many calls for the death sentence to be comminuted. That was when the dirty tricks began. Pages claimed to be from Casement’s private diaries, and of no relevance to the charges, were secretly circulated, containing passionate sexual encounters and love between men.
These infamous “Black Diaries” have been highly contested, examined by forensic scientists, hidden from view entirely for over 50 years and the understanding of their veracity informed by changing social attitudes to homosexuality. What is beyond dispute is that the release of these pages carried a particular significance at a time when homosexuality was not only illegal, but punishable by long prison sentences.
Even after his execution his corpse was violated—his anus “examined” to provide further proof of his “perversity.” His body was buried on the prison grounds, and the Irish government and his family spent decades demanding the right to return his body to Ireland—Casement’s dying wish was to be buried in Murlough Bay, in County Antrim in Northern Ireland, where he had grown up. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government denied that wish and released the remains only on condition that they could not be brought into Northern Ireland, as “the government feared that a reburial there could provoke Catholic celebrations and Protestant reactions.”
Casement’s body was finally returned to Ireland in 1965 with full military honors to rest in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery. Over half a million people came to pay their respects to a man the author John Banville described as “not only one of the greatest Irish men who ever lived but also a considerable figure on the world stage.”
As we remember the brave men and women who fought for Irish independence against colonial oppression, we must remember and honor this remarkable man who risked his own life, health and wellbeing to tell the world the true story of their enslavement, who died in the defense of the Irish people—isolated, alone and reviled by so many because of his sexuality.
We should cover the Tower of London with a sea of green, for the freedom of Ireland, and pink for the freedom of LGBT people everywhere, to remember Roger Casement, to honor the memory of a great man whose life was cut short by a cruel, dishonest and vindictive state, and whose own life was dedicated to others and the fine virtues of true, indivisible, human rights.
In his final days he wrote: “It is they—not I—who are the traitors, filled with a lust of blood—of hatred of their fellows … These artificial and unnatural wars, prompted by greed of power are the source of all misery now destroying mankind … Alas so much of the story dies with me—the old, old story—yet in spite of all—the truth and right lives on in the hearts of the brave and lowly.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.