Roger Casement (1864-1916) was an Irish nationalist and British consular official, whose attempt to secure aid from Germany in the struggle for Irish independence led to his execution by the British for the crime of high treason.
Born on 1 September, 1864, in Kingstown, to a Protestant father and Catholic mother, Roger David Casement was heir to two radically different traditions in Ireland. As the son of a landed Protestant gentleman, Casement had definite cultural links to England that the majority of his poorer Catholic countrymen did not. Yet, as the son of a Catholic, Casement’s heritage was bound up with that of Irish men and women who had fought English Protestant rule in their country for hundreds of years.
Casement was the youngest of four children; his sister, Nina, was eight years his elder, and brothers Thomas and Charles were one and three years older, respectively. In 1868, when Casement was barely four, his mother had all her children secretly baptised into the Catholic faith. Unknown to the children’s father (and probably little understood by the children themselves), the baptism took place while the family was vacationing in North Wales. However, Casement thought of himself as a Protestant for most of his life, converting to Catholicism only a short while before his death.
The event that most shaped Casement’s childhood was the death of his mother in 1873. He was deeply shaken by the loss. His father moved the children to the family estate, Magherintemple House, where Casement stayed for only a short time before being sent off to boarding school. Not quite four years later, Casement’s father also died. Now orphans, the children were taken in by relatives. For the most part, Casement and his sister stayed with their mother’s sister, Grace Bannister, and her family, while Charles and Thomas remained with their uncle, John Casement.
Grace and Edward Bannister lived in Liverpool, England, with their three children. Like her sister, Grace had married a Protestant. She, however, had converted to her husband’s religion and raised her children and her sister’s children in the Protestant faith. It is rumoured that Grace was only nominally Protestant, and that she provided a quietly Catholic environment for the children. A seeming proof of this can be found in the eventual conversion of both Casement and Gertrude Bannister, one of Grace’s own children.
Casement thrived in his aunt’s home and was adored by his cousins. Although she was nine years younger, Gertrude was his favourite. In a pleasing baritone, Casement would sing traditional Irish songs for her and spin Irish fairy tales. He also loved reading, especially history and poetry. There is evidence that even as a teenager living in England, he was interested in the Irish nationalist cause. Not only did he devour books on Ireland, but he is said to have covered the walls of his room with political cartoons that dealt with the issue. Despite his nationalist leanings, however, he did not return to Ireland when he finished school. Instead, after a brief and unhappy apprenticeship as a junior office clerk at the Elder Dempster Shipping Company, Casement embarked on the first of many voyages to Africa.
His first position, in 1883, was as purser on board the SS Bonny, an Elder Dempster ship that traded with West Africa. Making four round-trips aboard the Bonny over the following year, he became completely enamored of the African continent. In 1884, he began to serve with the International Association, a Belgian-run group of national committees seeking to bring European civilization to the Congo. Leopold II of Belgium had recently taken over the association, which was soon to become an entirely Belgian operation. Casement worked primarily as a surveyor, exploring land previously unknown to the Europeans and often making friends with native Africans along the way. One of his supervisors reported in despair that Casement refused to haggle over prices with the natives.
In 1890, Casement left the Belgian Congo, having become more uncomfortable with an enterprise that was no longer international but strictly Belgian. While working briefly as a surveyor for a railroad company, he met Captain Korzeniowski, a young Polish ship worker who would later become known as author, Joseph Conrad. Conrad’s experience in the Congo formed the basis for his famous and haunting work, Heart of Darkness. Casement does not figure in that work, despite its autobiographical cast; in fact, Conrad spoke of his meeting with Casement as one of his few good experiences in the Congo.
In 1892, Casement, at long last, found himself working for the British. The Niger Coast Protectorate employed him as a surveyor, and enlisted him with a great variety of other tasks, including that of the acting director-generalship of customs. Casement’s interactions with the natives were not always friendly during these survey expeditions; at one point, shouting warriors surrounded him and he was only rescued when a native woman intervened. Casement spent three years in Niger and, though he was usually quite busy with surveys and other work, he still found time to write. Poetry was one of his great loves, and he also tried his hand at short stories. Unlike his friend Conrad, however, Casement’s skills as a creative writer were never to be recognized (and were not, in fact, particularly worthy of recognition).
In 1895, when Casement returned to Britain briefly on leave, he discovered that his reports from Niger had been published as a Parliamentary White Paper. Casement had become a public figure, and the Foreign Office scrambled to claim him as an employee. He was appointed consul to the port of Lorenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa, near what is now South Africa. His primary task was to protect British subjects and promote British interests, but an additional duty involved overseeing the political situation in the area, which was to erupt within a few years into the Boer War. Casement was unhappy in Lorenco Marques; it was a miserably inadequate, run-down place, and the climate disagreed with his health. Used to the free life of exploration, he hated consular routine.
Casement grew ill and returned to England to recover. When he learned that the Foreign Office expected him to return to his hated post, he delayed and detoured on his way back to Lorenco Marques until told by a doctor to return to England immediately for an operation. Casement’s first round of consular service was ended. Despite his unhappiness, the Foreign Office found him to be, for the most part, a capable, hard-working, clever, and confident representative of the British government.
Casement was sent to West Africa in 1898 to investigate claims of ill-treatment of British subjects. He spent the next several years documenting grossly illegal and vicious treatment of the natives by Belgians. Interested only in extracting as much rubber as possible from the Upper Congo, Belgium had employed terrorist methods in order to force natives to work. In the process, they had reduced populations by 80% and more. In one area, the number of natives had fallen in ten years from about 5,000 to 352. The Belgians claimed that sleeping sickness was killing the natives. While the disease did indeed kill great numbers of people, the huge declines in population had more to do with the extreme labour the people were forced into, the rough punishments inflicted when rubber quotas were not met, the lack of proper food, and the ever-present fear of Belgian overseers. Belgian soldiers mutilated many natives, causing them to lose hands or feet as punishment for minor or even imagined wrongs. Casement documented beatings, floggings, imprisonments, mutilations, and other forms of mistreatment to such an extent that he himself was horrified.
Casement’s report, when published in England in 1904, did not cause quite the sensation one might have expected. Leopold of Belgium denied everything, and Casement was portrayed by the Belgians as being in the pay of British rubber companies. Nevertheless, there were calls for an international investigation of the Congo. Casement was greatly disappointed that the British Foreign Office did not back up his charges to the fullest extent their own records would have allowed, but political considerations of the time did not allow such a step.
Casement took a leave of absence that almost turned into an early retirement. It was fully two years later that the Foreign Office was able to convince him to take up the post of consul in Santos, Brazil. In 1908, he was promoted to consul general of Brazil and moved to Rio de Janeiro. Rumors of atrocities associated with yet another rubber company came to his attention, and Casement once more embarked on an exhaustive inquiry. His 1912 Putumayo Report exposed the cruel and exploitative treatment of Brazilian Indians by a Peruvian company and set a precedent for the British Consulate to intervene on behalf of native peoples. Until the Putumayo Report, it had been possible to think of events in the Congo as a strange aberration in colonial practices; now it was becoming clearer that abuse of colonized countries and natives was a serious problem.
Taking an extended medical leave of absence, Casement returned to Britain when his report was published. He had been knighted on his return to Britain, in recognition of the extraordinary work that led to the Putumayo Report. His health had never been good, and he was seriously considering retirement.
Casement went to Ireland and quickly became involved with Irish nationalists. He was an effective speaker and fundraiser for the Irish Volunteers. When Britain and Germany went to war in 1914, he saw a new way to put pressure on the British. He called on the Irish public to support Germany while he conceived a plan for an uprising. His intentions: to recruit Irish soldiers who had fought for Britain and had been captured by Germany. Travelling to Germany, Casement was well received by German leaders who promised to help him in raising an Irish Brigade. Germany even issued a declaration in favour of Irish independence—which Britain, of course, ignored.
Casement’s recruiting efforts among captured soldiers did not go well: he soon discovered that German offers of assistance were hardly more than ploys to keep the English busy with worries of German troops in Ireland. Casement had been promised that 200,000 rifles, along with German officers and soldiers, would accompany him and the Irish Brigade back to Ireland. As things turned out, there were no Germans heading for Ireland and only one-tenth of the promised rifles. Since Irish leaders had planned an uprising based on projected German assistance, they decided to go ahead without it. Knowing such an uprising would fail miserably, Casement attempted to return in time to stop it, convincing the Germans to bring him to Ireland by U-boat. He also knew that his activities in Germany were well known to the British, and that he would be subjected to arrest for treason if he were to return to Ireland (which still was British territory). Still, he made the desperate effort to return home and prevent a hopeless civil war. British intelligence was aware of his impending arrival, and Casement was captured shortly after he landed on Irish soil.
Immediately imprisoned, Casement was soon brought to England for trial. In his final speech from the dock, he stated unequivocally that he had never sought to aid the king’s enemies, but only his own country—Ireland; how can a man, he asked, be condemned for treason on such grounds? His pleas to be tried in Ireland and judged by Irishmen went unheard, and an English jury in an English court condemned him for treason. Despite appeals on his behalf from many quarters, he was sentenced to hang.
For a brief time, there was hope of a reprieve from the Crown. However, Casement’s diaries had been discovered by this time. Copies circulated to King George V, members of Parliament—anyone with influence. The diaries revealed that Casement was a practicing homosexual and had been for many years. The shock and scandal accompanying this revelation precluded any possibility of a reprieve.
In Casement’s last weeks in prison, he acknowledged his lifelong semi-association with the Catholic Church by formally converting. Thus, Casement died a Catholic. Brought to the scaffold in London on 3 August 1916, he was said to have met death calmly.
Casement’s story, it would appear, is a contradictory one. After years of faithful service to the British Empire, he suddenly became enamoured of Ireland and betrayed Britain for this new love. Yet that is an overly simplified version of what happened, and is, in effect, wrong. Casement saw, in his service of the Empire, a service in the name of both Ireland and England, and it is certain that he had always valued his Irish heritage. His interest in Irish nationalism was nothing new in 1913; it was, however, the first time that he had had the chance to act on his beliefs. His attempt to work with Germany was not in contradiction to his previous work, but in keeping with his efforts to struggle against oppression. In Africa, in Brazil, and in Ireland, Casement saw colonial powers being abused; for his efforts in Africa and Brazil, he was hailed as a hero. It was only when he tried to awaken the British to their own failings that he was pronounced a traitor. Casement died as he had lived: in service to his country.
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