Life of a heroic traitor
Jim Creegan looks back at the extraordinary story of Roger Casement on the 100th anniversary of his execution
Of the 16 ‘men of 1916’ - the celebrated martyrs of the Easter Rising - all but two were court-martialled and executed by firing squad in Dublin shortly after surrendering to British troops. One of the two who met his fate elsewhere was Thomas Kent (Tomás Ceannt), a well known republican, who was tried and shot in county Cork after a gunfight with police during a raid on his family home. The other was Sir Roger Casement, hanged on August 3 1916 in London’s Pentonville prison after a sensational trial for treason. His story is so compelling, and so relevant to contemporary political and cultural interests, that its main outlines are worth recalling on the 100th anniversary of his death.
Casement was arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary on Good Friday, three days before the rising began, near Tralee, County Kerry, on Ireland’s south-west coast. The German U-boat carrying him expected to rendezvous there with the trawler Aud,which had also sailed from a German port.Disguised as a Norwegian vessel, the Aud was carrying 20,000 rifles destined for the rising in Dublin - a shipment the rebels had contracted for with the kaiser’s government, which had an interest in aiding them because they shared a common enemy in the British empire during World War I. But, due to confusion over instructions for the landing, the Aud arrived after its appointed date, and the Irish Volunteers assigned to signal the ship from shore arrived too early. The Aud and its cargo were thus intercepted by a British coastal patrol and scuttled by its captain; the submarine commander was compelled to put Casement and two of his comrades ashore in a dinghy.
After the three men were forced to abandon the small boat and wade knee-deep onto Banna Strand, Casement, suffering from a recurrence of the malaria that had plagued him since his African days, was too exhausted to continue on to Tralee town with captain Robert Monteith and Daniel Bailey, who escaped capture for the time being. He was discovered by a police constable in an old Viking fortification where he had taken shelter, and incriminated by the German railway ticket and admiralty signal code in his coat pocket, which he had carelessly neglected to destroy. When word reached Eoin MacNeill, the head of the Irish Volunteers, that the Casement mission had been aborted, he had the excuse he needed to cancel plans for the rising, which he had opposed all along. But the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Citizen Army in Dublin decided to go ahead with the insurrection anyway, even with greatly diminished forces and chances of success.
In the eyes of the partisans of empire and Ulster unionists, Roger Casement was undoubtedly the most despised of the rebel leaders who threw down the gauntlet to British rule in Ireland 100 years ago this April. He was an Ulster Protestant and a member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy; he had recently been a distinguished member of his majesty’s foreign service, celebrated for his exposure of the atrocities of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo, and knighted by George V for his reports on similar crimes committed by a British-registered rubber company in the Amazon Basin of Peru. But nearly as heinous in the eyes of his accusers as betraying country and class to consort with the enemies of the realm in time of war were his “crimes against nature”. In a poem unpublished in his lifetime, Casement wrote:
I sought by love alone to go
Where God had writ an awful no
Pride gave a guilty God to hell
I have no pride - by love I fell.
Why this was done I cannot tell
The mystery is inscrutable
I only know I pay the cost
With heart and soul and honour lost.1
During his trial, and more widely while his clemency appeal was pending, the government circulated photographed pages from five journals the police claim to have discovered in Casement’s London lodgings after his arrest. Three of the volumes were unremarkable records of his official dealings and daily affairs. But two - the so-called Black diaries, from the Congo in 1903 and Brazil in 1911 - contained such passages as:
Arrived Pará at 3. Alongside 3.30. Tea at 5 with Pogson to Vaz Café. Lovely moço - then after dinner to Vero Pesa. Two types - also to gardens of Praca Republica. Two types - Baptista Campos one type - then Senate square and Caboclo boy (16-17). Seized hard. Young, stiff, thin. Others offered later. On board at 12 midnight.2
Public bath. Stanley Weeks, athletic, young, 27. Enormous, very hard, 9 inches at least. Kisses, bites, penetration with a shout. Two pounds.3
The entries in which Casement recorded his many, mostly paid-for, homosexual encounters - frank in our own time and scandalous beyond measure in his - were publicised with much success by the government in influential circles in Britain and America to besmirch his name and scare potential supporters away from a burgeoning campaign to spare him from the gallows. Moreover, the clerical-reactionary-patriarchal state that issued from the Irish war of independence, and claimed the Easter Rising as its founding act, was also for many decades profoundly uneasy with the presence of the alleged author of the Black diaries in its Pantheon.
Members of Casement’s family denounced the diaries as forgeries immediately after his execution. The controversy surrounding them was deepened by the fact that the British government held the journals closely under wraps until 1959, when substantial portions finally saw the light of print. In 1936, a Scotto-Hibernian physician resident in the US named William J Maloney published The forged Casement diaries, which attempted to prove that they were actually the work of an Amazonian rubber baron, whose brutalities Casement had exposed. This theory gained some acceptance for a time in Ireland - most notably from its leading poet, William Butler Yeats. Subsequent research, however, has undermined claims of forgery. The diaries contain a wealth of detail that is largely consistent with other, non-homoerotic entries. In 2002, a detailed study by forensic experts concluded that the journals were authentic.
So too - we shall attempt to demonstrate below - was the commitment of the man who penned them. If Casement was an Irish nationalist rather than a socialist or social radical, he was nevertheless one of the most outstanding representatives of that persuasion. His politics were driven not by narrow national parochialism, but by a profound loathing for colonial oppression, acquired in Africa and South America as much as in his native country. His self-sacrifice and courage were as exemplary as those of any of the combatants of 1916. Recent decades have witnessed the publication of several extensive biographies. The appearance, in addition, of The dream of the Celt (2010), a fictional recreation of Casement’s careerby the Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa - whose interest in Casement was no doubt piqued by the latter’s Amazonian exploits - contributed further to establishing his rightful place in Irish and world history as a determined foe of imperialism, in an era when European colonial empires were in their heyday, and members of the ruling classes who sided with the colonised were few and far between.
Roger David Casement was born in Dublin in 1864. His father, a former captain in the King’s Own Regiment of Dragoons, had served in the British Afghan campaign of 1842, and had later attempted to volunteer to fight with Lajos Kossuth in the Hungarian revolution of 1848. Having lost both parents by the age of 13, Roger was taken in by his father’s relatives, who lived in Ballymena, in the glens of Antrim near Belfast, where he grew up. Throughout his life, Casement would consider himself an Ulsterman. He was described by those who knew him in his youth, and thereafter, as a strikingly handsome, dark-complexioned man, of mellifluous voice and seductive charm.
Casement quit school at the age of 16 to work for a Liverpool-based British commercial shipping company, the Elder Dempster Line, whose business took him, in 1884, to western Africa, in the vicinity of the Congo river. He soon became proficient in local languages, and met and befriended a young Polish steamboat captain named Jósef Korzeniowski, later to become famous under the nom de plume of Joseph Conrad. Casement soon went to work for the renowned English explorer, Henry Morton Stanley. Unlike his employer, he had no interest in the spoils and treasure of the ‘dark continent’, but supervised the building of a railroad as a firm believer in the civilising mission of the western powers, Britain in particular. His faith was soon to be shattered, however, by his experiences with the newly created territorial entity, for whose European overlord his employer, Stanley’s International African Association, was in fact a thinly disguised front.
The Congo Free State (CFS) was created in 1885 by King Leopold II of Belgium. Stretching for 905,000 miles and containing 20 million people, it was his country’s share of the vast territories along the banks of the Congo river, the other two parts of which were allotted to France and Portugal with the agreement of all major European powers and the United States. The creation of the CFS was accompanied by profuse declarations of high purpose - to end slavery and the slave trade (still practised among Africans), to promote commerce, to enlighten and improve the lot of the natives. Yet Roger Casement, who had now joined the British Foreign Service and been appointed consul for French West Africa, began to suspect, from his post in Boma, at the mouth of the Congo and the border of the Free State, that something far less altruistic was taking place in the interior of Leopold’s domain.
Watching the ships passing in and out of the CFS, Casement noted a peculiar pattern. Although the products of the territory destined for European and world markets were ostensibly procured by trading with native Africans, the ships going out were laden with ivory and rubber, but the ships going in contained little besides guns and ammunition - hardly the stuff of commerce. Casement’s observations coincided with those of an Englishman named ED Morel, then in the employ of the Elder Dempster Line, with which Roger had begun his African career years earlier, and which possessed a monopoly on the Congo’s trade with Europe. Having received reports of atrocities from missionaries in the interior, Morel undertook a close inspection his company’s books, which confirmed his initial suspicion that the treasures of the Free State were being extracted by coerced native labour.
Upon his return to Britain, Morel resigned from his job and began a major effort to publicise his discoveries in the press and in books. His revelations led to inquiries in the House of Commons. Finally, in 1903, Casement was appointed by the British crown to conduct an official investigation. His report, published in 1904, was the result of interviews and observations over the course of several months spent in the Free State. It was a dispassionately worded, meticulously factual version of the fictionalised image of an earthly inferno conjured up a few years later in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness.
The main product of the Congo at this time was rubber - sold to feed the growing worldwide demand resulting from increased production of bicycle and automobile tyres. Casement discovered that a big chunk of the proceeds from its sale were going not to the Belgian state, but to Leopold’s personal accounts. The rubber was extracted by private companies that had received concessions for this work, and were compensated according to the tonnage of rubber delivered to the Belgian authorities. The rubber was in turn extracted by forced labour, imposed upon native tribes people by Leopold’s private army, known as the Force Publique(FP).
Recruited from other parts of Africa, the FP drove the natives to work with aid of the chicotte - a lightweight, portable lacerating whip made of hippopotamus hide. The scars it left were visible on the backs of many natives Casement encountered. Handless arms were also a common sight. Amputations were the penalty imposed upon natives for failure to meet their rubber quotas. So was death. The Belgian authorities did not trust the FP to use their guns and ammunition to kill reluctant natives instead of hunting animals, so they were required to supply the severed hands of their victims - often strung out on lengths of wire - as proof that their weapons had been put to proper use, and were often paid a piece rate for the number of evidentiary items turned in.
Casement was also able to deduce that whole villages and areas had been depopulated to a fraction of their former size, either as a result of murder at the FP’s hands, or flight in order to avoid it. The number of Leopold’s victims is in some dispute. Adam Hochschild, in King Leopold’s ghost, estimates that the territory lost half of its original population of 20 million.4 But, whatever the numbers, it is clear that Casement had exposed what was perhaps the greatest holocaust of the 19th century, and one of the greatest of all time.
Upon returning to Britain, Casement had to struggle for the publication of his report in the teeth of opposition from members of the foreign office reluctant to offend the Belgian monarch, as well as a campaign to discredit him mounted by Leopold himself. Along with Morel, he also founded the Congo Reform Association, which made opposition to Belgian atrocities into an international cause célèbre, attracting the support of such figures as Mark Twain, Booker T Washington and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as Joseph Conrad. In 1909 the creator of Sherlock Holmes published The crime of the Congo, replete with gruesome photos of mutilated African bodies.
As a result of wide exposure, the Belgian government was forced to appoint a commission of its own to investigate the situation, which ultimately confirmed the essentials of Casement’s report, and wrested control of the Congo from Leopold’s hands, making it an official colony of the government. And - also as a result - Roger Casement had acquired an international reputation as a pioneering crusader for what may now be called human rights.
Casement was not converted to Irish republicanism in any single, Damascene moment, nor were his thought processes ever set down clearly in writing. Biographical evidence would indicate that his Irish loyalties, on the one hand, and his African and South American experiences, on the other, ran on parallel, mutually reinforcing tracks, which in turn intersected with contemporary Irish politics to bring about a gradual shift in perspective.
Ulster Protestants of Casement’s class had little day-to-day contact with Irish Catholics, except as servants. (he once recalled that he was fully an adult before he even knew they called themselves simply Catholics, and not ‘Roman Catholics’, as they were always referred to in Protestant circles). Yet, unlike a typical member of his tribe, Roger from an early age breathed in the history and national lore that is thick in Ireland’s atmosphere. He could not have been unaware that many of the country’s most revered heroes and martyrs - Theobald Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmet - had been Protestants like himself.
He was a great admirer of another member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, Charles Stewart Parnell, who headed the Irish National Party and, for a time in the 1880s, gave strong support to the struggles of Irish tenant farmers resisting their rack-renting landlords. Casement, who had literary ambitions, wrote a poem eulogising Parnell upon his death in 1891. In 1898, he began an epic poem, ‘The dream of Celt’ (whence the title of Vargas Llosa’s novel), invoking the memory of the last stand of Ulster’s clan chieftains against the armies of Elizabeth I at the dawn of the 17th century. Yet, despite his national sympathies, Casement did not at this time oppose the union of Ireland with Great Britain, and appeared to believe that whatever wrongs his country continued to suffer could be redressed within its confines.
Casement said that his Irish origins helped him to grasp the situation in the Congo. And his Congolese experience no doubt accelerated the marked turn in the direction of Irish national separatism that took place in 1903-05, after his return to Britain. Ten years earlier, another Irish Protestant, Douglas Hyde, had founded the Gaelic League, which spearheaded a growing movement aimed at de-Anglicisation of the island through a revival of native folkways and the Irish language. Casement, who joined the League at this time, attempted to learn Irish himself, without much success. He also frequented the London salon of yet another Irish Protestant, Alice Stopford Green, whose schemes to revive the culture and economy of pre-conquest Ireland probably had more influence on his thinking than any other set of ideas.
1905 also saw the founding of Sinn Féin (‘Ourselves’), which presented a separatist alternative to the National Party. The latter stood candidates for election to the British parliament and confined itself to the promotion of home rule - by which Ireland, while remaining tied to Britain, would be granted its own parliament, with authority over some aspects of domestic law and government. Yet by this time, two home rule bills introduced in the House of Commons by the Liberal Party had already gone down to defeat, and any such attempt in the future would, Casement thought, founder in the House of Lords, which still exercised a veto power. Sinn Féin’s president, a thoroughly bourgeois nationalist named Arthur Griffith, proposed instead a ‘Hungarian strategy’ for Ireland. Just as Hungarian nationalists had boycotted the parliament in Vienna to set up their own assembly in Budapest, Griffith advocated that Ireland’s elected representatives boycott Westminster and give their allegiance to a separately constituted Irish parliament.
While clearly sympathetic to Sinn Féin, Casement was by no means hostile to more socially radical strains of Irish politics. He was drawn to Michael Davitt, who in the 1880s had organised the Land League, which advocated the abolition of landlordism and nationalisation of the land. Casement was, several years later, to congratulate James Connolly on the founding of the country’s first workers’ defence guard, the Irish Citizen Army. His radical tendencies could only have become more pronounced as a result of the next and final chapter of his diplomatic career.
In 1909 an article entitled ‘The devil’s paradise’ appeared in the British magazine Truth;Its subtitle was ‘A British-owned Congo’. Based upon the observations of an American explorer, it described the harvesting of rubber by what amounted to Indian slave labour in the remote Amazonian region of Peru known as the Putumayo, which was separated by the Andes from the main population of the country. The region was dominated by an outfit named the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC), whose main shareholders and board of directors were in Britain. It was run, with the support of the Peruvian government and local authorities, as the private fiefdom of the company’s Peruvian chief, Julio César Arana.
As reports of atrocities gave rise to a public outcry, pressure in Britain mounted for an official investigation. The British government lacked authority to interfere in Peruvian affairs, but the government found a legitimate cause to look into the matter in reports of abuses committed against PAC overseers recruited in Barbados, then a British colony. Finally, in 1910, Casement, now serving as British consul in Rio, was sent in to submit the region to his now internationally recognised investigatory scrutiny.
The tales of horror were every bit as appalling as Leopold’s crimes. Throughout Casement’s ordeal, Arana spared no effort to derail the investigation with a barrage of denial, promises to correct what he claimed were isolated abuses, and pretences of cooperation. But even at an Indian dance thrown by the PAC to welcome him, Casement observed on the backs of the natives the whip-inflicted scars known locally as ‘the mark of Arana’. Casement was able to elicit the testimony of three Barbadian overseers. They told of flogging as a penalty regularly inflicted upon Indians who failed to fulfil their company-assigned rubber quotas; of the use of stocks, not only for natives, but for overseers who displayed any reluctance to inflict brutalities; of red-hot pokers inserted in the vaginas of local women, many of whom were recruited as overseers’ concubines, to be killed off when no longer useful; of burnings at the stake, beheadings and live burials. The report Casement issued upon his return to Britain was described as a journalistic masterpiece, which for the first time gave both the perpetrators and the victims of this murderous exploitation a personal voice. Any further action - either by the British or Peruvian governments - was postponed, however, pending a Peruvian promise to ‘rectify the situation’.
Casement made a second trip to Putumayo in 1911-12 to report on progress toward ‘rectification’. Not only did he fail to note any, but famously reported for the first time on the use of the pillory to punish Indians:
Men, women, and children were confined in them for days, weeks and often months ... Whole families ... were imprisoned - fathers, mothers and children, and many cases were reported of parents dying thus, either from starvation or from wounds caused by flogging, while their offspring were attached alongside of them to watch in misery themselves the dying agonies of their parents.5
During his return trip to Britain, Casement stopped in Washington, where he tried to enlist the interest of the state department in Putumayo’s plight, even meeting with president William Howard Taft. Yet, despite profuse verbal expressions of sympathy on the part of both British and American governments, and the formation of a select committee to conduct an inquiry in Britain, little was done to stem the abuses or punish the perpetrators in the end. Although the Peruvian government was finally forced to issue arrest warrants for the PAC’s local rubber bosses, few were ever actually arrested, and most managed to flee abroad.
The brutal exploitation of natives slowly abated due only to investors’ abandonment of the PAC because of the international scandal to which Casement’s report gave rise, as well as the opening up of bigger rubber farms in other areas of the world. The company’s infamous local chief, Julio César Arana, lived in comfort for many years in London, eventually returning to Peru and becoming a senator. He died in 1952 at the age of 88.
The knighthood Roger Casement received from George V in recognition of his South American efforts was probably a poor consolation for his inability to bring an immediate halt to the crimes he catalogued, or the punishment of their perpetrators. Yet, as one who endured physical hardship despite an African-acquired malarial infection that continued to plague him, and braved character assassination and death threats for his efforts, he deserves the recognition of posterity. As ED Morel, his partner in exposing King Leopold, wrote in 1912:
To denounce crime at a distance is a relatively simple task. To track the criminal to his lair in the equatorial forest, to rub shoulders with him round camp fires, to realise he knows it is only you that stands between him and immunity - you, and a few inches of cold steel, which makes no noise … to be enervated by fever, and maddened by the bites of stinging flies; to run short of food - and what food! To parch in thirst, to experience the lassitude of damp, moist heat which makes exertion a misery - this is different. And to retain, through all, your clearness of vision, capacity to weigh evidence, self-control and moral strength - this is to pass through the highest test of mental and physical endurance, to attain the most conspicuous point of human achievement.6
Casement retired from the foreign service in 1913, at the age of 47.
Casement’s retirement coincided with the Irish home rule crisis of 1910-14, which had a profoundly radicalising effect upon the country’s politics. The Liberal government of Herbert Asquith had introduced a third Home Rule Bill in 1910. Unlike in the two previous attempts (1886 and 1893), the House of Lords had by this time surrendered its veto, allowing the bill to become law if passed in the Commons alone, in which there were now sufficient votes.
The imminence of its enactment, however, provoked Ulster Protestants, under the leadership of Edward Carson and James Craig, to draw up the Ulster Covenant, pledging to resist home rule - which they said meant “Rome rule” - by force if necessary. To underline their determination, the unionists organised themselves into a paramilitary outfit called the Ulster Volunteer Force, which drilled and paraded openly throughout the province, and had recruited 90,000 by 1914. In April of that year, the UVF received a shipment of 30,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition from Hamburg at the northern port of Larne in defiance of the law, while the British government looked the other way, and the Tories - deeply entangled politically with the Orange Order - whipped up anti-home rule sentiment.
Enraged by the impunity with which the unionists were permitted to flout the law in the north, nationalists banded together in their own paramilitary organisation, known as the Irish or National Volunteers, which was pledged to defend home rule. Though founded by the more militant Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenians), the Volunteers were soon brought under the control of the moderate Irish National Party, headed by John Redmond. Roger Casement made his Irish political debut as a recruiter for the Volunteers.
Prospects for home rule dimmed further in June of 1914 as a result of the Curragh Mutiny. Sixty officers of the biggest Irish military base in the Curragh of Kildare declared that they would disobey any order to move north to defend home rule from a threatened Unionist uprising. From that point on, the Liberal government began to retreat from its commitment to limited self-government for all of Ireland’s 32 counties, and introduced the idea of partition for the first time.
And, as a result of the Larne landing and the Curragh Mutiny, Casement became convinced that “when you are challenged in the field of force, it is upon the field of force you must reply”.7 He therefore arranged a loan from his old friend, Alice Stopford Green, to purchase arms on the continent for the Volunteers. He was in America - to raise money and make contact with the legendary old Fenian, John Devoy, and his Clan-na-Gael organisation - when he learned of the results of the gun-running scheme. Casement’s comrade, an Englishman turned Irish patriot by the name of Erskine Childers, had succeeded in landing at Howth near Dublin with a shipment of 9,000 German rifles at the end of July.
But the British were less indulgent toward the Volunteers than toward the UVF. A line of troopers attempted to intercept the Volunteers who were carrying the rifles from Howth to Dublin. Although the Volunteers succeeded in making off with most of the guns, many of which would turn up in the General Post Office nearly two years later, British soldiers afterwards fired upon a hostile nationalist crowd, by which they found themselves surrounded in Bachelor’s Walk, leaving seven dead and 30 wounded.
World War I
The outbreak of the war divided Irish nationalist opinion. Home rule legislation was shelved for the duration of the conflict, but the government held out the promise of enacting it afterwards, in exchange for the loyalty of the nation. Eighty thousand Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic, rushed to take the royal shilling. John Redmond, the head of the National Party, took Britain’s word as good coin and declared support for the war effort. But a hard core of intransigents - the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Sinn Féin, Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, and a number of former home rulers like Padraic Pearse, disillusioned in the possibility of ever attaining sovereignty by parliamentary means - refused to give one grain of support to a war supposedly being waged for the freedom of small nations by the world’s greatest colonial power, which had held Ireland in thrall for centuries. Roger Casement was among those who refused. He wrote from the US at the time:
Ireland has no blood to give to any land, to any cause but that of Ireland. Our duty as a Christian people is to abstain from bloodshed; and our duty as Irishmen is to give our lives for Ireland. Ireland needs all her sons … Were the Home Rule Bill all that is claimed for it, and were it freely given today, to come into operation tomorrow instead of being offered for sale on terms of exchange that only a fool would accept, it would still be the duty of Irishmen to save their strength and manhood for the trying tasks before them, to build up from a depleted population the fabric of a ruined national life.8
Many in the anti-war camp - including Casement, and even James Connolly - harboured strong Germanophile tendencies, no doubt springing from their loathing of Ireland’s historic oppressor. Their main public stance, however, was emblazoned on the banner that hung in front of the Citizen Army’s Liberty Hall: “We serve neither king nor kaiser, but Ireland”. They had, in short, adopted, for their own largely nationalist reasons, a standpoint that coincided with that of Lenin - that the main enemy was at home - and embraced a goal that was parallel to the one he advocated: to turn the war into a civil war in the belligerent countries.
Lenin also coined the concept of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ in order to counteract the powerful tendency of European socialists to capitulate to their own governments. He demanded that revolutionaries subscribe to the notion that the defeat of their own ruling class - even at the hands of the enemy - was preferable to the victory of their country’s side. The Irish rebels adopted a similar logic. True to the old dictum that ‘England’s extremity is Ireland’s opportunity’, they had no qualms about consorting with Britain’s enemies in furtherance of their goals.
With the agreement of Devoy and Clan-na-Gael,Casement departed America for Germany, to examine the possibilities of assistance from the kaiser’s government to the struggle for an Irish republic. He held out the hope that a victorious Germany would guarantee Ireland’s independence. Casement did not travel alone, however. He had been befriended in New York City by a young Norwegian named Adler Christiansen, whom Casement took along with him as his ‘servant’ and made privy to his designs. In transit to Germany, in the Norwegian capital of Christiana (now called Oslo), Christiansen disappeared for a day. He claimed to have been abducted by British consular authorities, who pumped him unsuccessfully for information.
British documents discovered years later told a different story. Christiansen had, in fact, presented himself voluntarily at the British embassy, offering to inform on Casement in exchange for substantial sums. But Casement believed his young companion, and for months attempted to use Christiansen to feed false information to the British. But his companion was in the pay of his enemies. From this point on, the government became aware of Casement’s movements and purposes, as well as receiving from Christiansen a report that “his relations with the Englishman [Casement] were of an improper character”.9
Casement’s German efforts were, in his words, a “ghastly folly”. Though it strung him along for some time, the German government was not prepared in the end to provide significant military support to an Irish rising. The most it did was to make accessible to him several thousand Irish POWs, from whom Casement hoped to recruit an ‘Irish Brigade’ for the independence struggle. But he had gravely underestimated the depth of British-patriotic sentiment that still prevailed even among Irish prisoners. He was heckled, and even threatened physically, before a POW audience. In the end, he succeeded in recruiting no more than a handful of men, which he concluded would be useless in any military operation.
Completely disabused of any warm feelings he may have had for the German Reich, and despondent over his failures, Casement received word that a rising was planned in Dublin for Easter week, which began on April 24 1916. He also learned that his American comrades had contracted for a German shipment of 20,000 rifles for the rebels’ use. Casement thought that a rising without broader German support was bound to fail. He apparently did not share the notions of Padraic Pearse that a blood sacrifice was required to redeem Ireland’s honour. He hoped to persuade the rising’s leaders not to proceed with their plans. He even sent a messenger to Dublin with instructions to cancel the rising, but the envoy failed to appear. Yet Casement thought that, whatever their decision or their fate, his place was by the side of his insurgent compatriots. He thus decided to accompany the weapons consignment and two comrades from his volunteer brigade aboard the submarine that was to take him to the Banna Strand, and then capture, trial and execution as a traitor to the crown.
Roger Casement’s trial for high treason opened on June 26 at London’s Old Bailey. Heading the prosecution was FE Smith (Lord Birkenhead), who had, from his position as a Tory MP, risen to the post of attorney general in part by fanning the flames of Protestant opposition to home rule; the man who now accused Casement of high treason for attempting to smuggle guns into Ireland was one of those who had earlier boasted about shipping rifles to Larne to arm the UVF in defiance of the law, and pledged to resist home rule by any means necessary, even if duly enacted by parliament.
The prosecution was at pains not to turn Casement into another martyr in Ireland’s cause, but rather to paint him as a man who had loyally served the crown and accepted its pension and highest honours, only to betray it to the German enemy in time of war. (He had, in fact, written to Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign minister, in 1914, offering to give up both.) Several witnesses from the German POW camp were produced to demonstrate that Casement had intended to recruit them to fight alongside Germany.
The trial and subsequent appeal against the death sentence took place at the height of anti-German feeling in Britain. The Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest of the war, began in France shortly after the trial, while Casement’s appeal was pending. Pro-war sentiment prevented some who had known him well - Joseph Conrad, and Roger’s one-time closest friend, Herbert Ward - from joining the campaign to save his life.
Help did arrive, however, from an unexpected quarter. Although a Dublin Protestant by origin, George Bernard Shaw had shown little inclination to involve himself in Irish politics. This time, though, he was moved to speak out for Casement, imagining what he would say if he had been in the dock in his place:
I am neither an Englishman nor a traitor; I am an Irishman, captured in a fair attempt to achieve the independence of my country; and you can no more deprive me of the honours of that position, or destroy the effects of my effort, than the abominable cruelties afflicted 600 years ago on William Wallace [a member of the lesser nobility in Scotland who fought against King Edward of England and was publicly hanged, drawn and quartered in London], in this city, when he met a precisely similar indictment with a precisely similar reply, have prevented that brave and honourable Scot from becoming the national hero of his country.10
But this bold line of defence was not the one that Casement’s chief barrister, Alexander (‘Serjeant’) Sullivan, an Irish lawyer who hoped to gain admittance to the English bar, chose to pursue. He instead prevailed upon Casement to accept a technical defence based upon an ambiguity in a statute from the reign of Edward III in 1351. The law defined treason as being “adherent to the king’s enemies in his realm or elsewhere”. Sullivan argued that the law did not apply to his client because the treasonable acts of which he was accused took place not in Britain, but Germany, outside the king’s realm. The judges threw out this interpretation, reaffirming a precedent that a comma could be read into the Norman-French text between the words “realm” and “or elsewhere”, meaning that the clause was intended to refer to where the acts were committed, not where the enemies were. Casement later quipped that he had been sentenced to “hang on a comma”.
Casement spoke from the dock after Sullivan’s weak legalistic defence had obviously collapsed, and his fate had been sealed. Stating that what he was about to read was “addressed not to this court, but to my own countrymen”, he went on to challenge the authority of the crown court to judge and pass sentence upon him: “If I did wrong in making an appeal to Irishmen to join with me in an effort to fight for Ireland, it is by Irishmen, and by them alone, I can be rightfully judged.”11
He went on:
We are told that if Irishmen go by the thousand to die, not for Ireland, but for Flanders, for Belgium, for a patch of sand on the deserts of Mesopotamia, or a rocky trench on the heights of Gallipoli, they are winning self-government for Ireland. But if they dare to lay down their lives on their native soil, if they dare to dream even that freedom can be won only at home by men resolved to fight for it there, then they are traitors to their country .…
If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel, and shall cling to my ‘rebellion’ with the last drop of my blood. If there be no right of rebellion against a 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 right than to live in such a state of right as this. 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 garner the fruits of their own labours - and, even while they beg, to see things inexorably withdrawn from them - then surely it is braver, a saner and a truer thing, to be a rebel against such circumstances as these than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.12
Casement converted to Catholicism days before his death. The hangman, John Ellis, wrote in his memoirs that he was “the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute”.13
Casement in history
Leftwing writers have tended, quite rightly, to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising by emphasising the role of its single revolutionary socialist martyr, James Connolly, and the socially and economically progressive ideas of some of its other leaders. And, while Casement was certainly no reactionary, it is clear from his final speech, and from other writings, that he thought almost exclusively in national, as opposed to class, terms. He had no personal experience of the class struggle, and was not enough of an intellectual to act from any broad theoretical outlook.
Yet his wide human sympathies are clearly in evidence. One of the few generalisations from his experience was recorded while visiting the US, contemplating the fate of native Americans:
… you had life - your white destroyers only possess things. That is the vital distinction, I take it, between the ‘savage’ and the civilised man. The savage is; the white man has. The one lives and moves to be; the other toils and dies to have.14
Casement’s experiences of ‘uncivilised’ peoples had obviously awakened him to possibilities of human existence other than the narrow ways of his class and tribe. He was an Irish nationalist, but also a citizen of the world, for whom humanity was not an exclusively European, much less British, club. The possible relation between his rejection of prevailing political attitudes and his departure from prescribed norms of male sexual conduct can only be a matter of speculation.
Irish history holds an important lesson in human universality. The fact that, before the European powers fastened the colonial yoke around the necks of tens of millions of peoples of colour, one white European nation subjected to the same kinds of barbarities, and imposed similar notions of innate inferiority, upon another people every bit as white as they were, constitutes an historical refutation of the notion that imperialism has anything intrinsically to do with the colour of one’s skin. In the first decades of the 20th century, the Irish began a fight against imperialism in Europe itself, on the doorstep of its preeminent colonial power - a fight that prefigured, and gave impetus to the many struggles that were to come in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
More than any of the martyrs of Easter Week, Roger Casement personified the bond between European and third-world struggles for emancipation. The reasons why the custodians of empire reviled him in his time - that he was a traitor to his colonial-settler caste, and to his empire in the midst of one of history’s greatest and most senseless slaughters - are precisely the reasons why he should be honoured on the centenary of his sacrifice.
Jim Creegan may be reached at email@example.com.
1. Quoted in B Inglis Roger Casement New York 1973, pp382-83.
2. Quoted in C Tóibin, ‘The tragedy of Roger Casement’ New York Review of Books May 27 2004.
3. Quoted in ‘The dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa - review’ The Guardian June 8 2012.
4. A Hochschild King Leopold’s ghost New York.
5. Quoted in Wikipedia entry on Roger Casement.
6. Quoted in B Inglis Roger Casement New York 1973, p201.
7. Quoted in ibid p253.
8. Ibid p268.
9. Ibid p277.
10. Ibid p328.
11. ‘Casement’s speech from the dock’, reproduced in ibid p405.
12. Ibid pp410-11.
13. Ibid p370.
14. Original emphases, B Inglis Roger Casement New York 1973, p263.