He traveled to the Congo and worked for Henry Stanley where he also became friends with Joseph Conrad. He explored the Amazon, was knighted by the Crown, fought for Irish independence, arrived in Ireland via a German submarine during World War I, stripped of his knighthood and spoke out against human rights abuses wherever he went. . .A true human rights activist that in many ways was light years ahead of his time, he was tried and executed for treason at the age of 51 by the British Crown. Roger Casement lived a fascinating life.
In an age when most people never traveled more than a few hours from their birthplace Roger Casement managed to visit the world- from the Congo, to South Africa, to South America to all parts of Europe he was a man that made his mark across the globe. Never has there been an individual that is arguably so important, so relevant but yet also obscure. I am amazed that for a man that did so much, and tried to do so much more, most people have not a clue who he was. Casement led an extraordinary life, a life that could be rivaled only through the exaggerated fiction dreamed up by Madison Avenue such as the Dos Equis guy on their signature commercial. Casement may in fact be the most interesting man to have lived over the last two centuries. Seriously.
Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1864 Casement by his teen years was being raised by relatives due to the death of both his parents. By the time he was 16 or 17 years old he found himself in Liverpool working for a major shipping company. It was here where Casement truly discovered the wider world during the golden years of the British Empire in the Victorian age. One of his first endeavors was to work for the legendary Henry Stanley in the Congo Free State. Casement was partially tasked with assisting in improving the infrastructure (building a reliable railroad line for example) and communication throughout the inhospitable and formidable African Congo. It was during this period where Casement met Joseph Conrad who as an author would chronicle his Congo experience in his classic Heart of Darkness. Both Casement and Conrad seemed drawn to Africa in the hopes of fostering improved social, political and economic possibilities for the people of the Congo. Casement himself was deeply invested in the idea of social justice and activism throughout his life. Eventually joining Her Majesty’s Colonial Service Casement began to investigate, document and bring public attention to the human rights abuses that were unfolding in Congo against its people under the control of King Leopold II of Belgium. The Congo itself was Leopold’s own private colony!!! Casement’s subsequent reports and findings will lead to the eventual formation of the Congo Reform Association, one of the first Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) of its kind. Today, NGOs are instrumental in maintaining international attention on all sorts of human rights issues- poverty, slavery, climate change, civil displacement due to war, hunger, safe drinking water, etc. Eventually, due to Casement’s detailed work and findings, the Belgian Parliament would formally take over the Congo Free State from King Leopold. A remarkable achievement. Casement will then travel to the Amazon basin and investigate similar pattern of abuses against the Putumayo Indians of Peru that were used in extracting rubber for the rubber trade not so much at the hands of a sovereign state but by private companies in the region. These two investigative successes as well as time in South Africa during the Boer War will eventually lead to Casement receiving a knighthood in 1911.
Throughout the first decade of the 20th century during his leave time from the Colonial Service Casement traveled back to his home country of Ireland. It was during this time that Casement became more and more involved in the politics of Ireland. Irish nationalists were pushing for Home Rule from Great Britain. Home Rule at the time was a truly hot-button issue, and its potential significance for Ireland triggered a multitude of reactions, all of which were dependent on who one asked. However, the gist for most on this issue was that at the very least Ireland would be granted complete or at least nearly complete political autonomy when it came to matters specific to Ireland. In essence, Ireland in the early 1900s was at a real pivotal political moment or crossroads in its own push for independence from Great Britain. Casement himself was dubious of such efforts because he felt that Great Britain would not honor such a proposal. Instead he felt Ireland should push for complete independence on the basis of self-determination. Casement’s entire adult life was dedicated to expanding the rights of the Congolese as well as indigenous peoples of Peru. It therefore was only natural for him to question his country’s own relationship with Great Britain.
Ireland was already in possession of a long history of their countrymen challenging the Anglo-Irish status quo and so Casement was only one more in this succession, however, what makes Casement unique in my opinion was that Casement’s argument for Irish independence was unrelenting in the importance that such a struggle should not be influenced by sectarian forces. Ireland is for Irishmen regardless of creed. For Casement it was a human right issue that a people should be able to determine their own government. And yes it is true that others believed as Casement did on this point, he certainly was not alone in holding this view, but the history of contemporary Irish independence is often overly simplistic; Catholics wanted independence and all Protestants wanted to remain loyal to the Crown. Casement bucked this sentiment. Instead he felt the only way Ireland could become a successful country on its own would be through cooperation between all Irishmen alike. In this sense he was a bit ahead of his time. 20th Century Irish history will prove this to be easier said than done.
Given Casement’s position on Ireland he did not feel initially that it should be achieved through what would be described as a any-means-necessary-policy, including outright acts violence or rebellion. Casement first felt an argument should be made for Irish independence through working international support channels on making it a human rights issue, as well as non-violent episodes of protest and boycott home in Ireland. His feelings will change however once he retired from the Colonial Service around 1913 and he began to fully support the Irish Volunteers.
At this point Casement is in a rather interesting spot politically in his life in relation to his stance on Ireland. On the one hand the British government is becoming increasing suspicious of his relationships he his forming- becoming perhaps more revolutionary and radical in his stance while in possession of a heavily influential diplomatic networking community that could cause waves high up in the British government; a community that may begin to sympathize or warm to the idea of Irish independence. Casement from the British perspective was not your typical revolutionary. He really did have friends in high places. On the other hand, Casement was not getting the full confidence of many fellow Irish nationalists because first of all, he was not fully committed to revolution through any means necessary in their eyes and furthermore, he spent his entire working life in the service of the British government- knighted in fact! Is he totally trustworthy? The outbreak of World War I will bring about monumental changes.
The outbreak of World War I put the effort for Irish independence under a microscope. For starters, it delayed Home Rule and it further split the Irish populace over whether or not the Irish should serve on behalf of Great Britain. The nationalists of Ireland, and Casement saw it as an opportunity.
Casement embarked on a public relations campaign in America drumming support for Ireland’s independence cause, more so too he became more comfortable with the idea of outfitting arms for the Irish Volunteers. Casement’s position on how to achieve independence had changed in my opinion as a direct result of the war- witnessing Irishmen going off to fight and die not on behalf of Ireland but rather Great Britain.
As a result of the draft and enlistments, the British army during World War I had many all Irish regiments. And like all wars many men were captured and became German prisoners, including entire regiments of Irish soldiers. This became an opportunity that Casement attempted to exploit. Casement found himself in Germany negotiating with the German government on the opportunity to recruit Irish soldiers to be specifically trained to fight against the British and for Irish independence. Although the plan proved unsuccessful, Germany did agree to send a shipment of arms to Ireland to be used by the revolutionaries and to help support the April 1916 Easter Rising (a plan Casement was unaware of until it had fully materialized). These German arms never it made it to the revolutionaries, instead British intelligence had intercepted the plot for the arms shipment and seized the German ship disguised as Norwegian. Casement himself was soon captured after being put ashore by a German submarine three days before the April rising in Rahoneen, County Kerry Ireland. He was charged with treason and espionage against the Crown.
His trial drew international attention and Casement in a speech before the Royal Court at his sentencing argued quite eloquently and passionately that the charges of treason were not possible for an Irishman because Ireland is not controlled by Ireland but rather England. He has no rights in this capacity. . .
“I assert from this dock that I am being tried here, not because it is just, but because it is unjust. Place me before a jury of my own countrymen, be it Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist, Sinn Féineach or Orangemen, and I shall accept the verdict, and bow to the statute and all its penalties. But I shall accept no meaner finding against me, than that of those, whose loyalty I have endangered by my example, and to whom alone I made appeal. If they adjudge me guilty, then guilty I am. It is not I who am afraid of their verdict — it is the Crown. If this is not so, why fear the test? I fear it not. I demand it as my right. “
He then spoke about the hypocrisy of serving in the British army during World War I as well as the natural right of self-government.
“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 in 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, and their dream and their deaths are phases of a dishonourable phantasy.
But history is not so recorded in other lands. In Ireland alone, in this twentieth century, is loyalty held to be a crime. If loyalty be something less than love and more than law, then we have had enough of such loyalty for Ireland and Irishmen. If we are to be indicted as criminals, to be shot as murderers, to be imprisoned as convicts, because our offence is that we love Ireland more than we value our lives, then I do not know what virtue resides in any offer of self-government held out to brave men on such terms. Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth, a thing no more to be doled out to us, or withheld from us, by another people than the right to life itself — than the right to feel the sun, or smell the flowers, or to love our kind. ”
Despite appeals for clemency on his death sentence by likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, Roger Casement was hanged on August 3, 1916 at the age of 51.
In order to destroy his creditability and reputation the British government leading up to his trial released and widely circulated private Casement diary entries that revealed his closet homosexuality. A lifestyle of course that was heavily frowned upon at the time. Known as the Black Diaries, these diaries are claimed by the British government to be written by Casement himself. They have been a source of controversy ever since in terms of authenticity and relevancy. They also speak to the age old importance of a government’s distorted or perverse need to control a particular narrative for in perpetuity. Those that control the narrative very much control public opinion. A whisper campaign indeed.
If there ever was to be made a list of the most fascinating individuals to have lived over the last two hundred years or so Roger Casement most assuredly would be near the top of that list. How Hollywood or Netflix has not uncovered his life is beyond me, indeed, Casement’s life has a bit of everything and then some. . .if you didn’t know it all to be true you’d swear his was a life of fiction.
**Per earlier blog post on March 1st 2017 a good portion of the information obtained for this blog post on Roger Casement can be attributed to Angus Mitchell’s book entitled 16 Lives: Roger Casement**