Roger Casement: : ‘A Real Citizen of the World’

EXTENDED BOOK REVIEW  by Frances Devlin-Glass


Roger Casement: Human Rights advocate, stern critic of Colonialism, and Irish patriot.

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Dream of the Celt, Faber & Faber, London, 2010. Translated by Edith Grossman, 2012

ISBN: 978 0 571 27573 1

RRP: $20

This is a book I’ve long looked forward to reading. A novel about Sir Roger Casement, human rights advocate and severe critic of exploitative and murderous colonialism, romantic nationalist, and perhaps best known in Irish circles as the titled man executed as a traitor in 1916. His standing as a hero of 1916 has long been controversial because of his real or alleged paedophilia/homosexuality, based on the forged or real Black Diaries.

The novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, is a Nobel Laureate, with strong postcolonial credentials.  I am as much interested in Casement’s work as a British diplomat in the Congo and the Amazon as I am in the way these experiences translated into his support for the Irish nationalist cause. Two years ago, I bought, in error, an edition in Spanish (one of the hazards of buying books online!) and had to give it away to a Spanish reader, and have since then waited patiently for the translation.  And what a stodgy translation it is.  I’ve no way of judging whether the deficits lie in the original or the translation, as I’ve no Spanish. It’s possible that Llosa is not the great stylist that I’d  hoped – not all literary Nobel laureates are.

The novel has an elegant structure. It alternates chapters in Pentonville Prison with Casement’s public life, beginning in the Congo where he transformed himself from being a stock stereotypical idealistic coloniser with dreams of improving the lot of the African, into an anti-colonialist. Then, it details his work in the Amazon which was even more challenging at a personal level. The wonder was that he wasn’t murdered there because of his known hostility to the abuses and violence towards indigenous people on the rubber plantations of the ruler of Putamayo in the Amazon, Julio César Arana. Finally, we see how his knowledge of colonial practices transformed itself into romantic Irish nationalism, and into a willingness to truck with Germany in importing arms in the ill-fated Aud debacle. Even that part of the story has its own nobility: in each phase of his life, Casement seems to have been able to let reality and pragmatism displace his passionate romanticism. We understand fully the agony of a man who knows that without the German arms the Easter Rising is doomed, but also one who, despite his best efforts, is impotent to change the momentum of events, however much he wanted to rid his mother-country of the colonial yoke. This narrative structure allows Llosa to disrupt the linear timeline, and to build suspense about the (generally well-known, for most readers) dénouement, and to bring in subsequent judgments from his associates, and as well widen the field of reference, while at the same time not compromising an insistent focus on Casement’s thinking about his dilemmas.

I first learned about the African material from Joyce’s warm (and brave) tribute to his Congo Report of 1904 in the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses. It was a happy synchronicity in dates: Joyce was very disciplined about confining himself to 1904 in writing that novel, and the details about Casement add gravitas and humour to Joyce’s treatment of colonialism.  Llosa draws heavily upon the Congo report, which became the basis for conferring a knighthood on Casement. By that stage in his career, it was an awkward fit because already his African postcolonial ideas had begun to influence his thinking about Ireland. However, his standing in British society almost certainly saved his life in the Amazon, though it must have been a sore barb mid-World War I to his captors and judges.

A detail about his African life which I’d not previously understood was Casement’s relationship with Joseph Conrad, sustained over many years, but failing ultimately, unhappily, the test of Casement’s commitment to Germany. Conrad refused to sign the petition seeking commutation of Casement’s death sentence on the grounds of his allegiance to British imperatives in a time of war. It seems, on the evidence of Conrad’s wife’s testimony, that Conrad originally shared Casement’s idealism about the colonial enterprise, and that their meetings in Africa quickly disabused Conrad of his innocence. ‘Deflowering’ was Conrad’s term for it. Llosa goes so far as seeing Casement as co-author of The Heart of Darkness. Certainly both men looked into the void of human depravity: Casement read it, conventionally perhaps, as proof of ‘original sin’; Conrad as the ‘heart of darkness’ at the core of being. However Casement might theorise it, what had shifted was his belief that Europeans were not  committed to helping Africans out of paganism and barbarism, but, as Llosa puts it, to ‘exploit[ing] them with a greed that acknowledged no limits to abuse and cruelty’ (p 270).

Horrifically, both Casement and Conrad were subsequently to experience much, much worse by way of abuse, each of them independently, in the trading route in the Upper Congo. There, the Africans were not only subjected to brutality and murder, but also expected to put aside a traditional life which sustained them both physically and spiritually, and punished for failing to meet rubber quotas (often wrongly calculated to the colonialists’ advantage), and for trivial reasons like wasting ammunition. A story Roger heard from a drunken official of the Force Publique was of three men being lined up and shot with a single bullet on the trivial charge of wasting ammunition on wild animals. Behanding and the crushing of testicles and whipping to death of children with fine chicote  (hippo hide) whips were routine ways in the Congo to create a slave class and to engage in slow genocide. As one colonial administrator commented to Casement: ‘When I came to the Congo I took the precaution of leaving my conscience behind in my own country’. Casement’s report and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness were both perhaps the most influential critiques of colonialism of their time – the early twentieth century. That they fed one another, both anecdotally and substantively, is something I’m pleased to know with more certainty than just hunch.  The miracle was, as his friend, historian Alice Stopford Green was to later comment, that his experiences served not to dehumanise but to civilise Roger Casement, and also Conrad more deeply.  The knowledge that the white trader, because of the power he could arrogate deep in the jungle, could become vastly less civilised than his African brother was dark and challenging for both consul and novelist who until Africa had unthinkingly accepted the stock-standard doctrines of Social Darwinism of the Victorians, and the myth that the Bible brings civilisation.

On the back of his Congo report, and the subsequent knighthood, Casement became the ‘most hated man in Belgium’, as well as being admired for his forensic investigation. Invited by the English government to investigate claims of atrocities in Amazonia conducted by the Peruvian Amazon Company, an English-listed company, Casement arrived in Santos in 1906.

Not surprisingly, given the provenance of its author, what this book does best is Casement’s work in the Amazon. The novel becomes authoritative as it details the appalling conditions, in the Putumayo empire presided over by Julio César Arana. If possible, the South American overlords were even more inhumane and psychopathological than were the henchmen of Leopold II (King of the Belgians) in the Congo. Llosa does not spare the embodied detail of atrocities. The anti-colonialist evidence is wound up to its extreme – deaths by ant-eating, hiding bodies in piranha-infested waters, gouging out of eyes, death in pillories, cutting off of ears and noses, and the failure to even bother to dispose of bodies, much less treat them with respect. There is no sparing of sensibilities in the catalogue of sadistic depravities. We learn of ever more sophisticated systems for punishing, cheating and enslaving indigenous populations. At this point in the narrative, Llosa’s dialogue begins to sparkle and become engagingly ironic. He knows his countrymen and their ways, and it shows.  We also get a far more engaging account of the beauties – orchids and butterflies – and conditions of life in the Amazon. How Casement survived that adventure only to be hanged becomes another conundrum of his life.

Casement’s engagement with the Irish literary revivalists’ writings began after his return from Africa, and was interrupted and intensified by his Amazonian investigations. He had a Dublin-born mother (Anne Jephson) who died when he was only nine. When he also lost his father at age 13, he’d been translated to the care of his Ulster Protestant relatives, who ran a shipping line that eventually took him to his first job in the Congo. His identification with his mother and her religion (believing he’d been secretly baptised by her) was to prove a consolation as he progressively embraced the Irish nationalist cause after 1904. Later, in prison, he was ministered to by Catholic priests who accepted that he was indeed Catholic. His mother also functions (awkwardly) in the narrative, in a dream, as one who is a symbol of Ireland itself, and complicit in her/its own rape by her husband (p.287). This pyscho-sexual drama of the child torn between love of mother and jealousy and hatred of the father is a transient effect in the narrative, but surely intentional.

Llosa seems to endorse Roger’s uncritical immersion in the hero-lore of his lost maternal culture. This perhaps indicates Llosa’s heavy reliance on old-fashioned sources from a culture about which he is not deeply knowledgeable. Through reading revivalist folk and epic tales, Casement became deeply enmeshed psychologically in its tales of doomed heroes. This was compounded by what he learnt in Amazonia – that states are deeply implicated in colonialism and can be resisted only by weapons. Furthermore, he knew personally Padraig Pearse, Eoin MacNeill and  Joseph Plunkett (whom he met in Germany when negotiating arms for the Rising), and was critical of their almost mystical will to blood-sacrifice. The rational side of his being urged strategic use of force, but the romantic side understood the imperatives driving the Rising, and its symbolism. It is a great pity that Llosa does not take up the thread suggested by George Bernard Shaw’s analysis, which he applied to Casement, that ‘patriotism is a religion, the enemy of lucidity. It is pure obscurantism, an act of faith’. This is perhaps to go too far, but it might have been a useful corrective. Perhaps like Roger, Llosa prefers the romanticism of early Yeats to the rational scepticism of Shaw.

The novel’s structure requires that the Irish enterprise be brought into line with the magnitude of abuses in the New World and Africa: ‘they too needed to free themselves from the Aranas exploiting them, though with weapons more refined and hypocritical than those of the Peruvian, Columbian, and Brazilian rubber barons’ (p 297). I don’t want to minimise the injustices of colonialism in Ireland, but there is a disproportion of effects here, and little demonstration of the claims. Llosa does not know Ireland well, though he clearly has read many sources of the era, but not too many subsequent ones.

A very uneasy subtext in this novel is Casement’s own libidinous drives – directed towards young men, and the equivocal status of the so-called Black Diaries – were they forged by the British spies or real? Handwriting analysis in recent decades suggested the latter but the possibility of a forgery is still debated. Llosa’s squeamishness around homosexuality means that he cannot or does not afford much understanding or sympathy to Casement.  There are a series of equivocations about his sexual orientation: it is variously a ‘fever’, a ‘demon’, the result of ‘weakness’, ‘concupiscence’. Llosa’s let-out is his suggestion that the orientation had its roots in aesthetics and unfettered sensuality, but more so the belief that the diaries enact not reality but desire and wish-fulfilment.  Llosa’s postscript comes down on the side of Roger having written the diaries but not lived them (p 354). What should not be lost sight of in this debate, and I think it is by Llosa, is how traumatic it was to be gay in the years after the Wilde trial and before decriminalisation in Britain before the Sexual Offences Act in Britain in 1967. At his most positive, but still equivocating, Llosa writes:

At some moment he realized, when he was already living in Africa, that his admiration was not healthy or, rather, it was not only healthy but healthy and unhealthy at the same time, for those harmonious, sweating, muscular bodies, without a drop of oil, in which he could perceive the material sensuality of felines, produced in him, along with ecstasy and admiration, avidity, desire, a mad longing to caress them. This was how temptations became part of his life, revolutionized it, filled it with secrets, anguish, fear, but also with startling moments of pleasure. And remorse and bitterness, of course. (p 294-5).

Men reduced to feline grace? And ‘revolutionised’ in this context is to trivialise the real revolutions, and particularly the need to rethink Empire and its imperatives, to which Casement devoted his life. The tragedy was that his imbrication in the Rising was compromised by a Norwegian spy. The British, tragically, knew their man, and were happy to exploit homophobia in the period poisoned by the Wilde trials when it was easy to make capital out of homosexual panic.

Despite its longueurs (and a very heavy blue pencil was needed in the editorial department), I’m glad to have read Llosa’s account of this very complex and extraordinarily principled and brave man. The global perspective very much extended my understanding of him. He is, as Yeats presciently defined him, ‘the most universal Irishman I’ve known. A real citizen of the world.’ Had he been a conventional man, married with a wife and family in Ireland, he would never have been free to have travelled as he did in such difficult realms, and re-defined so radically, at such cost to himself, and at such a critical point in history, geo-politics and social justice agendas. I cannot but admire the knighted British consul who was simultaneously a thoughtful and sometimes critical patriot, and wonder whether had the timing of the Rising been different and his voice been heard, the outcome might have been less traumatic. For me, the real tragedy of his life is that his homosexuality derailed the appreciation for so long, especially in Ireland, of his stature as a human rights advocate of world standing.

Frances is on the editorial board of Tintéan, and has a longstanding academic and literary interest in postcolonial texts. 

One thought on “Roger Casement: : ‘A Real Citizen of the World’

  1. I congratulate Frances Devlin-Glass on such an interesting, erudite and comprehensive review of what sounds like a difficult novel, based on a fascinating, heroic and mistreated man.

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