The Tragedy of Roger Casement

Sir Roger Casement’s Heart of Darkness: The 1911 Documents

by Angus Mitchell
Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission, 816 pp., £75.00

In The Rings of Saturn W.G. Sebald finds himself in an English seaside town falling asleep during a BBC documentary about the life of the Irishman Roger Casement, who was executed by the British in August 1916 for high treason. Afterward, when Sebald, intrigued by his own vague and twilit memories of the program, sets about finding out what he can about Casement, his imagination is fired by the relationship between Casement and Joseph Conrad, who first met each other in the Congo in either 1889 or 1890, when Casement, then in his mid-twenties, was working for the Congo Railway Company. For a number of weeks the two men shared a room. Conrad found inspiration at that time for Heart of Darkness; Casement was beginning on the road toward becoming a hero, a martyr, and a traitor.

On Casement, Conrad wrote that “the work he was busy about then was recruiting labour. He knew the coast languages well. I went with him several times on short expeditions to hold ‘palavers’ with neighbouring village-chiefs.” Later, in 1904, when Casement had become impassioned about atrocities being committed in the Congo and had written a report for the British government on the matter, he went to see Conrad. Jessie Conrad, the novelist’s wife, remembered his visit:

Sir Roger Casement, a fanatical Irish protestant, came to see us, remaining some two days our guest. He was a very handsome man with a thick dark beard and piercing, restless eyes. His personality impressed me greatly. It was about the time when he was interested in bringing to light certain atrocities which were taking place in the Belgian Congo. Who could foresee his own terrible fate during the war as he stood in our drawing-room passionately denouncing the cruelties he had seen?

Conrad had already written to Casement when Heart of Darkness was published: “I am glad you read the Heart of D., tho’ of course it’s an awful fudge.” At the time of Casement’s report on the Congo, Conrad also wrote to his friend R.B. Cunninghame Graham:

He’s a protestant Irishman, pious too. But so was Pizzaro. For the rest I can assure you that he is a limpid personality. There is a touch of the Conquistador in him too; for I have seen him start off into an unspeakable wilderness swinging a crookhandled stick for all weapons, with two bulldogs, Paddy (white) and Biddy (brindle) at his heels and a Loanda boy carrying a bundle for all company. A few months afterwards it so happened that I saw him come out again, a little leaner a little browner, with his stick, dogs, and Loanda boy, and quietly serene as though he had been for a stroll in a park…. I would help him but it is not in me…. I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories, and not even up to that miserable game…. He could tell you things! Things I have tried to forget, things …

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