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The Tragedy of Roger Casement

Casement’s legacy quickly became a complex one. Because he had been out of Ireland for most of his life, he had no close friends among the new leaders of the separatist movement or the new state. He was an enigmatic hero, a distinguished outsider who had given his life for Ireland, converting to the Catholic Church shortly before his death. Nonetheless, the rumors about the diaries were insistent enough for the Irish leader Michael Collins to ask about them during the treaty negotiations in London in 1921. With a colleague, he was shown the diaries, and he believed them to be genuine. He and his friend were disgusted by them.

Slowly, however, a movement began in Ireland which suggested that the diaries were, in fact, forged to blacken Casement’s name. Some of this was for old-fashioned Catholic nationalist reasons: an Irish patriot had to be pure and holy; only the British could think of such perversions. Others, who had known Casement, believed that it was impossible that he had lived a double life, or that he would be foolish enough to chart it in all its detail day after day and then leave the diary for his enemies to find. It seemed too unlikely. “There was,” Jeffrey Dudgeon writes, “no middle way between seeing him as a treasonable pervert or as a Catholic nationalist saint.” W.B. Yeats in 1936 became convinced that the diaries were forgeries and wrote two poems on the subject:

Afraid they might be beaten
Before the bench of Time,
They turned a trick by forgery
And blackened his good name.

Slowly, also, books about Casement began to appear, each book seeming to map the author’s prejudices and preoccupations as much as the subject’s. While many of these books were strange and eccentric, the most startling of all appeared in 1959 from the Olympia Press in Paris, and quickly became a collector’s item. It was called The Black Diaries of Roger Casement. The authors were Peter Singleton-Gates and Maurice Girodias. It is still unclear where they got their hands on the diaries which purported to be Casement’s for 1903 (written in the Congo) and 1910 (written in the Amazon). Once Casement was safely hanged, the British had kept them locked away. The Olympia Press printed the diaries which had explicit sexual content on the right-hand pages, while on the left-hand pages they printed Casement’s “white” diaries, which dealt only with his travels in the Congo and Brazil, the atrocities he was witnessing, and his plans to combat the cruelty he saw.

Immediately, those who believed that the diaries were forgeries had a problem. The diaries describing Casement’s sexual adventures were cryptic and complex; they recorded his travels and what he witnessed and many random details, often in one-sentence notes. There was no evidence of a howling error, despite the huge amount of detail and number of proper names, which would make clear that a forger had been at work. While a few forged letters or a couple of explicit diary entries would have been enough to destroy Casement in 1916, these diaries would have taken years to forge. Over many entries there was no mention at all of sex. And then sometimes toward the end of a diary entry the following, for example, would appear:

Arrived Pará at 3. Alongside 3.30. Tea and at 5 with Pogson to Vaz Café. Lovely moço—then after dinner to Vero Pesa. Two types—Also to gardens of Praca Republica. 2 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.

This entry from the Black Diary for August 8, 1910, is rather typical. It was printed first in the 1959 edition, and then, with footnotes, by Roger Saywer in his Roger Casement’s Diaries: 1910: The Black and the White,1 and once again in Jeffrey Dudgeon’s Roger Casement: The Black Diaries, which also includes the 1911 Black Diary, the most explicitly sexual, for the first time.

On the opposite page in the 1959 edition, Casement’s report, written in 1911, to Sir Edward Grey at the Foreign Office in London was printed. The tone was sober and detailed and contains serious evidence of torture, floggings, murder, and forced labor, all in the name of the rubber trade, with British companies and British shareholders implicated. As Casement was compiling this report, he was being closely watched by the very figures whom his report would set out to destroy. He was immensely conspicuous, being over six feet tall. For some commentators, it seemed impossible that he could have slipped away so often in cities and towns in Brazil and not been followed and noticed and caught. Hardly anyone, it seems, had the slightest suspicion of him at the time.

Angus Mitchell, who has edited Casement’s Brazilian writings and written a brief biography,2 reprints in his Sir Roger Casement’s Heart of Darkness: The 1911 Documents an account of Casement by Dr. Herbert Spencer Dickey, who traveled with him to Manaus in 1911; Mitchell also quotes from a letter which Dr. Dickey wrote to Denis Gwynn3 in 1936:

It is too bad that I did not earlier know of the conspiracy which had for its objective the formation of an “Oscar Wilde” case against the tragic Irishman. But I didn’t learn of it until I read your book…. I am a physician with thirty years experience behind me. I have encountered many homosexuals. But if Casement was one of these unfortunates, I am a rotten diagnostician and I shouldn’t be.

Casement, when we consult his diaries, seems to have been rather skilled at giving his friend the diagnostician the slip. In the entry for October 18, 1911, he mentioned having dinner with Dr. Dickey and then outlined a meeting afterward with a boy seventeen or eighteen with a penis as “thick as wrist” who “admitted his wish at once and so I took it. First spittle but so big could not get in—then glycerine honey and in it went with huge thrust and he suck on me and worked hard.”

2.

Jeffrey Dudgeon, whose book on Casement is perhaps the most complete and interesting so far (while also rather startling at times in its use of present-day slang to describe Edwardian experience), co-founded the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association in 1975, and in 1981 won a landmark case against the British government at the European Court of Human Rights. While changing the laws on homosexuality in Britain, the British government had caved in to pressure from the religious right in Northern Ireland (“Save Ulster from Sodomy” was one of the slogans) and excluded Northern Ireland from the new freedoms. Dudgeon forced them to extend the new legislation to Northern Ireland.

Dudgeon, in one way, is the biographer Casement has been waiting for. He knows, as no biographer before has known, how easy it is for gay men—even tall Edwardian ones—to slip away from company in any city in the world to find sex. He is shocked by nothing Casement wrote or did. He considers the diaries “an almost unique record of one homosexual’s sexual life over three years in the early part of the twentieth century.” He is especially well informed about Casement’s background in Northern Ireland and his activities in Belfast. Dudgeon’s analysis of why someone as secretive and vulnerable as Casement would keep an explicit diary is astute, perhaps the only explanation which makes any sense. Dudgeon’s gloss on the entry for 3 o’clock on Saturday, October 21, 1911 (“Waiting for José my fly open”), for example, reads:

This entry is further and conclusive evidence that Casement wrote up his personal diary, on occasion, as the day went along especially when he was using the process as an anticipatory erotic aid. In other words, writing down what he was doing, thinking about doing, and hoping he would do, was itself a turn on.

Casement, it is clear, wrote the diary for his own erotic use, to remind himself later. He “could no more stop writing than he could stop cruising,” as Dudgeon puts it. The entries are, Dudgeon writes,

written conversations with himself…. There is no-one else he can confide in except his diary which serves now [1903], and again in 1910 and 1911, more as a friend than an aide-memoire. Writing-up a diary may in fact have become part of a release technique to make up for not sharing the great secret with anyone from his daytime world.

Brian Inglis, in his sensible and serious biography, first published in 1973,4 agrees with Dudgeon. He writes that

sexual encounters were not for [Casement] a form of release, to be indulged in furtively, and recollected in shame. They were a delightful pastime, which it was only fair to pay for, as he would pay for a game of billiards. And he used the diary to record his experiences, so that he could again savour the pleasure when re-reading them (he would sometimes add an exclamation of delight in the margin, later).

In 2001, the Irish academic and writer W.J. McCormack commissioned a handwriting expert, Dr. Audrey Giles, to examine the Casement diaries and other work in Casement’s handwriting. Her report, McCormack writes, “simplifies matters by proving beyond all reasonable doubt that Casement wrote all of the material” in the Black Diaries of 1903, 1910, and 1911. This conclusion concurred with earlier studies of the handwriting by other experts. W.J. McCormack went on then to wonder if the events described by Casement actually occurred:

It is too simplistic to conclude that Casement wrote about a blow job on such-and-such-a-day because he experienced one then. (The crudeness of my language is designed to reflect the crudeness of such conclusions.) The issues of desire, of voyeurism, of recollection, day-dream, fantasy and delusion cannot be eclipsed by a notion of diary-as-report.

This assertion is an interesting example of how we all bring our own concerns to Casement’s story: Sebald is interested in the literary connections; Dudgeon is interested in the gay Casement; McCormack entertains the idea of the text as shifting and unstable. McCormack’s version seems to me a new Casement heresy. When, as a gay reader, you study the hastily written diaries, full of shorthand, full of the strangeness of the night on the edge of a park in an old city, you know, as a non-gay reader might not, that most of the time these ring true and are probably what Casement actually did on the day, unlikely as this may be to those of another sexual persuasion. This, in turn, may in the future become another Casement heresy, much reviled for its crudeness. It may also be worth pointing out that there is no evidence to disprove this view.

At the moment, in the light of Dr. Giles’s examination, the greatest heresy is to believe that the diaries are still not genuine. Angus Mitchell is an Englishman in his early forties who has become a significant Casement scholar. In the mid-1990s, while working with Roger Sawyer on an edition of the diaries, Mitchell disagreed with him about their authenticity. Sawyer, who believed them real, published his edition alone. Mitchell has gone on to edit two large volumes of Casement’s South American writings. He has worked with enormous zeal and attention to detail on Casement’s humanitarian work, believing that all the “controversy [about the diaries] continues to obfuscate Casement’s lasting significance.” As usual, he has brought his own concerns to Casement’s story: an interest in human rights, Irish history, and the fate of Brazil animates him, and thus he concentrates on these matters while considering the life and works of Casement.

  1. 1

    London: Pimlico, 1997.

  2. 2

    Casement (London: Haus, 2003).

  3. 3

    See Denis Gwynn, Traitor or Patriot: The Life and Death of Roger Casement (London: Jonathan Cape, 1931).

  4. 4

    Roger Casement (London: Hodder and Stoughton).

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