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The Tragedy of Roger Casement

Mitchell believes that the diaries “do not serve the gay community or merit a place in twentieth century homosexual literature.” (George Bernard Shaw also believed that if the diaries were Casement’s, then they proved him to be “a disgustingly unpleasant person.”) Mitchell has produced some textual evidence to support the forgery theory, none of which is convincing or conclusive. Dudgeon, as we have seen, takes the opposite view. At times, Dudgeon and Mitchell differ on the most basic matters. For example, Dudgeon has done exhaustive research on the life of a possible lover of Casement’s in Belfast called Millar Gordon. For him, this is pure gold, and he mines it with care and conviction. He dismisses Angus Mitchell’s view that Gordon was merely a supporter of Casement’s nationalism and ran errands for him and was from a humble background. To read Dudgeon’s and Mitchell’s accounts of Gordon’s connection to Casement, different not only in their analysis but in their version of the facts, is to realize how disputed every facet of Casement’s life has become.

Mitchell’s work is invaluable because he shows Casement’s utter fearlessness when the cause of the Indians of the Amazon basin became his own cause. Casement worked for the British Consular Service, lower in importance than the Diplomatic Service, for almost twenty years, yet he dealt with government ministers and senior officials with an hauteur, a moral superiority, and, at times, an impatience that suggested, in an age where class was central, that he came from a higher caste than they.

As indeed he did. Casement was brought up as an Irish Protestant. Even though he was neither landed nor wealthy, he belonged to a ruling class and inherited his class’s great confidence, which served many of its members well when they arrived in England. Figures such as Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, and Lady Gregory belonged to various facets of Irish Protestantism. All of them formed a habit, unusual in England, of doing what they liked and, mostly, saying what they liked. They could be Irish nationalists in London, while losing none of their ruling-class status or rent-collecting habits in Ireland. They could ally themselves with socialism, nationalism, and the people, while moving easily and casually in the great drawing rooms of London. They had a habit also of pleasing themselves sexually, Lady Gregory, ostensibly most demure, having an affair with Wilfred Scawen Blunt within a year of her marriage; Yeats writing poems of unrequited love while having many lovers in London; Wilde having a wife and two children, a male lover of his own class, and many lovers of working-class origin.

Had Casement been English, with no money of his own and no powerful friends, he would have known his place. He would have served his masters faithfully and humbly, as his colleagues did, in the Consular Service. Britain’s interests would have been his interests, and his letters to his masters would have reflected this. As soon as he saw what was happening in the Congo, however, Casement showed enormous determination and confidence. His letters to his masters in London are detailed, hectoring, at times, highly emotional, and often very long. (“We might give him a hint not to make them too long,” one Foreign Office official wrote.) The atrocities he outlined included mass murder and mutilation and enslavement. He was capable of a measured tone, outlining his evidence with care and precision. But he was, in the words of Brian Inglis, “filled with rage and compassion.”

In London on leave, he sought support everywhere, getting journalists and writers on his side, insisting that the British government, under the terms of the Berlin Agreement of 1885, had duties and responsibilities in the Congo. From the Putumayo, he could write up to five thousand words a day to the authorities in London, describing what he saw. One official in London commented: “Sir Roger Casement’s despatches make one’s head go round.” As early as 1903, a Foreign Office official had written of Casement: “We ought to have as British representative someone not harder hearted but harder headed.” Later, when he was in Brazil, another commented: “He will always be a source of trouble.” Even when speaking to Irish patriots on the matter of Ireland, Casement’s vehemence could be tedious. One of his closest Irish friends, the historian Alice Stopford Green, had to admit: “Sometimes when I listen to that man I feel I never want to hear the subject of Ireland mentioned again.”

From his lowly position as a consul, Casement set out fearlessly to save the world. “Being Irish,” Jeffrey Dudgeon writes, “and becoming Irish Irish… gave him an effortless sense of superiority over mere Englishmen.” Casement felt at times enormous affinity not only with those with whom he had sex, but with the others who were being brutalized by the rubber industry. But he was also an Edwardian colonial official, with the views about race that did the Empire proud. In 1894 he wrote from the Congo: “Our ways are not their ways. They have made evil their good; they cling to their cruelties and superstitions, their idion [sic] crowns, and symbols of fetish power, to their right to buy and sell men.” Later he wrote:

The African savage…delights in bloodshed, whether it be on the field of battle or in human sacrifice. To him the purpose of killing lies in the act of killing…. He is not content with merely getting his adversary out of the way but he wishes to shed his blood, hack his limbs and rejoice in a gory triumph.

When he arrived in Brazil, he developed views on the Brazilian character: “The ‘Brazilian’ is the most arrogant, insolent and pig-headed brute in the world.” In 1910 he had more to say on the matter: “Heavens! what loathsome people they are! A mixture of Jew and Nigger, and God knows what; altogether the nastiest human black pudding the world has yet cooked in her tropical stew pot.” He also, complicated figure that he was, had views on the homosexual question as though it had nothing to do with him. When Sir Hector Macdonald, once his homosexuality was discovered, shot himself in Paris in March 1903, Casement wrote in his diaries: “The reasons given are pitiably sad. The most distressing case this surely of its kind and one that may awake the national mind to saner methods of curing a terrible disease than by criminal legislation.”

Joseph Conrad, in a letter to John Quinn in 1916, wrote that Casement

was a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid. I mean that he was all emotion. By emotional force (Congo report, Putumayo etc) he made his way, and sheer emotionalism has undone him. A creature of sheer temperament—a truly tragic personality: all but the greatness of which he had not a trace.

This is an interesting version of what set Casement apart, but it is only partly true. The power and influence Casement had arose from his status as both outsider and insider. He looked like an Englishman and spoke like one. None of his colleagues behaved the way he did.

His Irishness alone cannot explain his confidence and tenacity, or his emotional response to atrocity. It is possible that his nocturnal activities with the very people he was trying to save gave him tenderness for them. In the Amazon, when he describes the torn or scarred flesh of the natives, he writes with great hurt, love, and sympathy for them, including women and children. Touching young men at night, being held by them and deriving the pleasures as described in his diaries, seems to have made him feel the locals’ suffering all the more and become determined to help them. For some of the young men in question, including the ones he paid, being propositioned by a tall bearded man from Northern Ireland might not have been the happiest experience of their lives. He was, to use a modern term, an Edwardian sex tourist. But it was more complicated than that. He was one with a mission.

Conrad’s view that Casement was “all emotion” may help us, however, to understand his response to Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century. For more than half a century, culture had come to represent a politics in Ireland more powerful than either militarism or parliamentary activity. Oscar Wilde’s parents, for example, had become involved in antiquarianism and archaeology and Irish literature, and had both come to love Ireland and want independence from England, while Sir William was also prepared to accept a knighthood from the Queen; his wife, a rabid Irish nationalist, thereafter enjoyed being called Lady Wilde. Figures in Yeats’s circle, who belonged to the landowning ruling class, such as Lady Gregory and Constance Gore-Booth, became converted in the early years of the century to the idea of Ireland as an ancient culture that now could be revived and a nation that needed to become a state.

In these same years, Roger Casement also took to Ireland. He began to feel the fierce emotion that was second nature to him about his native country, which he barely knew and hardly ever visited. And he began, especially when he was in Brazil and in correspondence with many of the new leaders in Ireland, to hate Britain, which paid his salary and gave him a knighthood. A journalist who met him in these years wrote: “Unusually sensitive to any form of beauty, he was bewitched by the beauty of his own country; unusually compassionate of all who suffer cruelty and wrong, he was consumed with indignation at his own country’s history.” In 1914, Casement wrote to an Irish friend of Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary: “Sir E. Grey should be hanged…of all the villainous fools British greed of Empire has yet produced that wicked, stupid, obstinate fool is the worst.”

As his dislike of England increased, so did his admiration of Germany. He admired “the honesty and integrity of the German mind, the strength of the German intellect, the skill of the German hand and brain, the justice and vigour of German law, the intensity of German culture, science, education and social development.” When the war broke out, he had no difficulty supporting Germany:

England’s crime in this war is the most flagrant of all—she made it inevitable—she leagued herself with the Powers of Darkness against Teutonic commerce and industry…. I pray for the Salvation of Germany night and day—and God Save Ireland now is another form of God Save Germany!

Casement’s time in Germany between the outbreak of the war and his arrival in Ireland eighteen months later was deeply unhappy; he suffered a great deal from depression. “Much of the time,” Brian Inglis writes, “he was producing the kind of memoranda and letters that are familiar to editors and members of parliament, as well as to doctors, and which usually turn out to have come from patients in, or about to enter mental hospitals.” He had, by this time, developed views on the Germans. Their military officials, he wrote, “are swine and cads of the first water—not one of them with the soul of a rat or the mind of a cur…they are lower than the Congo savages in most things that constitute gentleness of mind, heart or action.”

When he was knighted in 1911, Casement, who had loved Queen Victoria and even written a poem to her, wrote in acceptance: “I would beg that my humble duty might be presented to His Majesty, when you may do me the honour to convey to him my deep appreciation of the honour he has been so graciously pleased to confer on me.” Casement could thus be deeply loyal and ingratiating while also planning to overthrow the very monarchy he adored. He was not alone in these passionately divided loyalties, but they also affected his judgment.

The Irish Protestants who turned against Britain, while holding on to their knighthoods, or their land, or their great confidence, were always in danger of pushing their luck and misunderstanding the boundaries. Their gnarled allegiances impaired their understanding of how England would react to them. Robert Emmet, for example, whose brother’s sedition had been leniently treated by the British, led a rebellion in Dublin in 1803. He tried to take Dublin with a small army and a dream of his own invincibility. The British hanged him. Charles Stewart Parnell, who led the Irish Parliamentary Party, lived in an adulterous relationship, misunderstanding what the Irish bishops and Gladstone’s Liberal Party would do to him when this became public in 1890. They ruined him. Oscar Wilde believed that his wit would save him. It did not.

So, too, Casement, when he was captured, did not believe that they would hang him. He had, however, many enemies among the ruling class and in the cabinet; they had tolerated him for years, just as they had tolerated Parnell and Wilde. When Casement was freshly hanged, they ordered a doctor to examine his rectum to see if there was evidence of the activities he had described in his diaries. The Empire tolerated deviant Irishmen up to a point; after that, it became implacable and savage.

After Irish independence, the British government failed to understand why the Irish should want the return of Casement’s body to Ireland. But eventually they relented and Casement was given a state funeral in Dublin in 1965, with an oration by President Eamon de Valera over his grave in Glasevin cemetery, close to the graves of other Irish heroes, including Paddy Dignam from Joyce’s Ulysses. The Irish government, wisely, did not ask for his diaries to be returned. Casement’s bones offered no danger to anyone; the diaries remain a central and contentious aspect of his legacy.

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