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Rebel, Hero, Martyr

Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
Mario Vargas Llosa, London, 2002
discovered this was another of the farsighted operations of the king of the Belgians to create the infrastructure that would permit the territory to be exploited following the Berlin Conference….

This daring feat of exploration, it turned out, had been the work of Casement’s boyhood hero, H.M. Stanley, who for years had been Leopold’s chief agent in the Congo, a territory as big as Europe and one of the richest prizes in Africa. As Vargas Llosa writes, “‘And I,’ Roger Casement would often tell his friend Herbert Ward during his African years, as he was becoming aware of what the Congo Free State meant, ‘was one of his foot soldiers from the beginning.’”

In 1884, while the Berlin Conference was in progress, Casement went to work for the International Association, an intentionally vaguely named agency controlled directly by Leopold and his man Stanley. Two years later Casement joined the Sanford Expedition, another front organization for Leopold, charged with the task of surveying still-unexplored areas of the Free State and laying them bare to exploitation. Vargas Llosa writes:

For the rest of his life, Roger lamented…dedicating his first eight years in Africa to working, like a pawn in a game of chess, on the building of the Congo Free State, investing his time, health, effort, and idealism, and believing that in this way he was contributing to a philanthropic plan.

One of the most striking aspects of Casement’s story is the record it presents of a decent and simple-hearted man being transformed, by appalling circumstances, into a great moral figure, the weight and authority of whose voice would be heeded by governments, prime ministers, and presidents. As the scales fell from his eyes Casement began to recognize, or admit to himself, that Leopold’s African treasure-house was run on a regime of terror, the symbol of which was the chicote, a whip made of hippopotamus hide, “a vinelike cord able to produce more burning, blood, scars, and pain than any other scourge,” which Leopold’s overseers used upon the native rubber-gatherers with unremitting cruelty.

Casement must have had a catalog of atrocities to pass on to the young Polish adventurer Jósef Korzeniowski, whom he met and befriended in Matadi in 1890, when he had been more than five years in the African inferno. Later, when Korzeniowski had become Joseph Conrad, he retained an equivocal impression of Casement, describing him as “a limpid personality,”4 but also as “a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all.” But if Conrad saw Casement as one of the “hollow men” who ran colonial Africa, like the demented Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, he was wrong. Casement admired the book and wrote to Conrad to tell him so; he knew, more thoroughly than its author did, the terrible reality on which the tale was based.

Casement’s reputation as a competent and diligent official had filtered back to London, and in the early 1890s the Foreign Office employed him in various parts of Africa, including the Congo. Again, the exact nature of his duties is unclear, though certainly he was “pursuing his slow quest of the Beast Leopold,” as one biographer puts it. Reports of atrocities had been filtering back to England. In April 1900 Casement wrote to the Foreign Office urging the British government to join with Germany “in putting an end to the veritable reign of terror which exists in the Congo.”

It was not until three years later, however, after questions on Leopold’s doings in Africa had been raised in the British House of Commons, that Casement was charged with gathering “authentic information” on the Congo. The report that he wrote, over eight days in a London hotel at the end of 1903, caused a public sensation, and a clamor for African reform. Famous figures such as Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle joined in the protests, and Leopold was forced to commission a report of his own, much of which, on its publication in 1905, vindicated Casement, who in due course was knighted for his services in the Congo and, later, in South America. “As the British Empire reached its zenith at the dawn of the twentieth century,” Angus Mitchell writes, “it had given voice to a man who would prove to be its nemesis.”

Vargas Llosa weaves together his accounts of Casement’s African investigations and his dawning consciousness of himself as an Irish nationalist. He quotes a letter from Casement to his beloved cousin Gertrude Bannister, nicknamed Gee:

Dear Gee, it may seem like another symptom of madness to you, but this journey into the depths of the Congo has been useful in helping me discover my own country and understand her situation, her destiny, her reality. In these jungles I’ve found not only the true face of Leopold II. I’ve also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman.

In 1910 Casement, heading a commission of half a dozen experts on the Amazon region, was sent by the British government to investigate the rubber trade in the Putumayo basin of Peru, where atrocities—murder, floggings, mutilations, rape—remarkably similar to those in the Congo had been reported in the press. The most shocking allegations were directed at the firm of Julio C. Arana, registered on the London Stock Market as the Peruvian Amazon Company. What Casement and his commission found in Peru exceeded even the most lurid newspaper stories. The Putumayo was another hell on earth, administered by an assortment of devils, the most terrible of whom was Armando Normand, “a loathsome monster,” as Casement called him, who ran the rubber-collecting station at Matanzas on the Cahuinari River. Normand, perpetrator of unspeakable cruelties, most of them devised for his own amusement, was living proof of the contention that there is no limit to the wickednesses a person will perpetrate if given absolute power over other human beings.

Casement’s Putumayo report was published in July 1912 and like the Congo report brought an immediate public response. “I have blown up the Devil’s Paradise in Peru,” Casement wrote to his cousin Gertrude. The Times of London devoted two columns and an editorial to the reports, and there were long articles in many other newspapers in England and abroad—there was even a sermon preached against Arana’s company in Westminster Abbey. In August the British House of Commons set up a select committee to investigate the affair; Casement was the chief witness, and gave powerful and persuasive evidence against Arana and his company. Much damage was done to the company as a result of public protests and the report of the select committee, but in the end international politics led to a fudge that allowed Arana to hold on to his power base. For all Casement’s efforts, the sufferings of the Indians of the Putumayo would continue.

While he was in Peru, Casement’s thoughts had returned again and again to Ireland. Vargas Llosa has him writing in his notebook at the time:

We should not permit colonization to castrate the spirit of the Irish as it has castrated the spirit of the Amazonian Indians. We must act now, once and for all, before it is too late and we turn into automatons.5

It seems clear that in his mind Casement made a direct and strong connection between the state of Ireland and the plight of the native peoples of the Congo and Putumayo—it may be, indeed, that he thought to sublimate the frustrations of his campaigns abroad by throwing himself wholeheartedly into the struggle for Irish independence. He became deeply involved with the Irish Volunteers, and raised funds for them among influential friends and supporters in Britain and America.

In 1914 he traveled to Germany with the aim of forming an Irish Brigade, composed of Irishmen in the British army who had been captured by the Germans. Casement’s hope was that the brigade would be transported to Ireland by the German navy to join in the fight against the British forces of occupation. However, when he made a recruitment attempt at the Limburg prisoner-of-war camp, the main body of Irish prisoners spat upon and jostled him. The German government offered instead 20,000 rifles, but declined Casement’s request that German officers be sent to Ireland to train the volunteers and make of them a dependable fighting force. After spending more than a year and a half in Germany, he returned to Ireland in a German U-boat and landed secretly at Banna Strand in County Kerry, where, in ill health and exhausted by the journey, he was captured and sent to London for trial. Found guilty of treason against the Crown, he was sentenced to death and, despite widespread pleas for clemency, was hanged at Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916.

In his memoirs the hangman, John Ellis, wrote of Casement: “He appeared to me the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute.” Nevertheless Casement was subjected to one final humiliation before burial, when, on the orders of the British authorities, the doctor present at the execution explored the anus of Casement’s corpse in order to confirm “the practices to which the executed man apparently was devoted.”

The Dream of the Celt is, like its subject, stout-hearted, well-intentioned, tender, and somewhat naive. It is not in any real sense a novel, but is, rather, a biography overlaid with a light wash of novelistic speculation. It is an exoskeletal work, in that it wears its research on the outside. The author has read widely and diligently on his subject, but the material gathered, instead of being absorbed organically into the narrative, is presented to the reader in the form of raw data. The forays that Vargas Llosa makes into Casement’s thoughts and dreams, although warmly sympathetic, are less than inspired. The novelist has fallen in love with his subject, which is admirable, but his amatory approach does not help the novel.

Vargas Llosa would have done well to remember Henry James’s repeated injunction to himself in his notebooks: “Dramatize! Dramatize!” Yet Casement’s story is so absorbing, and the background against which it unfolds is so fascinating, that the reader will be swept along regardless of the novel’s flaws as a work of fiction. In The Dream of the Celt, for all its shortcomings, Mario Vargas Llosa has done an inestimable service to the memory of a great man.

  1. 4

    Brian Inglis, Roger Casement (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), p. 31. 

  2. 5

    Since The Dream of the Celt is a work of fiction we are not sure if such passages are direct quotations from Casement’s surviving papers or novelistic inventions, though we may assume they are factual, given Vargas Llosa’s adherence throughout his narrative to the facts of Casement’s life. 

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