This is a fascinated story of a complex man who lived an extraordinary life as a hero of human rights only to die as a traitor in the eyes of British officials.
Roger Casement was born in Kingstown, County Dublin, to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. He was secretly baptised into the Catholic faith by his mother at the age of four but for most of his life, he considered himself as a Protestant and only a few weeks before his death, he was formally converted to Catholicism. In his youth, Casement worked briefly as a clerk for a Liverpool shipping line, before he moved to Africa in 1884 to work with Henry Morton Stanley, where later as British Consul, began investigations into slave labour in Congo. His report on the atrocities to the indigenous people by the Belgian Force Publique was published in 1904 and it caused a public outrage all across Europe.
In 1910, Roger Casement was sent by the British government into the Amazon jungle to investigate alleged abuse of workers in the rubber industry in the region of the river Putumayo, a no man’s land between Peru and Colombia that today belongs to Colombia. At the end of the nineteen century, a Peruvian merchant called Julio César Arana, taking advantage of the rubber boom, begun to collect wild rubber in the disputed region of Putumayo. Before long his Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company became million-dollar company and Arana decided to registered it in London in order to attract more capital. Soon, the alleged atrocities to indigenous populations and to British subjects, such as the Barbadians, by the employers of Casa Arana, forced the British Parliament to order an investigation.
Casement spent almost a year travelling from the city of Iquitos upstream to La Chorrera investigating the torture, abuses and exploitation of the Putumayo indigenous people. His report to the British Parliament, called the Putumayo Report, was published in 1911 and had considerable impact both in Europe and the United States. It caused the fall of the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company, although this was also coincided with the loss of interest in the world market for Amazon gum, ainly due to the competition of rubber from the British colonies in Asia, planted there with shoots taken out of Amazonia in a smuggling operation by the English scientist and adventurer Henry Alexander Wickham.
The Putumayo Report gained Roger Casement international recognition as a hero of human rights. Acknowledging his contribution and responding to increasing publicity, the King offered Casement a knighthood.
His work in Africa and Amazonia and the atrocities to indigenous populations had an effect on Roger Casement. He turned into an anti-imperialist, against the British Empire and all empires. He rejected the possibility of top down reforms and believed that only organised resistance and freedom will deliver a fairer and more egalitarian world. As a result, after the publication of the Putumayo Report he retired from diplomacy and dedicated himself to the Irish nationalist cause.
When World War I broke out, Casement felt that there was an opportunity for Ireland to secure its independence. A plan for an uprising started to form in his mind and he travelled to Germany to ask for rifles and ammunition, as well as to recruit the few Irish soldiers who had fought for Britain and been captured by Germany. His efforts in both fields were unsuccessful. Disappointed, delusional and betrayed, Casement tried to return to Ireland prior of 1916 Easter Rising, in an attempt to stop it. But it was too late. He was arrested by the British authorities when he dropped off in County Kerry by a U-boat.
On 29 June, 1916, Casement was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. In the meantime, extracts of his diaries revelled that that he was homosexual. It was an era, that same sex relationships were illegal and were considered as a social taboo, especially in the English society which was characterised by a puritan view influenced by Victorian thinking. Roger Casement was stripped of his knighthood and executed on 3 August, 1916.
In his intense and intimate prose, Mario Vargas Llosa highlights the complex personality of this extraordinary man. A brave, adventurous, generous and courageous man but at the same time a weak, rigid and delusional person that lived a secret, double and isolated live. A tragic hero.
Image Credit: Photographie de Roger Casement. Wikimedia