Casement, Roger (1864–1916)

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CASEMENT, ROGER (1864–1916)


British consul and Irish rebel.

Roger Casement is remembered for exposing the abuse of native people in the Congo and the Amazon, as an Ulsterman and a British consul who became an Irish revolutionary, and (by some) as a gay icon. He first came to prominence in 1903, with his report on the atrocities perpetrated on the native population in the Congo by those who were exploiting the region's valuable rubber resources. The Berlin Congress of 1884 had ceded control of the Congo territory to King Leopold of the Belgians. Casement's exposure of the systematic abuse of the native population, together with the ongoing pressure from the Congo Reform Association, founded in 1904 by Casement and E. D. Morel, ultimately led to the Belgian state taking control of the Congo in 1908. When Casement wrote his report he had spent almost twenty years in Africa, as a member of survey parties and later as British consul. In 1910, when Casement was consul in Rio de Janeiro, the British Foreign Office asked him to investigate reports of comparable brutalities carried out by rubber barons in the upper Amazon basin. Britain appointed a parliamentary select committee as a result of this report, and Casement was knighted for his work.

Casement was from a Protestant gentry background. Following the early death of both parents, he was raised in the Casement family home at Magherintemple, in the Ulster county of Antrim, an area where Irish still survived as a spoken language, as did lore about Gaelic resistance to English conquest. As a teenager he wrote poems that identified with the conquered Gaels. However, like others from modest Irish gentry families, he found his career in the colonial service, and he supported Britain in the Boer War. Casement himself claimed that it was his investigations in the Congo that led him to identify with the underdog and with Irish separatism.

During a long home leave in 1904–1906 he became involved in advanced nationalist causes, such as the Gaelic League and Sinn Féin, and he became acquainted with many leading nationalist intellectuals. He resigned from the consular service in 1913, the year that the Ulster Volunteers were formed to resist Home Rule. As an Ulsterman, Casement was committed a united sovereign Ireland. He became a leader of the pro–Home Rule Irish Volunteers, addressing recruiting meetings throughout Ireland in increasingly militant language. When the Ulster Volunteers successfully landed guns in the spring of 1914, he turned his attention to fundraising for guns for the Irish Volunteers. In July 1914 he traveled to the United States, but his plans were altered by the outbreak of World War I and Britain's decision to postpone the introduction of Irish Home Rule. Casement traveled to Germany in order to raise support for an Irish rising, but Germany showed little interest in Irish independence, and his efforts to attract recruits among Irish prisoners of war proved disastrous. When he returned to Ireland by German submarine in the hope of preventing the rising planned for Easter 1916, he was arrested, brought to London, convicted of his treason, and sentenced to death—the only leader of the rebellion who was put on trial (all the others were court-martialed). His case attracted international attention, and in order to prevent a campaign to commute the death sentence, the British authorities released copies of his private diaries, which contained graphic accounts of homosexual encounters. On the eve of his execution he was received into the Catholic Church.

The posthumous Casement remained important to nationalist Ireland, not least because, as an Ulsterman of Protestant background, he reaffirmed the image of an all-Ireland nationalist open to all traditions. Plans for his reburial in Antrim were linked with the antipartition campaign. In 1965 the British authorities eventually released his body on condition that he be reinterred in Dublin; the state funeral attracted a huge attendance. Allegations that the "black diaries" were forged by British intelligence were another running sore in Anglo-Irish relations; forensic research indicates that they are genuine, but this debate is not over. Casement is now the best known of the 1916 leaders, perhaps because these ambiguities and his international career are more in tune with contemporary Ireland than more conventional heroes.

See alsoColonialism; Easter Rising; Ireland.


Daly, Mary E., ed. Roger Casement in Irish and World History. Dublin, 2005. Includes a copy of the forensic report on the Casement diaries.

McCormack, W. J. Roger Casement in Death, or, Haunting the Free State. Dublin, 2002.

Mitchell, Angus. Sir Roger Casement's Heart of Darkness: The 1911 Documents. Dublin, 2003.

Mitchell, Angus, ed. The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement. London, 1997.

óSíocháin, Seamas, and Michael O'Sullivan, eds. The Eyes of Another Race: Roger Casement's Congo Report and 1903 Diary. Dublin, 2003.

Reid, B. L. The Lives of Roger Casement. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1976.

Sawyer, Roger. Casement: The Flawed Hero. London, 1984.

Sawyer, Roger, ed. Roger Casement's Diaries: 1910, the Black and the White. London, 1997.

Mary E. Daly