The queer and unusual life of Roger Casement

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Knighted by the British crown for his work in Africa and later executed for high treason for his work in Ireland, Roger Casement was a unique figure. Noel Halifax tells the story of this pioneer of human rights, a gay man at the time of the creation of modern homophobia.

Roger Casement had an extraordinary life. He was born in Dublin from an Anglo-Irish background in 1864. Lauded by the establishment for his work in Africa and knighted in 1911, he became one of the most famous men of his age.

In 1913 he resigned from the Foreign Office. In 1916 he was hanged in Pentonville prison for high treason for his part in the Dublin Easter Rising. Though central to the Irish freedom movement he was largely overlooked by the Irish Republicans because, to their great embarrassment, he was also gay.

He was one of the earliest and greatest campaigners over the horror and depth of crimes against the subject peoples of imperialism in Africa and South America.

From 1881 the new imperialism of the European powers meant conquering the African continent and dividing it between them. The biggest portion went to the then most powerful state, Great Britain, followed by France. With hindsight the building of the new British Empire was a response to the challenge of the rising economic power of Germany and later the US.

But that was not the reason given for this greatest of all lootings. Britain proclaimed its historic mission was to enlighten and bring peace and the rule of law to the “darker races”. It used Rudyard Kipling’s phrase, “the white man’s burden”, to go out in the world to do this. The period from the 1880s to 1914 and beyond is awash with propaganda on a huge scale boosting the empire and this great civilising mission.

Along with this went a new hyper-racism seeing the subject people as at best children needing guidance or, more usually, savages to be whipped into submission. Along with the wars of conquest went a huge army of missionaries bringing a muscular Christianity, sweeping away old beliefs and traditions and instilling the new Christian values, whether wanted or not.

All of this propaganda meant there was a huge gap between what the public at home thought was happening in the empire and the reality.

In 1883 Casement went to West Africa working as a purser, decided to stay and by 1895 had become a British consul. By 1900 he was consul for the Congo Free State and the French Congo. The Congo Free State was unusual in that it was the personal domain not of a country but of a person — King Leopold II of Belgium. It was also vast.

Casement heard dreadful rumours of the mistreatment of the local people by the authorities in their extraction of rubber, a booming industry of the time. He was not prepared to just believe what the authorities told him. He decided to investigate for himself. He went up the Congo and talked to the local people, collecting evidence directly, not via the underlings of the company extracting the rubber.

What he found was shocking even for the times. The abuse was awful — torture, whippings, maiming, rapes — but it was also systematic. The collection of ivory and rubber was not done by farming but by a forced terror system. The local people were given quotas to bring in rubber from the forest. If they failed to meet them they were tortured or their families held at ransom and abused. They were not bought, like slaves, but simply seized in a systematic and barbaric way.

Casement published his report in 1904 and then campaigned with others for change via the Congo Reform Association. By 1908 the Congo Free State was replaced by the Belgian Congo and the personal rule of King Leopold II ended.
The hellish conditions in the Congo provide the background to Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness. Conrad and Casement met in the Congo, sharing a flat for a few weeks, which has led some to speculate that they were lovers, though this seems unlikely. Conrad did say that Casement was one of the few decent white men he met in the Congo.

Casement became world famous for his exposé and was lauded by the British establishment for exposing the awful deeds of foreigners exploiting the poor natives. Just south of the Congo was Northern Rhodesia, named after the great British Empire-building rogue Cecil Rhodes, who was viewing the mineral wealth across the border. A report undermining the competitive Congo Free State was not a threat.

The 1880s were also a period when a strict moral code in law and tradition within the British Empire and in Britain itself was imposed. In particular, homosexuality was seen as being an odious and backward practice. This view can be found throughout the west as the family was remade in a middle class form after the factory system had weakened or destroyed it.

But in Britain homophobia was uniquely strong and bound up with the empire building ethos. It was in the 1880s that a series of laws were passed in Britain to strengthen the criminalisation of sexual deviation. A number of scandals whipped up a moral outrage, the most important being the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895.

Attitudes to homosexuality in Victorian Britain changed as the century progressed, from ambiguous disapproval to outrage and horror. Ambiguous in that in the first half of the century Lord Tennyson’s long poem “In Memoriam A.H.H” is a cry of anguish over the death of the great love of his life, another man — and it was Queen Victoria’s favourite poem.

While there was a right wing moral outrage after the Wilde trials, there was also a reaction against it. Edward Carpenter’s homosexual works found a hearing with a wide readership among the new left in the 1890s.

Lord Byron had to flee England in the early 19th century in part because of his homosexual activity, while many wealthy men left Europe to enjoy places with a more liberal and relaxed attitude to sex. For example, the explorer Sir Richard Burton described and enjoyed the many different sexual practices in Africa and the Middle East (his wife back in England was so horrified by his diaries that she burnt them at his death in 1890).

At the same time the missionaries out in the empire were discovering shocking traditions. Anthropologists estimate that same-sex marriage, usually between a man and a boy, was traditionally practised in about a third of societies in west and central Africa.

The British response to this was to impose strict homophobic laws on the African colonies — laws that continue to this day — and to increase the missionary preaching and brainwashing. It was seen as a sign of backwardness that these sexual practices were tolerated and approved.

For Casement himself, judging by his diary, the acceptance of homosexuality was an aspect of African society that he revelled in. Casement notes countless sexual adventures with local African men, but unlike other empire-builders in the field, he saw the African not as a body to exploit but as an equal to love.

The plight of the African was mirrored by the plight of the Irish historically, which drove him to identity as an Irishman. He also saw that the evils of imperialism were not specific to one nation or background but universal. In his letters Casement commented on the effect Africa had on him:

What has civilisation itself been to them? …A thing of horror — of smoking rifles and pillaged homes — of murdered fathers, violated mothers and enslaved children... I was looking at this tragedy with the eyes of another race — of a people once hunted themselves... And I said to myself then, far up the Lulanga river, that I would do my part as an Irishman, wherever it may lead.”

Casement returned to Britain lauded by the establishment, but now engaged in the Home Rule for Ireland movement. The failure to achieve home rule by democratic means in 1912 led Casement to resign from the foreign office in 1913 and to move to more radical and direct methods of achieving independence for Ireland.

Before Ireland became his sole concern he exposed and led a campaign about the systematic enslavement and exterminating labour system in the production of rubber in the Amazon. In 1910 he published a report exposing the state of affairs in the Putomayo area of the upper Amazon bordering Peru. The perpetrator was a British-registered company using black British subjects enslaved from Barbados as henchmen.

The official response to the exposé was muted — it was one thing to expose foreigners doing awful things; quite another to expose a British company doing the same.

To Casement this experience reinforced his view that official ways of getting change were futile. In response to what he saw in the Amazon he wrote: “I have more than sympathy [with the Indians] — I would dearly love to arm them, to train them, and drill them to defend them against these ruffians.”

After resigning from the foreign office he went to the US in 1914 to get arms for an Irish uprising and then on to Germany where he stayed until 1916. He was arrested on the west coast of Ireland as he disembarked from a German submarine to join the uprising.

After he was arrested and put on trial the British government discovered and published his diary — called by them “the black diary” — that outlined his sexual exploits, in order to discredit him with the British and Irish public. The Republican movement was a deeply socially conservative body instilled with Catholic morality, if anything even more homophobic than the British. It was horrified by the accusations, denying them as true but reacting by downplaying Casement’s role as a great Irish martyr.

Casement’s body was put in a quicklime grave in Pentonville prison. In 1965 the British government released his body for burial. His final wish to be buried in Murlough Bay in Northern Ireland was denied by prime minister Harold Wilson because it would have upset the Ulster establishment. He was buried in Dublin with full honours and finally recognised as an Irish patriot and father of the human rights movement.