Casement Colloquium

Published in Issue 3 (Autumn 1998), News, News, Volume 6

Sir Roger Casement, humanitarian and Irish nationalist, has been the subject of two important new works by Angus Mitchell and Roger Sawyer. At first they worked together on Casement’s accounts of his journeys in the Putamayo region in South America between 1910 and 1914, but the two scholars soon found that they disagreed on the essential question of the authenticity of Casement’s ‘black diaries’—which were either records of a series of explicit sexual encounters and fantasies towards native men and boys, or forgeries employed by British intelligence to discredit Casement’s appeal following his conviction for treason in 1916. Sawyer maintains the diaries are genuine, Mitchell that they are fake (See HI 5.3).
In response to the publication of their respective works, and the growing interest in Roger Casement throughout academia, a one-day colloquium was organised at Goldsmith’s College on 28 February 1998. The meeting drew scholars from around the world, and from many different disciplines, all united by their interest in the complex life and many meanings of Roger Casement. Papers were read by Lucy McDiarmid on ‘The posthumous life of Roger Casement’; Roger Sawyer on ‘The authenticity of the Black Diaries’; Angus Mitchell spoke about ‘The Diaries and the question of authenticity’; Gerard O’Brien discussed the Irish government’s attitude to Roger Casement, focusing on his achievements as an Irish nationalist, and conversion into a nationalist icon; Andrew Gray, an anthropologist from Oxford discussed Casement’s contribution to anthropology; David Rose gave a lively talk on Arthur Conan Doyle and Roger Casement’s defence; and Steve Wilson from the University of Coimbra in Portugal rounded out the day with a paper about forgery as a modernist literary trope. All of the presentations were of a very high quality, and sparked much debate by participants. This colloquium provided a unique opportunity to see Casement in many different dimensions. Roger Casement was a complex, tortured, and enigmatic man. Perhaps we will never know for certain whether or not his diaries were forged. But what this superb and lively conference revealed was that he was an important figure to many different people around the world. Whether or not he was a homosexual, Casement was certainly both an Irish nationalist and a human-rights campaigner. And he is remembered not just on the streets of Dublin and Belfast, or in the dusty archives of academia, but in the middle of the South American rain forest, where Colombian tribes still speak about ‘El Ingles’—the Englishman who came in the time of their grandfathers, who were still in slavery, and made things better. One wonders what Roger Casement’s ghost would make of that delicious piece of irony.

Ben Novick

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