Lies, Damn Lies & Forensics: The Ghost of Roger Casement

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2002), News, Volume 10

Alan Gilsenan’s two-part documentary The Ghost of Roger Casement was neatly timed to coincide with new evidence on the Black Diaries controversy, which has since erupted in the letters page of the Irish Times. The programmes rightly reflected the complexity of Casement’s life, and the difficulty in analysing a character who was at the heart of so many of the important issues of his time. The programmes contained interviews from a rich variety of politicians, academics, family members and other interested parties. More importantly, there was an Amazonian, Chief Hitoma Satiama of the Huitoto tribe, who claimed that the investigations of Casement saved his people from extermination. Too often in history the voice of the oppressed goes unheard, and it was refreshing for this wrong to be righted so succinctly.
The first episode rehearsed Casement’s life up to his arrest in 1916. Born in Dublin, his was an austere, perhaps lonely childhood (he was orphaned at thirteen and was brought up by relatives). He had a peripatetic upbringing, being part of what Angus Mitchell described as the ‘imperial itinerant class’. It told of his fascination with Africa, where he was to spend many years in the British consular service. He served with distinction, being awarded a knighthood in 1911. His exposure of atrocities against indigenous peoples, first in the Congo in 1903 and later in the Amazon basin in 1910 earned him a world-wide reputation as a humanitarian activist, a renown not much publicised in Ireland. His 1903 report on atrocities in the Congo has been credited as the single most important element in the campaign against the monstrous colonial regime of Leopold II, King of the Belgians. According to Thomas Pakenham, author of the seminal The Scramble for Africa, the report was ‘an absolute bombshell’. This is also an apt metaphor for the claim thirteen years later that Casement was a promiscuous homosexual.
The second programme, which dealt with Casement’s arrest, execution and the emergence of the Black Diaries, hinged on the announcement in London by a group of scholars, led by an Irishman, Professor of Literary History, Bill McCormack, that forensic tests had ‘proven conclusively’ that the set of diaries held in the Public Record Office in  London, and known as the Black Diaries, were definitively the work of Roger Casement. The committee claims that the diaries are indeed genuine, and their contents reveal their author as a proselytising homosexual with a penchant for rough trade. For some, this is still too much to stomach. The debate over the authenticity of the diaries would not seem to have been assuaged by the results of Professor McCormack’s examinations. The tests were not as wideranging and watertight as we had been led to believe.
One problem with the forgery debate is that both sides are so entrenched, no amount of evidence will make them alter their stance. In his 1976 biography of Casement, B.L. Reid claimed that ‘a reader who approached them [the diaries] with his mind already made up that they were forged, could easily discover what he would call “evidence”…But in fact there is nothing in any of that that a busy diarist might not do himself…’. In this instance, outrage has been expressed at the author of the new report, Dr Audrey Giles. Forgery enthusiasts decry not only her nationality (she is British) but also her previous employment with the Metropolitan Police. It does seem odd that Professor McCormack could not have chosen someone of neutral nationality without such antecedents, thus denying forgery theorists such an obvious opportunity to cry foul. Dr Giles’ report echoes Reid’s analysis:
As with everybody’s handwriting, that of Roger Casement shows natural variation from day to day. The degree of variation observed is no greater than l might expect to find in one person’s handwriting made over a period of time.

Another problem is that the forgery theory, in the words of director Alan Gilsenan, ‘is diffcult to articulate in general terms. The devil is in the detail.’ The documents were submitted to a sensitive technique of electrostatic detection (to detect palimpsests) and ultra-violet light, but no attempt was made to identify the origin of the paper. The inks were checked using a spectral comparator, which cannot be definitive, but any further analysis would involve destructive testing. Morphological tests and handwriting analysis completed the survey, but opponents claim that, for example, pollen tests should also be conducted. These would at least prove if the paper had been in the tropics, whereas paper and ink examination can only prove the chronology of the documents, which are bound to coeval anyway. The controversy seems set to continue.
In such a complex story it is inevitable that there should be some lacunae. The British plot to assassinate Casement in Cristiania (modern-day Oslo) in 1914 is omitted. More importantly, there is no mention of Casement’s role in the Boer War. (He was British Consul in Laurenco Marques, an important listening post, and went on to plan a guerilla raid, which never took place). However, it was during this war that he became conscious of British imperialism at its worst, and began to identify himself with Irish nationalism. Also, Dick Spring claims that Casement spent ‘a number of days’ at McKenna’s Fort before his arrest; he was in fact arrested at lunchtime on the day he landed, Good Friday. More importantly, seeing as Casement’s homosexuality was such an important part of his life (and even more of his death) it seems surprising that no gay activist was given the chance to comment, given that many gay people would claim Casement as their own. But in a modern Ireland a gay man may be a hero. Casement remains a figure to be admired, both for his courage in the face of death and for his humanitarian vision. A BBC journalist told of an Amazonian friend saying of Casement: ‘we need someone like him to come down again’, and indeed in a world where debt bondage and slavery still flourish, it is safe to say the work commenced by Casement still needs to be finished.

Michael O’Sullivan lectures at the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies at Dublin City University.

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