Roger Casement: imperialist, rebel, revolutionary

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2008), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 16

Roger Casement: imperialist, rebel, revolutionary
Séamas Ó Síocháin
(Lilliput Press, €40)
ISBN 978 843510215
Those who speak truth to power often meet violent ends. Rodolfo Walsh, Ken Saro Wiwa and Chico Mendes are all recent examples; Roger Casement, who spent much of his life drawing attention to unspeakable truths, is another. His official investigation of crimes against humanity in central Africa, his deepening concerns about British interference in Ireland, his enquiry into atrocities resulting from the international demand for Amazon rubber and his efforts to highlight the tyranny of ‘secret diplomacy’ were all part of an interlinking campaign to make imperial governments more accountable and to challenge the diplomatic protocols of his time.
The account of his transition from consular official to Irish revolutionary prompts inconvenient ruptures in agreed versions of the past and haunts the twilight zone between British imperial history and the story of modern Ireland. Almost a century after his execution, Casement still swings upon the scaffold of historical judgement, suspended between public mythologies, manufactured consent, academic posturing and unexamined orthodoxies. It was something that he partly foresaw for himself.
On 10 October 1905, writing to Sir Eric Barrington at the Foreign Office, he referred to the long campaign waged by King Leopold II to ‘disparage my personality and belittle my testimony in the hope of obscuring the true issue so that by throwing plenty of mud some should be sure to stick’. He objected to the suppressio veri suggesti falsi and the ‘diplomacy of innuendo’.
Because Casement’s life is entwined with various such crimes, his historical relevance has been harder to decipher than most. His revolutionary complexity has been determined by sustained control of his meaning. Those who have sought to unravel the facts about Casement have been faced by the obstacles protecting imperial/national security: the Official Secrets Act, the Defence of the Realm Act, the Public Records Act and Freedom of Information have at different times been invoked to dictate what might be either ‘known’ or ‘said’ about Casement. In the gradual process of disclosure, the archive has played the crucial role in the privileging of a dominant narrative convenient to Anglo-Irish relations. Now, as historians start to scrutinise the archive as a location of power, the Casement story has started to unravel in unauthorised ways.
An opening up of the archive has been largely responsible for the most recent turn in the Casement saga. From the early 1990s, when official files were declassified in London and Dublin, Casement’s ghost started once more to beat at the door. The release of material at the National Archives of Ireland showed consistent interest at the highest government level from 1922, when Michael Collins opened the Casement file as part of the treaty deal, through to the return of his bones in 1965, when de Valera delivered his panegyric and shut down all further discussion on the so-called Black Diaries. In the National Archives (London), various releases of Home Office files between 1994 and 2000 disclosed the view held in official circles that Casement was the most dangerous revolutionary involved in the 1916 Rising, and extensive measures were made to silence him once his treason had been identified. A third official archive that has been cautiously unbolted is the Archives Africaines held in the basement of the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères in Brussels.
The declassification of such a large number of files has precipitated a wave of publishing about Casement. Between 1997 and 2007 he was turned into a permanent seminar. His name and interpretation invoked discussion on the global South, national identity, sexual politics, and the relationship between British propaganda and the intelligence services. He was the subject of new biographies, edited editions, numerous journal articles and at least two TV documentaries. His meaning was most publicly debated in the Royal Irish Academy in May 2000, drawing together academic experts in security issues, document examiners, politicians and interested parties.
The latest biography, by the Maynooth anthropologist Séamas Ó Síocháin, is the product of almost two decades of patient research and writing and is the most complete and exhaustive biography of the dozen or so to hand. It draws together into a compelling story much important new material and reproduces in extenso quotations from Casement’s own scribblings and accounts from an array of individuals who knew the man personally. Some important gaps in his narrative are now filled: Casement’s time working for the Sanford Exploring Expedition, his posting to Lorenzo Marques (1895–7), and the central role he played in recruitment rallies following the founding of the Irish Volunteers in 1913/14 are particularly informative. Ó Síocháin has also done much to explain some of the ‘patterns of thought’, notably his metamorphosis into an enemy of empire. For most of this book we are confronted by an exceptionally ethical and motivated individual, who thought about the world in a remarkably contemporary way. Casement’s writings are richly punctuated with thoughts on human rights, social justice, fair trade, ethnicity, corporate responsibility, and the destructive capacity of modernity.
To his credit, Ó Síocháin has unearthed several new sources for understanding his subject, but his interpretation does little more than repackage the judgements and orthodoxies of earlier biographies. For instance, the position that Casement’s delusions might be traced to his support for Irish nationalism in 1904 maintains the hackneyed line that the deeper his nationalist sentiments reached, the crankier his behaviour became. By the time of Casement’s trial, we are once again asked to believe in a man who is so hopelessly deluded, so physically sick and so sexually and textually indiscreet that the authorities seem almost charitable in putting such a ‘madman’ out of his misery. Minimal consideration is given to the role of propaganda in controlling public opinion in the wake of rebellion, and there is passing consideration of how deep the loathing ran for the man and his actions by those loyal to the crown in the apocalyptic summer of 1916. In this context the biographer should be wary of official witnesses prepared to go on record and testify to his ‘insanity’ and his alleged diseased state of mind.
Casement’s trial remains the most important case of treason in British legal history. The official line has been to interpret it as the last desperate stand of a doomed and incompetent felon. But recently released prison writings enable an alternative interpretation. They reveal a man completely in control of his intellectual faculties and still fighting to the bitter end to overthrow the imperial systems and all the iniquities they foster. His prosecution required the highest-paid legal minds in the country to collaborate in fast-tracking him to the gallows. But his enemies were faced with a dilemma: Casement wanted the martyr’s crown and his execution, far from being a punishment, would become his apotheosis. Efforts to save him from the noose were forthcoming from celebrated public intellectuals and powerful international organisations such as the Negro Fellowship League. As support for him gathered, it was tremendously fortunate that the Home Office secured and selectively circulated the notorious Black Diaries, which, in a homophobic era, so conveniently discredited him amongst his supporters in radical, socialist and internationalist circles and continue to condemn him as a sexual outlaw in more tolerant times.
From the extensive body of endnotes it is clear that most of this biography was written in the last century, and much of the new scholarship on Casement is either hastily referenced, ignored or misunderstood. Despite a long and useful bibliography, there are some glaring research omissions: no mention of any Belgian archives or the boxes of papers held at the New York Public Library.
To his credit, Ó Síocháin has made the first tentative references to Casement’s involvement with different British intelligence agencies. As early as 1894 Casement was serving as a colonial survey officer, and his maps of the Niger Coast Protectorate (see HI 14.4, July/August 2006) are the work of a highly conscientious and motivated official. In the build-up to the Boer War he was tracking the movement of arms into the Boer republic, and in his postings to the Congo he was supplying detailed information on military movements in the aftermath of Fashoda. During the Boer War, Casement planned and almost executed a daring endeavour to blow up Boer railway lines. In the Amazon he was reporting regularly to Commercial Intelligence, and his second voyage up the river in 1911 was covertly involved with preparing British economic interest for the collapse of the extractive rubber industry in the region. Because of these connections with the shadowy world of the secret service, Casement’s treason necessitated very careful handling and the close collaboration of the intelligence chiefs Reginald Hall and Basil Thomson.
If Casement’s connections to intelligence networks are cautiously referenced, what is missing is any meaningful discussion on conspiracy. Conspiracy is the word Casement adopted to describe the colonial systems he targeted in the Congo, Putumayo and Ireland. On adopting the path of revolutionary resistance he entered into a spiral of conspiracies, some of his own making and others deliberately hatched in the corridors of power. Leon Ó Broin’s The prime informer, originally published in Irish as Comhcheilg sa Chaisleán, is the only meaningful attempt to unravel one of these plots. In 1915, when Casement deliberately faked letters and pages from his own diary in order to deceive Foreign Office officials, he was laying himself open to an unclassifiable counter-insurgency response. His propaganda writings, published in Berlin in the Continental Times, reveal secrets about the inner workings of British foreign policy that flagrantly contravened the Official Secrets Act (1911) and made his capture and muzzling a priority for the securocrats.
The validity of Casement’s life is beyond doubt. His critique of the colonial encounter will endure for as long as imperial history is studied. His evolution into a revolutionary, however, and the deep veneration his name commanded in IRA ranks prevent him from achieving the legitimacy his life deserves. Until his official writings and correspondences are gathered into a multi-volume edition, similar to the recent scholarship on Wolfe Tone, his relevance to the Irish revolution will remain both marginalised and misconstrued.

Angus Mitchell lectures in history at the University of Limerick.


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