A Whale of a Time

Colm Tóibín

  • Roger Casement’s Diaries. 1910: The Black and the White edited by Roger Sawyer
    Pimlico, 288 pp, £10.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 7126 7375 X
  • The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement edited by Angus Mitchell
    Anaconda, 534 pp, £40.00, October 1997, ISBN 1 901990 01 X

Jessie Conrad remembered his visit:

Sir Roger Casement, a fanatical Irish protestant, came to see us, remaining some two days our guest. He was a very handsome man with a thick, dark beard and piercing, restless eyes. His personality impressed me greatly. It was about the time when he was interested in bringing to light certain atrocities which were taking place in the Belgian Congo. Who could foresee his own terrible fate during the war as he stood in our drawing room passionately denouncing the cruelties he had seen?

Conrad’s biographer Frederick Karl is unsure when this visit took place, but if we are to believe Casement’s Black Diary – and Angus Mitchell, who has edited The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, thinks that we should not – it took place on 3 January 1904 and lasted only one day.

Joseph Conrad had met Casement first in 1889 or 1890 in the Congo, when Casement was working for the Congo Railway Company. ‘For some three weeks,’ Conrad wrote,

he lived in the same room in the Matadi Station of the Belgian Société du Haut-Congo. He was rather reticent as to the exact character of his connection with it; but the work he was busy about then was recruiting labour. He knew the coast languages well. I went with him several times on short expeditions to hold ‘palavers’ with neighbouring village chiefs. The object of them was recruiting porters for the Company’s caravans from Matadi to Leopoldville – or rather to Kinchassa (on Stanley Pool). Then I went up into the interior to take up my command of the stern-wheeler ‘Roi des Belges’ and he, apparently, remained on the coast.

The visit which was remembered by Jessie Conrad had a purpose. Casement had read Heart of Darkness and he wanted Conrad to support him in the case he was making against atrocities in the Congo. ‘I am glad you read the Heart of D., tho’ of course it’s an awful fudge,’ Conrad had written to him. Conrad had based Heart of Darkness on his impressions – he had very little hard, detailed evidence – but, in any case, he did not want to get involved. He wrote to his friend R.B. Cunninghame Graham:

He is a Protestant Irishman, pious too. But so was Pizarro. For the rest I can assure you that he is a limpid personality. There is a touch of the conquistador in him too; for I have seen him start off into an unspeakable wilderness swinging a crookhandled stick for all weapon with two bull-dogs, Paddy (white) and Biddy (brindle) at his heels and a Loanda boy carrying a bundle for all company. A few months afterwards it so happened that I saw him come out again, a little leaner, a little browner, with his stick, dogs and Loanda boy, and quietly serene as though he had been for a stroll in the park. He ... lately seems to have been sent to the Congo on some sort of mission by the British government. I always thought some particle of Las Casas’ soul had found refuge in his indomitable body ... I would help him but it is not in me. I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories, and not even up to that miserable game ... He could tell you things! Things I have tried to forget, things I never did know. He had as many years of Africa as I had months – almost

After Casement’s arrest in 1916, Conrad wrote to John Quinn in New York:

We never talked politics ... He was a good companion: but already in Africa I judged that he was a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid. I mean that he was all emotion. By emotional force (Congo report, Putumayo etc) he made his way, and sheer emotionalism has undone him. A creature of sheer temperament – a truly tragic personality: all but the greatness of which he had not a trace. Only vanity. But in the Congo it was not visible yet.

Roger Casement was born in Ireland in 1864, of a prosperous Protestant family. He was brought up mainly in Northern Ireland. At the age of 20 he went to Africa, where he worked with various commercial interests in the Congo and then in what later became Nigeria. Subsequently, he found employment with the British Consular Service and in 1900 returned to the Congo, part of which was under the direct control of Leopold II, King of the Belgians. He began to investigate allegations of brutality in the region; his work was thorough and conscientious, and he was personally responsible for the decision of the Foreign Office to undertake a serious investigation of what was happening in the Congo.

In 1906 Casement began to work in the British Consular Service in South America: in Santos, Rio de Janeiro and then in Pará at the mouth of the Amazon. In 1910 he investigated allegations of atrocities against the Amazon Indians. He was knighted for his work. By the time he resigned from the Consular Service in 1913, he had become a fervent Irish nationalist; and on his return to Ireland he was made treasurer of the Irish Volunteers. He was a glittering prize for the new movement: a Protestant, a knight, an internationally-known humanitarian and anti-imperialist. He worked for the Irish cause in the United States and Germany, raising funds in the United States and trying to start an Irish Brigade with prisoners of war in Germany. He landed from Germany, after much adventure, on the coast of county Kerry on Good Friday 1916 in a German submarine, but the guns which were to come as well failed to arrive. He was captured and taken to London, where he was charged with treason. He was found guilty. His diaries, in particular his ‘Black’ Diaries – which consisted of diaries for 1903, 1910, 1911 and a ledger for 1911, and gave accounts of homosexual encounters in Africa and South America – were used to prevent a reprieve. He was hanged. After his death, there was great controversy about the diaries. Were they forged? Were they real? How could an Irish patriot be homosexual? Many books have been published on the subject. These two new books deal with Casement’s legacy: one of them believes that the diaries are genuine, the other does not.

Casement’s bones, or what was left of them – he had been buried without a coffin in quicklime – were returned to Ireland by Harold Wilson’s government in February 1965. The first request had been made to Ramsay MacDonald’s government sometime between 1929 and 1931. This was refused, as were de Valera’s requests to Stanley Baldwin and Churchill, and Sean Lemass’s request to Harold Macmillan. In her account of the discussions between the two governments about Casement’s body, and indeed Casement’s diaries, in the spring 1996 edition of Irish Archives, from which this information was taken, Deirdre McMahon writes: ‘Exasperated British ministers and officials were apt to attribute malice to de Valera’s concern for Casement: but in fact the controversy revealed the cultural chasm in Irish and British attitudes to death. What to the Irish was respect for the dead, to the British was a distasteful and morbid obsession.’

The exhumation took place after dark in Pentonville Prison: Casement had not been buried, as had been believed, beside Dr Crippen, according to the documents which the British officials had, but between two men called Kuhn and Robinson. The lower jaw, eight ribs, several vertebrae, arm bones, shoulder bones, a number of smaller bones and the skull, virtually intact and still covered with bits of the shroud, were found and put into a coffin. The bones belonged to a man of exceptional height – Casement was tall. The British paid for the coffin. (‘It was a gesture which they felt they should make and were glad to make,’ an Irish official said.) There was a state funeral in Dublin. The coffin was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery beside others who had fought and suffered for the cause of Ireland: Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Paddy Dignam.

Although there is a large collection of Casement documents in the National Library in Dublin (and other items which he brought back from Africa and South America – including costumes and a butterfly collection – in the National Museum and the Natural History Museum), his diaries remain in England. They were seen by Michael Collins and Eamon Duggan during the 1921 Treaty negotiations. In the early Thirties Duggan wrote:

Michael Collins and I saw the Casement Diary by arrangement with Lord Birkenhead. We read it. I did not know Casement’s handwriting. Collins did. He said it was his. The diary was in two parts – bound volumes – repeating ad nauseam details of sex perversion – of the personal appearance and beauty of native boys – with special reference to a certain portion of their anatomy. It was disgusting.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in