1343: Olivier III de Clisson, husband of the Lioness of Brittany 2006: Mohamed Amin Mohamed Razali, mystical Malaysian militant

1916: Sir Roger Casement

August 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Roger Casement was hanged for treason by the British crown that had knighted him only a few years before.

Casement died for his part in the Easter Rising, but this Irish nationalist hero’s layered story has long made him a very different sort of cultural marker than, say, James Connolly.

Casement came to public prominence for his damning report on Belgium’s atrocious treatment of natives in its Congo colony, e.g.:

[T]he great decrease in population, the dirty and ill-kept towns, and the complete absence of goats, sheep, or fowls — once very plentiful in this country — were to be attributed above all else to the continued effort made during many years to compel the natives to work india-rubber. Large bodies of native troops had formerly been quartered in the district, and the punitive measures undertaken to his end had endured for a considerable period. During the course of these operations there had been much loss of life, accompanied, I fear, by a somewhat general mutilation of the dead, as proof that the soldiers had done their duty.

. . . Two cases (of mutilation) came to my actual notice while I was in the lake district. One, a young man, both of whose hands had been beaten off with the butt ends of rifles against a tree; the other a young lad of 11 or 12 years of age, whose right hand was cut off at the wrist. . . . I both these cases the Government soldiers had been accompanied by white officers whose names were given to me. Of six natives (one a girl, three little boys, one youth, and one old woman) who had been mutilated in this way during the rubber regime, all except one were dead at the date of my visit.

[A sentry in the employ of one of the concessionary private companies] said he had caught and was detaining as prisoners (eleven women) to compel their husbands to bring in the right amount of rubber required of them on the next market day. . . . When I asked what would become of these women if their husbands failed to bring in the right quantity of rubber . . , he said at once that then they would be kept there until their husbands had redeemed them.

Casement’s is an honorable name in the campaign for the Congo, an early human rights and anti-colonial struggle; in this 92-minute BBC documentary on the notorious depredations in the Congo, the Casement report’s creation and impact are treated from about 1:15:15 through the end:

A similar investigation undertaken in Peru — where the lens focused on British employers, rather than strictly the malfeasance of foreign states — earned him knighthood in 1911, but Casement’s personal evolution from loyal Protestant* imperial operative with a sympathy for the Irish cause to revolutionary nationalist was already underway. “This journey into the depths of the Congo has been useful in helping me discover my own country and understand her situation, her destiny, her reality,” he wrote his sister. “I’ve also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman.”

He resigned from the consular service and began recruiting for the Irish Volunteers.

As World War I opened, Casement identified British aggression as its cause, an extension of the violent imperial hegemony he chronicled in The Crime Against Europe:

The British Empire was not founded in peace; how, then can it be kept by peace, or ensured by peace-treaties? It was born of pillage and blood-shed, and has been maintained by both; and it cannot now be secured by a common language any more than a common Bible. The lands called the British Empire belong to many races, and it is only by the sword and not by the Book of Peace or any pact of peace that those races can be kept from the ownership of their own countries.

While any Irish Republican would have agreed with that sentiment, the resulting moral and tactical calculus for the Irish cause to ally with the German was not universally embraced — and was certainly anathema to the British.

“In the Streets of Catania”
by Roger Casement

All that was beautiful and just,
All that was pure and sad
Went in one little, moving plot of dust
The world called bad.

Came like a highwayman, and went,
One who was bold and gay,
Left when his lightly loving mood was spent
Thy heart to pay.

By-word of little street and men,
Narrower theirs the shame,
Tread thou the lava loving leaves, and then
Turn whence it came.

Ætna, all wonderful, whose heart
Glows as thine throbbing glows,
Almond and citron bloom quivering at start,
Ends in pure snows.

Casement spent the first two years of the Great War in Germany itself, and arranged a shipment of guns that would have supported the Easter Rising, but thought the aid too little and too late. He had a German U-boat drop him at Ireland, trying to get word to the Republican leadership to postpone the revolt.** Instead, he was picked up three days before the doomed rising and hanged after a sensational trial.†

His “treason” — and of course, the very crime of which he was convicted imports a British legitimacy in Ireland that Casement explicitly rejected — shocked many old associates, but he still had friends in high places. To dampen the international clemency campaign, England circulated the notorious “Black Diaries,” photographs of supposed Casement diary pages detailing the author’s homosexuality.

This dirty (and successful) trick brings a personal-is-political quality to Casement’s legacy as well as an enduring debate over the diaries’ authenticity. Since Irish nationalism gained mainstream acceptance well before homosexuality, right-thinking folk long held the Black Diaries a forgery, and time was you solicited a black eye by saying otherwise in the wrong company.

The gay rights movement has seen a posthumous redefinition of Casement; although homosexuality was not on the indictment against him, one could argue that it was the reason he hanged. Given recent handwriting forensics that support the diaries’ authenticity, the general‡ consensus about the Black Diaries has inverted with the effect of only heightening sympathy for their alleged author, albeit at the expense of some tension over how to situate that characteristic within the whole of Casement’s life and thought.

And that is only one aspect of the shifting place of Casement in the firmament of Republican martyrs since his death. His hagiography waxed in the interwar years, with Yeats among those calling for the return of Casement’s remains in The Ghost of Roger Casement”.

But the humanitarian’s German ties were an inconvenience as World War II raged, and not until afterward was that cause renewed. When his body was finally returned in 1965, an Irish state funeral elided the matter of the diaries.

Even Casement himself, who would be the last to die for the Easter Rising, had a hand in the myth-making. His last mission’s purpose to avert the Easter Rising fit neither the government’s interest in maximizing his perfidy nor Casement’s own in identifying with the Irish cause; he himself therefore owned the Rising fully in his defense which made him fine fodder for Republican hymns like “Lonely Banna Strand”:

RTE radio’s What If? series recently explored Casement’s complex legacy:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

As Casement put it in his voluminous personal writing, “It is a cruel thing to die with all men misunderstanding — misapprehending — and to be silent forever.”

* Casement’s father was Protestant and his mother was Catholic; he lived with a somewhat split identity between the two faiths, but formally converted to Catholicism while awaiting execution (which surely did not hurt his memory to the Irish cause) and his last meal was simply the Host.

** The guns themselves were interdicted by the British navy and ended up scuttled to the ocean floor.

† Since Casement’s incitements to rebellion had occurred on foreign soil, there was some fine legal parsing over whether he could be tried for “treason.” The dispute resolved to the placement of a comma in a medieval law — leading to the epigram/-taph that Casement was “hanged by a comma.” In the midst of war and before an English jury, however, punctuation was an even weaker defense than it sounds.

‡ But still not universal.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Germany,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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6 thoughts on “1916: Sir Roger Casement”

  1. Kevin says:

    Casement is a historical subject who is yet to receive full and comprehensive study.

    Had it not been for the ‘Howth Mausers’, acquired by him, Erskine Childers and company before the war, it is unlikely that the Easter Rising would have happened at all.

    His return to Ireland is both romantic and heroic. His demeanor under trial is classically courageous and the issue of his homosexuality is more than likely a British contrivation in the same class as the proverbial apostrophe.

    There’s a good book in this tale.

  2. MY FATHER WAS SEAMAN ON THE SHIP NAMED THE AUD THEY WERE BRINGING ARMS AND AMUNITION, FOR THE IRISH REBELLION.THE BRITISH, CAP.THE SHIP .THE GERMAN CREW SANK HER. CREW AND CAPTAIN, WERE INTERNED. CREW ESCAPED, MY FATHER MADE HIS WAY TO THE USA. CAPTAIN SPINDLER WAS RECAPATURED. MY FATHER SPOKE OF THIS , ALL HIS LIFE HE LOVED THE IRISH, CAUSE.

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