1895: Charles Stokes, in the heart of darkness

3 comments January 15th, 2009 Headsman

On January 15, 1895, a Belgian colonial official in the Congo Free State hanged Charles Stokes for trading illicitly.

A British subject who’d abandoned his humdrum Liverpool desk job to become an missionary in Africa, Stokes eventually became a merchant in the mysterious continent noted for his favorable relationships with the locals. (He had two African wives.)

In 1895, operating out of German East Africa,* his caravan was detained trading into the Congo Free StateKing Leopold’s hellish personal reserve — with “Arab” slavers who colonial authorities considered rebels. That “rebel Arab slavers” bit formed the charge against him, but trading outside the royal monopoly was probably at least as egregious in Belgian eyes.

An 1895 Review of Public Events at Home and Abroad sums up the scenario.

It was alleged that [Stokes] had large quantities of arms, ammunition, and ivory, and that he had bought the ivory at a low price from Kibonge, the assassin of Emin Pasha. Captain Lothaire, an official, an official of the Congo State, with a strong force, was then advancing from Stanley Falls to attack this Arab chief Kibonge, in revolt against the Congo State.** On Lothaire’s arrival at Kilunga, Kibonge was already a prisoner in the hands of his own native subordinates, who refused to join him in fighting the State. Stokes applied to Lothaire for protection of his ivory and goods, which he desired to carry towards the East Coast. Lothaire claimed that letters were found among Kibonge’s effects which went to prove that Stokes had sold large quantities of arms and ammunition to this chief, to be used in war against the Congo State. Mr. Stokes was arrested by Captain Lothaire’s orders, brought before a court-martial composed of two non-commissioned officers and Lothaire, and sentenced to be hanged. The execution took place the following morning.

Though not surprising that the summary hanging of a European would provoke an international incident, one would hardly call it equitable given the unnumbered, unmourned multitudes of Africans whose lives were wrung dry and discarded for Belgium’s treasury. Still, the “Stokes Affair” made the headlines in both England and Germany, and for activist types struggling to gain any kind of traction for their tales of colonial horrors, it was something to work with.

Leopold paid off both countries. The trial of Lohaire for naughtily conducting the execution ended in an acquittal. Belgium set up a blue-ribbon commission of missionaries solemnly vowing to investigate abuses, which was never heard from again.

(Look for Charles Stokes’ appearance in this tale of the Belgian Congo’s woe, beginning at about 1:01:25.)

If the Stokes incident didn’t catch fire itself, it became a stick in the accumulating dry tinder that Sir Roger Casement set a spark to in the early 20th century.

And maybe a bit more than that, too.

The horror! The horror!

Stokes’s singular story is often thought to inform (pdf) Joseph Conrad’s great literary critique of colonialism, Heart of Darkness.

The Stokes hanging would be only one data point among many for those who had ears to listen to the horrors emerging from the Congo, to be sure. Still, Molly Mahood and Ian Watt have included Stokes — the gone-native ivory trader — as one of the possible inspirations for the novel and especially the Kurtz character. Lothaire himself probably offered fodder for the petty, tyrannous impunity of colonial officers who the narrator encounters on his way to meet Kurtz.

I gathered in snatches that this was some man supposed to be in Kurtz’s district, and of whom the manager did not approve. ‘We will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged for an example,’ he said. ‘Certainly,’ grunted the other; ‘get him hanged! Why not? Anything — anything can be done in this country.’

* Present-day Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.

** Lothaire had spent the early part of the decade wresting Belgian commercial dominance in the eastern Congo from the incumbent Arabo-Swahili elites. (The link is French.) “Arabs” in the context of the Belgian Free State meant these Moslem bantus, not (by and large) ethnic Arabs as we would think of them today.

Neither were “Arab slavers” a distinct enemy class for the Free State; those prepared to play ball with white authorities raided native settlements to obtain slaves for rubber plantations and other Belgian-authorized ventures.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Congo (Kinshasa),Death Penalty,England,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Power,Wrongful Executions

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1916: Sir Roger Casement

7 comments 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:http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2008/pc/pod-v-240208-27m06-whatif.mp3]

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.

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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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