Sir Roger Casement

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Colonialism is rarely totally advantageous to the colonised. The British Empire was not the only villain. Certainly the pre-Nazi German colonial enterprise was not benign to the conquered. The Kaiser’s colonialism was enmeshed with racism. A  fear of guerrilla attacks created  a genocidal mentality and  a policy of total annihilation, including  deliberate starvation. 150,000 Hehe starved in Tanganyika and a further 300,000 people in the Maji-Maji revolt. Sixty  per cent of the Hereros and Nama were exterminated in Namibia.

Little Belgium was particularly vicious.

In a strange episode, Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat who exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo,  was executed by the British for his part in the Irish rebellion.

In the early sixties, I was staying at the Grand Union Hotel in Cobh, County Cork. The hotel was run and owned by the Allen family. Captain Allen of the Irish Army was home on leave from service with the UN force in the Congo. He gave us a slide show presentation about the Congo. I am glad that he did not go into the atrocities that occurred during that time of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the secession of Katanga province under Moise Tshombe.

The Grand Union Hotel long ago succumbed to recession and subsidence. It was located in Casement Square.

Who was this man Casement?

Roger Casement was brought up in Northern Ireland as a protestant, a Unionist loyal to the Crown. He distinguished himself as an honourable member of the British diplomatic service and was awarded a knighthood.

In 1916 he was hanged by the British as a traitor and his body dumped in a pit of quicklime at Pentonville Prison.

Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has written a novel about Casement. El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt), was published in Spanish on 3 November, 2010. The novel won’t be available in English until early 2012.  “Casement is a figure with a complex historical relationship to the UK establishment and there is bound to be significant interest in this novel from a constituency of readers much broader than fans of Vargas Llosa or, indeed, readers of literary fiction,” said the publisher, Lee Brackstone. “We certainly expect to grow Mario’s sales dramatically in the wake of the Nobel with a novel so fixed in British and Irish political and cultural history.”

The Congo Free State

Casement was initially a willing participant in the colonial project. When he got a job with the Elder Dempster shipping line in Liverpool he did not like the idea of being an office-bound clerk. He persuaded the company to let him go as a purser on one of its ships to Boma in the Congo and once there at the age of 20 joined the unpaid volunteers who were working for Henry Morton Stanley, the man who achieved fame by “finding” David Livingstone.

Stanley’s project of opening up the unmapped regions of Central Africa had attracted  King Leopold II of Belgium. However, the King could not arouse the interest of his subjects in colonial ventures and decided to look for financial support outside Belgium. An International African Association was set up with Leopold as its chairman. He stated that his sole ambition was “to open up to civilisation the only area of our globe to which it has not yet penetrated”.

Leopold was tall and striking in appearance but inspired neither the affection nor respect of his own people nor the friendship of his royal cousins. Leopold was first cousin to Queen Victoria, but her son, the future Edward VII , detested him. He founded the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo, which he ran as a personal fiefdom and business venture.

After the break-up of Stanley’s team, Casement was recruited to the British diplomatic service and served as consul in a number of African locations.

Many people who met Casement at this time  were impressed by him. Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi : “All I can say from personal experience, and long friendship, is that I have always found him sympathetic, clever and fascinating, and that I have met very few men during my whole life who had such an exceptional personality. He possessed an absolutely genuine, though somewhat exaggerated, idealism: nothing whatever would stop him from assisting the weaker against the stronger, because he simply could not help it.”

Poultney Bigelow was one of the best-known American foreign correspondents of the time. He saw Casement as the sort of man depicted in Jules Verne’s novels, “the man who is everlastingly exploring and extricating himself from every imaginable difficulty by superhuman tact, wit and strength.”

In 1890 at Matadi, Casement met young Captain Korzeniowski, who found Casement “most intelligent and sympathetic”.   The captain recalled that Casement had “a touch of the conquistador in  him too; for I’ve seen him start into an unspeakable wilderness swinging a crook-handled stick for all weapons, with two bulldogs 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 a park.”

The Captain later became Joseph Conrad and transmuted his Upper Congo experience into Heart of Darkness.

Casement was intelligent and sensitive enough to appreciate that there was an underbelly to  the colonial enterprise. He was a published poet. One of his poems, in the style of Thomas Davis, writer of the Irish rebel song ‘A Nation Once Again’, included the lines:

‘Prate not of England’s valour in the field

Her heart is sick with lust.

The gold she wins is red with blood, nor can it shield

Her name from tainted league with men of broken trust.’

The ostensible objective of the enterprise had been to benefit the natives,  not to enrich a colonial power. Trade returns showed that the flow of rubber out of the Congo into Belgium was rapidly increasing but there was an unchanging trickle of imports into the Congo. The main import seemed to be guns. The labour force was not being paid. Leopold’s authority in the Free State was absolute, so only he was in a position to embezzle the State’s funds.

Casement met King Leopold in Brussels in October 1900 and challenged him with these reports. The King pleaded that Belgium was only a tiny country wanting ‘a few- only a few- of the crumbs that fall from your well-stocked British table. And yet in England you are suspicious of us!’

By 1903, Casement was British consul in Kinshasa and was commissioned by the British government to write a report on the human rights situation in the Congo Free State.

There were some criticisms that Casement’s visit was too brief, but he had previous experience; he knew what he was looking for and was not surprised by what he found. He was prepared for Leopold’s possible defence that there might have been isolated incidents of abuse. Casement knew in his heart and his head that there was a ‘system’. The cutting off of hands was the deliberate act of soldiers of the administration, “who never made any concealment that in committing these acts they were but obeying the positive orders of their superiors”. The Free State, Casement knew and felt he could prove, was no more than a gigantic and ruthless commercial enterprise.

He was supported by the campaigning freelance journalist, Edmund D Morel, to whom he donated a third of his annual salary. Morel recalled, ‘The weapon which brought Leopold to his knees was forged by two men in straitened circumstances who, so far as they could see in to the future, had everything to lose and nothing to gain.’

The two men campaigned energetically in many countries to bring the abuses to light. In America, the campaign attracted the support of Booker T Washington and Mark Twain. Twain wrote of, “King Leopold II, who for money’s sake, mutilates and starves half a million of friendly and helpless poor natives in the Congo every year”. He described Leopold as “this mouldy and piety-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster, whose mate is not found in history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there- which will be soon we hope and trust.”

The Casement Report comprises forty pages of the Parliamentary Papers, to which is appended another twenty pages of individual statements gathered by the Consul. The report demonstrated in grim detail how a slave labour force was maintained by systematic brutality including amputations, vicious beatings, kidnappings and killings of the native population by the Bula Matadi soldiers of King Leopold. The report contained long and detailed eye-witness reports.

Casement gave his own eye-witness reports:  “I was  able to institute a comparison between a state of affairs I had myself seen when the natives loved their own savage lives in anarchic and disorderly communities, uncontrolled by Europeans, and that created by more than a decade of very energetic European intervention”.

“On the 25th of July (1903) we reached Lukolela, where I spent two days. This district had, when I visited it in 1887, numbered fully 5,000 people; today the population is given, after a careful enumeration, at less than 600. The reasons given me for their decline in numbers were similar to those furnished elsewhere, namely, sleeping-sickness, general ill-health, insufficiency of food, and the methods employed to obtain labour from them by local officials and the exactions levied on them.”

“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. . . . In 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.”

The report led to the arrest and punishment of officials who had been responsible for murders during a rubber-collection expedition in 1903 (including one Belgian national who was given a five year sentence for causing the shooting of at least 122 Congolese natives).

Leopold had been granted control of the Congo Free State under the 1885 Berlin Agreement which carved up Africa between the European colonial powers.  The term ‘Free’ signified the free trade that the Berlin Act obliged Leopold to establish for the benefit of all nations who wished to trade there; a condition that the King managed to flout through awarding territorial concessions for rubber extraction to a number of private companies, some of which were mere disguises for his own aggrandizement The British government demanded a meeting of the 14 Berlin signatories. The Belgian parliament, pressed by socialist leader, Emile Vandervelde, forced Leopold to set up a commission of inquiry which could not avoid confirming the essentials of Casement’s report. In 1908, the Belgian parliament took over control of the Free State from Leopold and it became the Belgian Congo.

Casement was awarded a CMG (Companion of the Order of St Michael St George in 1905 for his Congo work.


Casement had the chance to do similar work in Peru in 1906 among the Putumayo Indians. Public outrage in Britain over abuses against the Indians had been sparked in 1909 by articles in the British magazine Truth. Following two visits, Casement submitted a report to the British foreign secretary, dated 17 March 1911, in which he detailed the punishments carried out by the British-registered Peruvian Amazon Company.

“Men, women, and children were confined for days, weeks, and often months. … Whole families … were imprisoned–fathers, mothers, and children, and many cases were reported of parents dying thus, either from starvation or from wounds caused by flogging, while their offspring were attached alongside of them to watch in misery themselves the dying agonies of their parents.”

Some of the men exposed as killers in his report were charged by Peru and others fled. The main culprit, Julio Cesar Arana, was never prosecuted. He instead went on to a successful political career, becoming a senator, and died in Lima in 1952 at age eighty-eight.

On returning to London, Casement campaigned on behalf of the Anti-Slavery Society.

Casement was knighted by George V for his efforts on behalf of the Amazonian Indians.

Five years after his Putumayo report to the foreign secretary, Casement’s body was in quicklime at Pentonville prison.

More in Part Two