Roger Casement and Africa

The i paper and the Independent have a lot of award winning journalists, but sometimes they publish personal stories by them which are often more interesting than the regular news. Patrick Cockburn is a brilliant writer on the Middle East, but here’s his take on a matter closer to home, that of Roger Casement, executed as a traitor for his role in the Easter Uprising in Ireland:

“The 100th anniversary of the Irish uprising of Easter 1916 saw the beginnings of a deeper appreciation of he achievements of Sir Roger Casement, who was hanged as a traitor in Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916. Oder the following century, he has never lacked for notoriety, famous as an Irish patriotic martyr, but discussion of his life has frequently focused on his sexuality and revolved around the “Black Diaries” that were cos pertly used by the British Government to blacken Casement’s name and sabotage the campaign against his execution.

The controversy over whether or not the diaries were forged never discredited Casement – in Ireland, if anythign, they further sanctified his name as a victim of British machinations – but it did divert attention from his work in exposing the mass murder and enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Congo and Amazon. He detailed how they were not only being mistreated, but actually wiped out by the terror imposed by those seeking to obtain rubber through forced labour.

To understand what Casement was trying to stop, it is best to quote some of the Congolese interviewed by Casement for his report published in 1903, which described the atrocities being carried out by King Leopold II of Belgium and his private army in the /congo. Witnesses are identified only by their initials or unnamed.

RR said: “I ran away with two old people, but they were caught and killed, and the soldiers made me carry the baskets holding their cut-off hands. They killed my little sister, threw her in a house and set it on fire.”

UU  gives similar amount of the reign of terror, saying: “As we fled, the soldiers liked 10 children, in the water. They killed a lot of adults, cut off heir hands, put them in assets and took them to the white man, who counted 200 hands.. One day, soldiers struck a child with a gun-butt, cut off its head and killed my sister and cut off her head, hands and feet because she had on rings.”

A refuge from the rubber producing regions of the Congo interviewed by ?Casement gave a description of he ghastly mechanism by which people were forced either to collect natural rubber or to die: “We had to go further and further into the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved. wild beasts – leopards – killed some of us when we were working away in the forest, and others got lost or died from exposure and starvation, and we begged the white man to leave us alone, saying that we could get no more rubber, but the white men and their soldiers said: ‘Go! Yu are only beasts yourselves.””

I had heard about Casement and in a hazy way admired him when I was a child, though a a brief but dramatic encounter between my grandfather and Casement when he was a prisoner. He had been arrested on a Banna Strand in Kerry after landing from a German submarine 3 days before the Easter Rising began in Dublin in 24 April. He had been in Germany trying to persuade Irish prisoners to fight against Britain and obtain arms for an insurgency in Ireland.

I knew Casement’s name, though not much else, because when I was 7 or 8 I was shown a drawing of him hanging on the wall in Myrtle Grove, a Tudor house belonging to my uncle Bernard Arbuthnot just inside the medieval town walls of Yoghal in Co. Cork. I was told that the sketch was by my grandfather Jack Arbuthnot, a major in the Scots Guards who was also an artist and had draw Casement in his cell in the Tower of London sometime between his arrest and his execution.

This connection between Major Arbuthnot and Casement is confirmed by a diary written by Gertrud Bannister Casement’s cousin. This is now in the National Library of Ireland, where it was read by the author and historian Kieran Kroeger, who kindly passed on to me a copy of the relevant pages in the  diary. After Casement’s arrest and imprisonment, Gertrude and her sister had been desperately searching for him, but British officials refused to say where he was held. Eventually, he sisters received a hint that he was in the custody of the Life Guards, which Gertrude thought unlikely, but they went to Whitehall where “at last, we saw a certain Major Arbuthnot who showed courtesy and sympathy.” He told them that they should really apply to the Governor of the Tower and they said they had already done so and had received no reply. “He said: “I will write personally.” He then told us that he had seen Roger. He said he needed clothes and suggested we should send in some.” Casement had been kept for week in the same clothes in which he had been arrested in what was presumably an effort o demoralise him. Gertrude and her sister went to the Tower and waited  long time until Casement was brought in by two soldiers and Maj. Arbuthnot. Gertrude asked: “Couldn’t you leave us alone.”

By her account he hesitated and then ordered the 2 soldiers out of the room and stood outside himself. “The interview was terrible,” she wrote. “Roger thought he was to be shot and that was why we had been brought to say goodbye.” In reality, he was still to be tried and was some months form his execution.

The sketch of Casement which my mother and I saw at Myrtle grove must have been drawn soon after this visit and before he was transferred to Brixton Prison. It has since gone missing, though hopefully it is only misplaced and will be found again one day.

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