For more than thirty years Roger Casement was acknowledged as a sober, diligent, hard-working representative of the British Government admired throughout the world for his humanitarian work on behalf of the poor and dispossessed in South America and on the African Continent who upon his retirement received a knighthood and numerous other awards.
Just four years later he was hanged for treason.
Roger David Casement was born in Sandycove, Dublin, on 1 September 1864 to a father who was a Captain in the British Army and always short of money, and a mother who had him secretly baptised a Catholic against her husband’s wishes but she died when Roger was just nine years old and when his father passed away four years later he was sent to Ulster to be raised by his Protestant relatives.
He attended school in Ballymena where by all accounts he was a good student but his education was terminated when aged sixteen he took up a clerical position in the Liverpool shipping company, Elder Dexter, where his work took him to the Congo Free State with whom the company had strong commercial ties.
His work in the Congo, which went way beyond his remit of merely tying up deals for his employers, impressed a great many people and in 1882 he resigned to join the British Foreign Office very soon becoming one of their most distinguished diplomats.
He was appointed British Consul in Mozambique from 1895-98 and in Angola from 1898-1900.
In 1901 he was sent back to Boma in the Congo where he was commissioned to conduct a study of the human rights abuses that were reportedly taking place there.
At the time the diamond rich Congo was the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium but Casement’s subsequent report highlighting the appalling exploitation of labour and the terrible atrocities that were being committed against the native population was so scathing in its summing up that it caused outrage throughout the world and forced the Belgian Parliament to act, and in 1908 the Congo was removed from Leopold’s control.
In 1906 Casement was appointed British Consul-General in Rio de Janiero where he immediately launched an inquiry into the mistreatment of the Putumayo Indians in Peru. His work led to there being a number of arrests and a general improvement in conditions. Upon his return to England he dedicated himself to the work of the anti-Slavery Society and the elimination of human bondage across the world.
In recognition of his humanitarian work in 1911 he was knighted by King George V and the following year he retired from the Diplomatic Service on the grounds of ill-health.
Casement had always been a supporter of Irish Home Rule and as a young man had actively campaigned for the Irish Nationalist leader Charles Stuart Parnell but he later suppressed any public advocacy of it for the sake of his career.
During the early months of 1914, as a Home Rule Bill for Ireland processed through Parliament the country appeared on the verge of civil war as both pro and anti-Home Rulers armed themselves and formed militias in expectation of conflict.
The Government in Westminster struggled to diffuse the situation but the outbreak of the Great War saw the Bill shelved until the duration of hostilities. Yet again, the campaign for Home Rule had come to nothing and the sense of betrayal even among more moderate nationalists was great.
Perfidious Albion it seemed could not be trusted even to act on its own promises and many nationalists now began to look beyond Home Rule to outright independence.
Casement, like many Home Rulers was bitterly disappointed but Ireland remained a divided country.
The Six Counties that formed Ulster in the north were predominantly Protestant and opposed to any weakening of the Union with Britain and even in the south of the country which was almost entirely Catholic enthusiasm for the nationalist cause was far from universal and during the First World War 150,000 Irishmen volunteered to fight for Britain, most of them Catholic.
Even so, nationalism was on the increase and those who did support it were dedicated and determined.
In retirement Casement was busier than ever helping organise the Irish Volunteers, the armed nationalist response to the formation of the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteers.
In July 1914 he travelled to the United States to raise money for the nationalist cause and when war broke out immediately contacted the German Ambassador to try and elicit their support for Irish independence.
The Germans were certainly interested in the possibility of opening up a second front against the British but didn’t want to become directly involved. Nevertheless, in October he sailed for Germany.
Despite Casement’s best efforts however, the Germans remained non-committal. they would support an Irish uprising but not with troops and a German Army would only land on the shores of Ireland at the invitation of a friendly Government. They did however issue a formal declaration of support.
In the meantime, Casement busied himself with trying to raise an Irish Brigade from among British prisoners-of-war but this proved a dismal failure. Despite this setback Casement persisted until eventually in April 1916 the Germans agreed to provide Casement with 20,000 rifles, 10 machine guns, and ammunition. But it remained small reward for all his hard work, and a little later he learned of the planned Easter Rising.
Because of his reputation as a Pillar of the British Establishment he was not entirely trusted by the leadership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who often kept him in the dark as to their plans.
He believed that the rising was premature, foolhardy, and doomed to failure and he was desperate to get back to Ireland and convince them to cancel it at least until a time when a German victory appeared imminent or they could rally sufficient support internationally, particularly in the United States.
The arms he had been promised were hastily loaded onto the merchantmen Libau, whilst Casement himself would travel to Ireland on the submarine U.19.
The Libau was to be intercepted off the coast of Ireland by the British destroyer Bluebell and the arms confiscated. In the meantime, Casement had been put ashore in the early hours of 21 April at Banna Strand in County Kerry but weak and in ill-health his progress was slow and with his presence already reported to the police he was soon apprehended nearby.
Because of his high-profile he was speedily transferred to London where following the crushing of the Easter Rising just as he had predicted, he was charged with espionage and treason.
His subsequent trial caused a sensation and split public opinion: to some he was a Knight of the Realm, a renowned humanitarian, and the good face of Empire; to others he was the worst kind of traitor, a man who had reaped all the benefits his country could offer only to betray it a time of great peril and war.
Casement’s prosecution was not as clear cut as it at first appeared because his supposed crime had been committed abroad and outside of Britain’s jurisdiction, so he had to be tried under a treason statute dating back to 1351.
Casement’s defence that as an Irishman he could not expect a fair trial in an English court which only served to antagonise his accusers as also did his refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the court and of Britain’s right to charge any Irishman with an act of treason..
The Jury did not debate the issue for long and their verdict was guilty. On 26 June before sentencing was passed Casement was permitted to address the Court:
“What is the fundamental charter of an Englishman’s liberty? That he shall be tried by his peers. With all respect, I assert that this court to me, an Irishman is a foreign court – this jury is for me, an Irishman, not a jury of my peers. It is patently obvious to every man of conscience that I have an indefeasible right, if tried at all under this statute of high treason, to be tried in Ireland, before an Irish court, and an Irish jury.”
His words were widely viewed as being disingenuous at best and hypocritical at worse.
Casement immediately appealed the death sentence and a campaign for clemency now began that was supported by the Catholic Church and writers such as H.G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even the King indicated that he approved of clemency.
The novelist Joseph Conrad, on the other hand, who had a son serving at the front, was unequivocal in his view that Casement should hang for his treason.
The campaign for clemency appeared to be gaining momentum and those in the Military who wanted to make an example of Casement feared that his sentence would be commuted to life imprisonment or perhaps even less.
In response, Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, the Chief of British Naval Intelligence began to circulate to prominent people both inside and outside Government extracts from what soon became known as the ‘Black Diaries’
These appeared to show that Casement was a promiscuous homosexual who had diligently recorded his many sexual encounters with young men in locations such as public lavatories that caused almost as much offence as the acts themselves. He also appeared to use money to seduce poor young men of colour which provided a racial element and accusations that he was committing the very exploitation he had dedicated his life to ending.
The diaries were heavily coded but even so it didn’t take much to imagine their meaning:
“Sunday 4 December. Very hot – looking out window saw Ignacio waiting. Joy. Off with him to Tirotero and Camera. Bathed and talked and back at 11.00 gave 4/-.”
“At 5.30 Cayamarca Policeman till 7 at Bella Vista and again at 10.30 passeando and long walk. Tall Inca type and brown.”
“Left Carlton and to London. Greek boy fled.”
Entries such as these were numerous and they shocked a socially conservative Britain where homosexuality was still illegal and punishable by imprisonment and hard labour. To many they verged on the pornographic.
The existence of the Black Diaries soon became public knowledge and opinion which had been divided now began to turn against Casement.
Many of those who had previously campaigned so hard for clemency could forgive his treason but not his homosexuality and were no longer willing to speak up on his behalf.
It was suggested by a few brave souls that the Diaries might be fake, or had been tampered with by the Security Services to put Casement in the worst possible light but few people were any longer willing to listen, and the likelihood remains that they were genuine.
Sir Roger Casement had been condemned in the public eye not just as a traitor to his country but as a sexual predator who preyed on young men to satisfy his sordid sexual desires – the evidence of his sleaze written in his own hand.
Long since stripped of his knighthood plain Roger Casement was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August, 1916.
In 1965, Roger Casement’s remains were repatriated to Ireland and given a State Funeral attended by the President Eamon de Valera, a veteran of the 1916 Easter Uprising that he had been so desperate to prevent.