Roger Casement, the subject of Jordan Goodman’s The Devil and Mr. Casement, was a leader in the modern human rights movement.
Roger Casement was a giant in the modern human rights movement that emerged in the twentieth century. Indeed, Casement courageously, and with great determination and skill, became a major leader in two of the first genuine human rights campaigns in this time.
The first was an investigation of King Leopold of Belgium’s misrule in the Belgian Congo, then called nonsensically the “Congo Free State”. Casement’s 1904 Report was the vital first step in an impressive international campaign to end human rights abuses against African slave labour in the lucrative exploitation of rubber and other natural resources. This brilliant campaign moved beyond the writing of indignant letters to the Times (or one’s local newspaper). It started with Casement visiting the Congo, engaging in field research, and interviewing victims, participants and other witnesses. Then came his detailed report.
Casement moved on to investigate a second example of a major, systematic operation founded first and foremost on human rights violations. This second campaign is the focus of a wonderful account by Jordan Goodman in The Devil and Mr. Casement: One Man’s Struggle for Human Rights in South America’s Heart of Darkness. In 1906, Casement’s employer, the Foreign Office of the British Government, sent Casement to Brazil. He was soon asked to become a consular representative to a commission involving rubber slavery by the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC). The PAC was exploiting primarily the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon region, the Putumayo.
Before delving into Goodman’s book, it is worth noting a few pertinent facts about Roger Casement. Although he had a long and distinguished career in the British Foreign Service, he was Irish – the son of a Protestant father and a devout Catholic mother. His father suffered ill health and moved the family often after being invalided out of the army at half-pay. Their impoverished circumstances and his parents’ persistent health problems caused considerable anxiety. Tragedy struck when Casement’s mother died in childbirth in 1873, when Roger was nine. His father was most devastated, and his health rapidly declined until his death four years later. Despite these unpromising circumstances, Casement maintained a burning desire to make his mark in the world.
Casement’s first break came when he landed a job as a shipping clerk with a Liverpool company. His employment took him to several African locations. In 1892, the British Foreign Office offered him a position in its consular post in what is now Nigeria. Recognizing his gifts, the Foreign Office soon made him British Consul in Portuguese East Africa. In 1900, the Office requested he take up a key consular post in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo).
The Devil and Mr. Casement
While The Devil and Mr. Casement describes Casement’s remarkable work on behalf of the local inhabitants of the Congo, the major focus of the book is Casement’s second major human rights campaign. Goodman takes us, along with the intrepid British diplomat/investigator, to South America and the wilds of the Amazon. From here emanated disturbing but unconfirmed reports of torture and abuse.
Goodman extensively researched the Foreign Office records and various files on the PAC’s evil empire, providing a thrilling narrative. While Casement was given authority to delve into any wrongdoing done to British subjects, his real objective was much more ambitious. He initiated his own investigation into the reports of murder, rape and virtual enslavement of the Putumayo Indians. They lived in the area exploited by PAC and were pawns in PAC’s game to maximize profits from the rubber trade. Indeed, his exemplary work illustrates the value of going beyond bureaucratic limitations to call out human rights violations. Especially when one considers the need to act and speak out to be a moral imperative.
Casement displays zeal and fortitude many times in his journey to the Amazonian “heart of darkness.” The area was controlled by Julio Cesar Arana – the evil owner and managing director of the PAC, and the so-called devil in the title of Goodman’s book. Arana was the typical rubber baron, employing the Indigenous peoples under informal enslavement. These ‘employees’ faced murder, rape and brutal acts of violence to ensure production quotas were met. Casement’s valiant efforts to obtain firsthand testimony helped uncover the reality of these crimes against humanity, including severe whippings in patterns called the “mark of Arana.” He then prepared a damning indictment of the company.
Casement’s report on the PAC should have led to more thorough trials with convictions or other actions against Arana and his key associates. However, Arana escaped any criminal or other liability. A rather halfhearted attempt to arrest a few of the human rights abusers in the field did not bring the company to account. Nonetheless the brutal form of colonialism practiced by the Company was exposed for others to read about and ponder.
One reason the Foreign Office did not take stronger diplomatic measures to hold the abusers to account was the role of the United States. At that time and for many years, the world was expected to follow the U.S.’s Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine held that the U.S. and its policy should guide foreign actors throughout the Americas. Brutal treatment of Indigenous peoples within the U.S., under its unique understanding of “Manifest Destiny”, meant the U.S. was not overly concerned with human rights violations of the Putumayo. The U.S. particularly did not want to see any principle established that would hinder the workings of “free enterprise.”
Casement’s report indicted both the PAC and, to a high degree, the Peruvian and British governments. Why the British government? To the extent it was responsible for a corporation that had established itself in London and on the London Stock Exchange. Further, the report called into question the role of the U.S., as the effective overseer of this part of South America under the Monroe Doctrine. Casement now saw the world as carved up into various spheres of influence, whether in the Americas where Indigenous peoples suffered from a failure to recognize their right to self-determination, amongst other rights, or in the many colonies established by Europeans.
In its conclusion, The Devil and Mr. Casement describes the remarkable remainder of Roger Casement’s career. He was one of the main players in the Easter Rebellion of 1916, an anticolonial strike against Britain that reverberates to this day. Casement’s complex actions and motivations are beyond the space available here.
The ancient Greek philosopher Archilochus of Paros wrote: “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Casement, as a thinker and activist, was a hedgehog. In his case, the “one big thing” he added to twentieth century thought is the close connection between human rights violations and colonial/imperial rule. He stressed repeatedly in his last years that major systematic human rights violations will occur without proper redress as long as a group of people are subjected to colonial rule. Neither the Putumayo nor the Irish deserved to suffer the degradation that went with colonial rule by their respective masters. The only course of action that was morally justified in Casement’s view was a serious effort to end that rule in the immediate future.
Casement’s extra-consular campaigning work, such as organizing interventions by the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society based in London, brilliantly illustrates ways to engage in what we would now call critical decolonization. He likened the excesses of colonial rule to imposing a form of slavery and of course opposed the latter wherever he found and reported on it. Early in his campaigning career, he wrote: “We all on earth have a commission and a right to defend the weak against the strong, and to protest against brutality in any shape or form.”
Several well-known Irish writers wrote letters of support and organized a petition against Casement’s impending execution for treason against Britain (for his part in the Easter Rising). These were to no avail. W.B. Yeats wrote a powerful poem, “The Ghost of Roger Casement”.
In the years since the (partially) successful revolt against British colonial rule, which led to the Free State of Ireland in 1922, a long line of Irish writers and human rights campaigners have spoken out on the injustice of colonial rule. In recent years, the singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor and the novelist Sally Rooney have spoken up in solidarity with Palestinians, subjected to settler colonial rule and regularly denied their most basic human rights. Like Casement, they have faced severe and unwarranted criticism for their efforts but have steadfastly maintained their belief in the universal application of human rights.
The Devil and Mr. Casement is a superb account of one of the earliest twentieth century heroes in the field of human rights. Roger Casement was surely a man ahead of his time in many ways. His remarkable journey resisting the wrongdoing committed by imperialists – who employed whatever rhetoric they thought justified their domination over others – has lit a flame that hopefully can never be extinguished.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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