In a lot of these articles, we’ve talked about how governments tried their best to sweep people’s queerness under the rug. That’s not exactly the case with Sir Roger David Casement.
Casement was born in Sandycove, Ireland on September 1, 1864 (why, yes, the timing of this article is intentional, thank you very much!) His father, Captain Roger Casement, was active in the military and fought in various regions — including present-day Afghanistan. The family moved to England around 1867, where Casement’s mother secretly had him baptized as a Roman Catholic (although there’s some dispute over the exact details of this baptism.) Casement’s mother died six years later, and they returned to live in Ireland. Four years after that, his father died. Casement and his brother (Thomas Casement, who helped establish the Irish Coastguard Service) were forced to live on the generosity of relatives. By 16 years old, he had abandoned a formal education and taken a job with a shipping company in Liverpool.
By 1884, Casement had taken a job working for Henry Morton Stanley and the African International Association — which was basically a front to allow Belgium to take over the Congo. Casement was employed to conduct a survey to improve communication within the region. As part of this, he recruited laborers and supervised them as they built a railroad to help traders bypass the Congo River. When he arrived in the Congo, Casement believed that colonization would help bring moral and social progress to the continent of Africa — something he still believed in 1890 when he met Joseph Conrad. Over the course of the next nine years, both became disillusioned with the supposed benefits of colonization on the African people — Conrad expressed this by writing Heart of Darkness. Casement would write something else entirely.
In 1901, Casement began serving the British consul in French Congo. It was in this position that he was commissioned, in 1903, to investigate the human rights situation in the colony under King Leopold II of Belgium’s leadership. Casement spent weeks traveling throughout the Congo, interviewing everyone from workers to mercenaries. And then he wrote the Casement Report. The document painted a picture of Leopold exploiting the Congolese and using the natural resources of the land — primarily rubber — for his own personal profit, as an entrepreneur and not as the king of Belgium. Furthermore, his private military force the Force Publique were terrorizing and murdering the Congolese to increase profits and productivity. The report was incredibly controversial, and many doubted its veracity. However, the report became public in 1904 — which made the Belgian Parliament force Leopold to set up an inquiry, which confirmed the report’s findings. As a reward for his efforts, Casement received a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG). Ultimately, this all resulted in Leopold’s reign over the Congo being usurped by the Belgian Parliament, and the Belgian Congo being formally established.
By that point, however, the British consul had reassigned Casement — in 1906, they sent him to Brazil. In 1909, a journalist named Sidney Paternoster wrote an article in a British magazine called Truth that accused the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC) of abusing their rubber-harvesting laborers, and destroying and stealing rubber from their Colombian competitors. As most of the economy of the British-controlled parts of that region depended heavily on PAC, the consul took the article very seriously and assigned Casement — at that point the consul-general — to investigate. Casement made his way to the Putumayo District, which was technically outside the jurisdiction of the national government and was near the border of Colombia but was also where a lot of PAC’s rubber was harvested.
Casement found the conditions at least as bad as those in Congo, and his subsequent report has been called a “brilliant piece of journalism.” Using first person accounts from both the victims of abuse and from their abusers, he painted a clear and undeniable picture. Much of PAC’s labor came from unpaid indigenous people, who were kept nearly starving and sometimes branded with hot irons. The indigenous women and girls were frequently raped. Any indigenous person was liable to be casually murdered and forgotten.
Casement’s first report about this was made public in Great Britain in 1910. The British people were outraged. The heads of PAC and the Peruvian government vowed to make changes and improve conditions, and to that end the Peruvian government attempted to prosecute the men Casement had exposed to be murderers — most of them managed to escape arrest and were never seen again. In 1911, the British government asked Casement to return to the region to see if conditions had improved. Though some things had improved, Casement’s scathing report explained of terrible and sometimes fatal punishments inflicted on entire families — having parents and their children held in pillories, sometimes for months. He described parents, held in the pillories, being flogged to death while their children were forced to watch.
The scandal cost PAC huge business losses, and ultimately the company collapsed. The head of PAC, Julio Cesar Arana, was never prosecuted and ultimately went on to have a successful political career in Peru. Casement, meanwhile, returned to England where he was knighted. In 1913, Casement retired from the British consul and began to focus on politics. Or rather, on his political view that Great Britain should just rule over Britain — which meant that Ireland should be independent. Casement had joined some groups that wanted an independent Ireland years earlier, while on leave from the Congo. Several of his Irish nationalist friends and he formed a new group, called the Irish Volunteers.
Casement traveled to the United States to raise money for the new organization, and to reconnect with some exiled Irish nationalists such as those of Clan na Gael. Clan na Gael initially believed Casement to be too moderate, though he eventually won them over — partly by helping organize and get funding for things like the Howth gun-running, where 1500 rifles were delivered to the Irish Volunteers on July 26, 1914. In this event, the guns were delivered on a yacht to Howth harbor, unloaded in broad daylight in front of a huge crowd, and yet the Irish Volunteers were able to completely avoid law enforcement.
In August of 1914, World War I broke out. Casement traveled to New York to meet with John DeVoy (of Clan na Gael) and the German diplomat Count Johann Berstorff. Together, they cooked up a plan — if Germany would supply weapons to the Irish, they would revolt against the British, forcing Britain to divert military forces from fighting the Germans. To secure this plan, Casement donned a disguise and traveled to Germany. Along the way, the British government offered his traveling companion Adler Christensen a great deal of money to betray Casement — and the diplomat Mansfeldt Findlay also subtly implied that Casement was involved in homosexual relationships, and that this could be used as leverage. (I know you’re all like “finally some gay stuff!” Not really, but we’ll get there, I promise!) Christensen did not take the bait, and Casement successfully made it to Germany.
In Germany, he spent most of his time negotiating. He managed to secure a written promise from Germany to never invade Ireland, no matter the outcome of the war. Meanwhile, Casement also attempted to negotiate the release of 2,000 Irish prisoners-of-war, on the condition that those POWs fight for Irish independence. 52 of the prisoners committed to the cause and were freed on December 27, 1914. Around that time, he was also helping connect some of his American contacts with the people behind the Hindu-German Conspiracy — which was a similar cause, Indians hoping to use the war to their advantage and secure independence for India.
In April 1916, Germany offered 2,000 rifles to the Irish revolutionaries, and ten machine guns. However, Casement could not secure any German officers to help train the Irish in the use of the machine guns. Casement came to believe the Germans were toying with him — giving just enough support to lead to a rebellion that would distract the British, but that was still doomed to fail. With the promise of these weapons, the other leaders of the Irish rebellion — home in Ireland — planned out the Easter Rising. The plan was completed by the time Casement learned it was happening — and, when he heard about it, he realized it could not succeed without more support from the Germans. On April 9, he set off for Ireland in the submarine SM U-19 determined to stop or, at least, delay the plan.
However, the plan started going badly pretty much right away. The men Devoy sent to the docks to collect the weapons drove off the pier and drowned. The weapons themselves never arrived — the British had been tipped off that weapons might be smuggled into Ireland, and were able to stop and intercept the ship carrying them even though it was disguised as a Norwegian freighter. The ship was scuttled, and the German crew were taken as prisoners of war.
Casement was dropped off in Ireland on April 21 — three days before the Easter Rising was planned. He was suffering from a bout of recurring malaria (a condition he’d suffered from periodically since his days in the Congo), and was too weak to travel any further. As a result, he was rather quickly discovered at McKenna Fort (which is now, as a result, known as Casement’s Fort) and arrested on the charges of high treason, sabotage, and espionage. The Irish Volunteers were ordered not to try to rescue Casement, so as not to use any of the precious ammunition they’d managed to acquire for the Easter Rising (which was still scheduled to take place. I mean, literally everything was going wrong, so why not?) The rebellion did take place, lasted six days, and was ultimately a failure with tons of people being imprisoned and executed.
Casement was brought to Brixton Prison and placed under suicide watch. This seems to have been primarily because they wanted to make absolutely sure he was still alive for his trial, which was very public and very publicized. Prior to this trial, Treason Act 1351 had only applied to crimes committed on British soil, but Casement’s crimes had been committed in Germany. The courts adopted a new interpretation of the law, basically just so they could try Casement for his actions. This whole interpretation was basically legitimized by the court saying that a certain comma wouldn’t have been included in the original Norman-French text. Casement later wrote that he was “to be hanged on a comma” — which is where that saying originates.
Apparently, during the search for evidence, the prosecution came into possession of what is now referred to as “the Black Diaries” which described various sexual experiences that Casement had had with other men throughout his life — mostly sex that he paid to have with other men. The prosecutor, F.E. Smith, suggested to the defense that they release these and that, with those in evidence, Casement might be found guilty but insane and thereby escape the death penalty. Casement rejected the idea. So, instead, the government surreptitiously leaked the diaries to the public in an effort to turn opinion against him — as Casement was still fairly popular for his work in the Congo and Peru.
Casement was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. He appealed both the conviction and the death penalty. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, and W.B. Yeats all petitioned for leniency, for Casement to avoid the death penalty. Yeats, specifically, was convinced that the diaries were fake and that Casement was the victim of a conspiracy meant to defame and destroy him. The United States Senate also sent an appeal against using the death penalty for Casement, which the British cabinet soundly rejected at the behest of F.E. Smith — proving that his idea to have Casement’s defense release the diaries was never actually intended to save his life. Unfortunately, partly because Casement was now being painted as a sexual degenerate and partly because a lot of British people were so offended at the idea of an independent Ireland, many of his other friends and family had abandoned him — including his old friend from Africa, Joseph Conrad. A few relatives covertly donated to his defense fund, but none of them publicly spoke out on his behalf. As such, Casement’s appeals were denied. His knighthood was stripped from him on June 29, 1916 and he was hanged at Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916.
Initially Casement’s body was buried at the prison cemetery. The British government rejected requests to repatriate the body to Ireland for years. They finally relented in 1965 and — despite Casement’s knighthood having been rescinded — the paperwork for the body calls him “Sir Roger Casement.” Although Casement’s last wish was to be buried on Murlough Bay, the only condition of the repatriation was that Casement could not be buried in Northern Ireland — as they feared what stirring up the Catholics might cause. Casement was given a state funeral with military honors, and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. His funeral was attended by 30,000 people including the President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera — the last surviving participant in the Easter Rising.
You may have noticed that Casement’s sexuality only seems to appear in his biography when it’s being used as blackmail. Casement was very good at keeping his private life private, as one would need to do in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and really doesn’t seem to have had any substantial or impactful romantic or sexual relationships with other men. This has led to some seriously heated debates about whether or not Casement was, in fact, queer at all. Were the Black Diaries fake? There’s been some pretty convincing arguments that they were. I’ve taken the opinion that they were not — or at least not entirely. I’ve been convinced by two things: firstly, Casement’s friend John Harris viewed the diaries in 1916, and was himself skeptical of them. Harris wrote: “I was so firmly convinced, that the diary was not Roger Casement’s handiwork. Alas, when it was put before me and I had examined certain parts, my confidence was shaken. Then I came upon two or three facts only known in Europe to Casement and myself, and then my hopes were scattered…” The second thing that convinced me was a handwriting analysis done in 2002 that compared the diaries to things Casement wrote while in the Congo, and matched them. So its pretty convincing at this point that Casement was — as Jeffrey Dudgeon put it when he published a compilation of the Black Diaries in 2016 — a
“busy homosexual.” I can only hope that 100 years after my death, someone will describe me that way too.