Casement will not only live in the hearts and minds of the Irish for his part in fighting for their human rights, but also in those of the native tribes of the Congo and the Putumayo Indians of Peru.
For a number of years prior to 1903, stories of extreme brutality, torture and even murder by King Leopold II’s private army, the Force Publique, against the native population of the Congo had been reported in the House of Commons. A resolution was passed by the British government to investigate these alleged human rights infringements. Casement was the British Foreign Office consul in Boma in the Congo Free State so he took on the responsibility of finding out what atrocities were being inflicted on these people. Casement’s report was damning and by using harrowing victim statements he made a considerable impact on public opinion.
In 1906 Casement was consul-general in Rio de Janeiro when he was tasked with investigating enforced slavery of the Putumayo Indians by the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC). Again Casement shone an international light on the plight of the South American natives through the publication in 1911 of his thoroughly investigated and personal report. Having been made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1905 for his humanitarian work in the Congo, Casement then received a knighthood in 1911.
During his trial for treason in the Old Bailey, both the defence and prosecution brought up Casement’s pioneering humanitarian work. For one side it illustrated his drive to help those oppressed by others, for the other it strengthened their conviction against this once loyal British subject. International public opinion had become highly critical of the British government after the executions of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, so demands that Casement be spared the death penalty grew. In order to stop this support from gathering momentum, the British authorities released typescripts from a “set of diaries”, alleged to belong to Casement, which contained details of homosexual encounters. These “diaries”, known as the ‘Black Diaries’, were never seen by anyone. It was always only typescripts that were produced as evidence.
Casement lived at a time when homosexuality was a crime and strong conservatism was the norm amongst the Irish Catholic population; the majority of Casement’s supporters. By circulating typescripts from these diaries, the British authorities undermined and weakened the support for Casement. In a letter dated 30th June 1916 to his solicitor, George Gavan Duffy, Casement asks for his name to be cleared from the wrongful and untrue accounts that were being put forward about him.
‘I further beg of you as a last wish – or as if it be a last wish – to make absolutely clear from my letters and private papers in your hands and from the other sources of information open to you wherein I have been wrongfully and most untruthfully assailed in the course of the prosecution by the crown witnesses. You are acquainted with the facts and I [?] the vindication of my personal honour.’
Could he be referring to the ‘Black Diaries’? It must have been on his mind but so too was the trial and what was being put forward as evidence against him. The full letter is shown above and deserves to be read.
With the date of his execution drawing nearer, Casement wrote a letter to Margaret Gavan Duffy, his solicitor’s wife, on 14th July 1916 where he wrote
‘Today my mind is far away, down by O’Sullivan Beare’s land! And over there, where I shall never be again, not even in dreams – by Clare and Aran and Garumna. I wonder how it will all be a hundred years hence and whether any of the old speech and thoughts that spring from it and prayers that grew from it will still survive.’
On 2nd August 1916 at 9pm, the day before his scheduled execution, Roger Casement wrote a short note to Margaret on the back of a prayer card. He wrote
‘Tomorrow St Stephen’s Day I die the death I sought and may God forgive the mistakes and receive the intent – Ireland’s freedom.’
- This post was researched and written by Meadhbh Murphy, Archivist, UCD Archives.