On 1st September 1864, Roger David Casement was born in Sandycove, Dublin to an Anglo-Irish family. Fifty years later he would be hanged in Pentonville Prison for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising.
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.
13 thoughts on “I die the death I sought…”
It is misleading to state “the British authorities released reports from a set of diaries” because there is no evidence for the material existence of diaries before the execution. Police typescripts were shown but the bound volume diaries now in the UK National Archives were not shown to anyone – not even to King George V. All reports of ‘diary materials’ being shown refer to typescripts; none of the biographies cite a single instance of handwritten diaries being seen. In a 1959 memo, the British Home Office admitted there was no record of the showing of any of the Black Diaries to anyone at that time. The typescripts were shown only and did not change hands. Therefore the police alleged the typescripts were copies of diaries which no-one saw.
In 1916, there was no “set of diaries”. For further detail see http://www.decoding-casement.com
Paul R. Hyde
Thanks so much for that information. I have updated the blog post accordingly. It’s so sad to think that by producing these typescripts, which could have come from anywhere, the British authorities succeeding in swaying public opinion against Casement. My heart breaks when I think of him.
Meadhbh, thanks but you must be very careful to distinguish between the diaries now in UK National Archives and the police typescripts which were allegedly copies. The typescripts were not ‘transcripts’ of original diaries. The typescripts were produced by the Metropolitan Police for the defamatory campaign and that is not disputed. The term ‘transcript’ is misleading. There is no evidence anywhere to demonstrate the material existence at that time of the bound volume diaries now in NA Kew. Ergo, the Black Diaries now in the archives were fabricated after Casement’s execution and were first shown only on February 6th, 1922 to Michael Collins. My essay The Casement Secret online is essential reading and a short version was published last October in The Village – Dis-covering Casement.. Collins saw 2 bound volume diaries – the third could not be found.
My apologies again. I thought I had written ‘typescripts’in both places but obviously mistyped.
Thanks for letting me know, I have now corrected it.
I’ve just finished reading ANATOMY OF A LIE, a superbly argued demolition of the propaganda surrounding Casement and The Black Diaries’. I marvel at the cosy compliance of so many academic historians, Irish as well as British, with the powers that be.
Thanks for your comment. We have just bought ‘Anatomy of a Lie’ so are looking forward to reading it!
Thank you for your generous comment on my book. I will send this on to my publisher.
Paul R. Hyde
Dear Chris, I’d like to cite your generous comment to help promote the book. Will that be OK?
I would not call Casement’s family background. “Anglo-Irish”.
His father was the son of a Belfast merchant and his mother a Dublin Protestant from Portland Street in the north of the city.
The words quoted above in Casement’s letter of 30 June 1916 to his solicitor “‘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”, I am sure, do not refer to the diaries.
It is plainly the witness evidence at the trial that he disputes. The issue was largely that he made life difficult for British POWs who would not join his Irish Brigade. He disputed this vigorously, and probably, accurately.
It is all in my book (3rd edition available on Amazon) ‘Roger Casement: The Black Diaries – with a Study of his Background, Sexuality, and Irish Political Life’.
Thank you so much for your comments. I’m not sure Roger Casement would be too happy with us referring to him as ‘Anglo-Irish’ alright! So I will of course correct that.
Also because Casement doesn’t specifically identify what he is referring to in the letter to his solicitor, no one can say for certain. The mystery continues! But I will make sure to clarify that in the blog.
Thanks again and also thanks very much for reading our blog!
The CHC team