In the years since his death, not even literature has been able to countenance colonial whistle-blower and traitor to the crown Roger Casement’s affinity for penises
Since Roger Casement’s death in 1916, his legacy has become something of a black hole for scholars and historians. Born in Ireland in 1864, Casement came to the Congo in the 1880’s, working as a purser, surveyor, and in various other jobs before entering the consular service and establishing the first British consulate to the Belgian Congo in 1900. It was around that time that a shipping official, Edmund Dene Morel, began to notice problems with the Belgian Congo, ultimately concluding that the Belgians were relying on slave labor to export rubber and ivory out of Africa. Casement was sent by the British government to investigate, and in 1904 produced a scathing report of the murders, mutilations, rape and other atrocities perpetrated by the white colonialists in the Congo—Morel would later say that the purpose and effect of Casement’s report was to “tear the veil from the most gigantic fraud and wickedness which our generation had ever known.”
The strength of the report lies in its clarity. Casement recognized that the bureaucratic doublespeak the Belgium government put out was designed, as Orwell would later put it, “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Leopold had employed various euphemistic names and organizations (including The Congo Free State and The Commission for the Protection of the Natives) to give his actions a veneer of respectability, but Casement, through clear, unequivocal description, direct testimony, lengthy quotations and interviews, and facts, sought to unmask all of this. His writing is nearly devoid of adjective or metaphor, avoiding rhetoric heightened for effect and turning instead of the plainly descriptive.
The soldiers came to L.L…., under the command of a European officer, whose native name was T.U. The soldiers took prisoner all the men left in the town, and tied them up. Their hands were tied very tight with native rope, and they were tied up outside in the open; and as it was raining very hard and they were in the rain all the time and all the night, their hands swelled because the thongs contracted. His (V.V.’s) hands were swollen terribly in the morning, and the thongs had cut into the bone…. The soldiers seeing this, and that the thongs had cut into the bone, beat his hands against a tree with their rifles, and he was released. He does not know why they beat his hands…. His hands subsequently fell off (or sloughed away). When the soldiers left him by the waterside, he got back to L.L….and when his own people returned from the forest they found him there.
Casement’s report endeavors, as much as is humanly possible, to give voice to as many as he can. The report overflows with horror, but he continues on with story after story, long after what might have been enough; his writing refuses to turn these men and women into statistics. It is a political document, but above all he is bearing witness. His report, along with Morel’s efforts, sparked the first international human rights campaign and turned worldwide public opinion against Belgium and its monomaniacal king, Leopold II. Casement was knighted, and was later sent to Putumayo in Brazil in 1910, where he chronicled similar abuses by the rubber barons there.
After that, things get murky. During World War I the Irish Casement made a secret trip to Germany to enlist German help in Irish independence; he was arrested on his return and sentenced to death for treason. Because of his long history of human rights campaigning, there was an attempt to commute the sentence—a campaign which floundered once Casement’s infamous “Black Diaries” were released.
The Black Diaries were a series of personal journals, apparently written by Casement while in the Congo and South America, which among other things detailed his homosexuality, often in graphic detail. (“Before leaving the beautiful muchacho shewed it, a big stiff one, and another muchacho grasped it like a truncheon. Black and thick and stiff as poker,” reads an entry from 1910.) The British government did not release them outright, instead circulating typed copies to anyone who might otherwise be favorable toward Casement’s clemency. The plan worked. Even many of his Irish supporters were disgusted, Casement was executed, and his reputation smeared. He was not just a traitor, but also, by the standards of the day, a pervert. As Sir Ernley Blackwell, legal advisor to the Home Office, put it, the Black Diaries revealed to many that Casement had “for years been addicted to the grossest sodomitical practice.”
The effect on Casement’s legacy in the immediate aftermath was devastating, but in the years since, controversy surrounding the Black Diaries has steadily increased. Because the British government first refused to publicly acknowledge they existed, and then refused to release the actual diaries, and because of the contradictory stories officials gave about their provenance, it was widely believed, particularly in Ireland, that they were forged. Some have suggested that, even if the diaries were in Casement’s hand, he may have been copying and transcribing things he’d witnessed rather than what he participated in himself. This war of interpretation has raged, without much resolution, for close to a century now.
During that time, there have emerged three main attitudes towards Roger Casement: 1) the diaries were forged, and Casement went to his death a martyr; 2) the diaries are authentic, and Casement was a depraved monster; or 3) the diaries are authentic, but Casement’s public deeds outweigh his private indiscretions. (This last position was taken, among others, by Peter Singleton-Gates, who tried to publish the Black Diaries in 1925, and who wrote, “To me, Roger Casement distinguishes himself in his public acts as a man of unusual courage—and what is so rare—on the furtherance of noble ideals. His faults and blunders did not undo his accomplishments.”) Sadly, much of history has favored the second position, that Casement’s “faults and blunders” very much outweigh any greater impact he might have had. Unsaid for decades, is the fourth position: that his sexual liaisons had no bearing, positive or negative, on his whistleblowing.
Only in the last twenty years has there been movement on this question. In part from Adam Hoschchild’s 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost, which details the exploitation of the Congo, as well as Morel and Casement’s struggle to put an end to Leopold’s horrors. But additionally, after close to eighty years of intransigence, the British government, finally in 1994, released the actual diaries. For the first time his handwriting could be compared, and the truth could be known—and in March 2002 a forensic handwriting specialist concluded unequivocally that the diaries were in Casement’s hand.
But of course, as these things go, this conclusion failed to satisfy everyone. So much time had passed, so many theories and conspiracies had been advanced, that nothing would completely mollify either party. Immediately critics raised questions as to why other forensic techniques were not employed. The analysis was funded by British entities and composed of entirely British experts, without any involvement from the Irish or a neutral party. Like JFK’s assassination, Casement’s Black Diaries have come to occupy a liminal space in history, where no amount of objective arbitration will satisfy all parties involved, and the truth will always remain obscure.
So it falls to literature to venture into dark spaces on the map, where truth is elusive and historians fail, and to approach the endlessly contradictory landscape of Roger Casement’s inner world and textual life.. For years, the only such attempt was W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Ghost of Roger Casement.” Yeats had blinked during Casement’s actual trial, refusing to sign the petition for clemency, appears to try to make amends some twenty years after the fact. It’s a strident poem, full of brio. It ends:
I poked about a village church
And found his family tomb
And copied out what I could read
In that religious gloom;
Found many a famous man there;
But fame and virtue rot.
Draw round, beloved and bitter men,
Draw round and raise a shout;
The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.
In four stanzas, Yeats manages to say little beyond blank patriotism; its effect is sometimes carousing but offers little lasting power, especially given that it came years after Casement’s trial and Irish independence. It’s like someone writing “John Brown’s Body” twenty years after the Civil War ended slavery.
It wasn’t until 1995, when W. G. Sebald revisited Casement in his book The Rings of Saturn (published in English in 1998), that another celebrated literary voice made a serious attempt to reckon with Casement’s legacy. Sebald, a German writer who spent much of his career in England, and is best known for books that revolve around the Holocaust (including Austerlitz and The Emigrants), seems an unlikely candidate to weigh in on Irish independence or the horrors in the Congo. Furthermore, much of The Rings of Saturn—which chronicles an unnamed narrator’s trek through East Anglia, a walking tour of decline and ruin—is so regionally focused on the English countryside that the appearance of a Casement and Joseph Conrad in the Congo seems to come out of nowhere.
Sebald gets there by way of television. Midway through the novel, he reports: “On the second evening of my stay in Southwold, after the late news, the BBC broadcast a documentary about Roger Casement, who was executed in a London prison in 1916 for high treason.” Sebald’s strategy often involves turning the documentary impulse on its head, and here it is no different, as he immediately layers this mundane entrée: “The images in this film, many of which were taken from rare archival footage, immediately captivated me; but nonetheless, I fell asleep in the green velvet armchair I had pulled up to the television. As my waking consciousness ebbed away, I could still hear every word of the narrator’s account of Casement with singular clarity, but was unable to grasp their meaning.” The ghost of Casement appears here not strident, but filtered in through dreams and half-memories.
The archive, data and facts are all there, but they come through a sleepwalker’s fog, without conscious meaning or lucidity. Unable to recall more than a few snatches of quotes the following day, Sebald’s narrator continues: “I have since tried to reconstruct from the sources, as far as I have been able, the story I slept through that night in Southwold.” Sebald’s opening adroitly reflects the fact that no matter how one tells Casement’s story, it will always be an act of imperfect reconstruction.
Despite the dreamy approach, Sebald is uncharacteristically flat in his discussion of The Black Diaries. “But since the release to general scrutiny of the diaries in early 1994 there has no longer been any question that they are in Casement’s own hand.” Oddly assertive, Sebald is uninterested in the ambiguous history that surrounds the Black Diaries. More troubling, he accepts the State’s official version of events, when so much of his writing seeks to recover the voice of the individual obliterated by such nationalist narratives. Sebald then goes on: “We may draw from this the conclusion that it was precisely Casement’s homosexuality that sensitized him to the continuing oppression, exploitation and destruction, across the borders of social class and race, of those who were furthest from the centres of power.”
Casement thus may still belong with Sebald’s other protagonists, like Jacques Austerlitz and Ambros Adelwarth whose marginalization endows them with exceptional empathy, but even with such an acknowledgment, the passage still rings unnecessarily confident of the facts. Only in the disgraceful context of everything else written or said about Casement does Sebald’s comment seem enlightened. By turning Casement’s homosexuality into a source of insight, Sebald inverts the narrative of inversion: Casement was not a hero despite his supposed vice; it was his homosexuality that allowed him to be the hero he was. It’s an improvement, to be sure, but it responds to uncertainty with overconfidence and essentialism, as though all homosexuals were naturally more empathetic than their heterosexual counterparts.
Now we have Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, originally published in 2010 just before he won the Nobel Prize, and published in a translation by Edith Grossman in 2012. Vargas Llosa’s book more fully chronicles Casement’s meteoric rise and equally drastic public disgrace. Like Sebald, Vargas Llosa is interested in questions of justice, in righting historical inequities, but The Dream of the Celt offers this debate a mixed bag.
Told as a series of flashbacks while Casement is awaiting execution, The Dream of the Celt is broken into three sections—“The Congo,” “Amazonia,” and “Ireland.” Focused as it is on the human rights crimes that Casement was instrumental in exposing, Vargas Llosa’s book lacks a great deal of subtlety; it recreates a world of heroes and villains, good and evil, eschewing complexity for telegraphed statements of human nature: “In spite of being so far apart, once again Roger thought that the Congo and Amazonia were joined by an umbilical cord. The same horrors were repeated, with minor variations, inspired by greed, the original sin that accompanied human beings from birth, the hidden inspiration of their infinite wickedness. Or was there something else? Had Satan won the eternal struggle?” With hackneyed passages abounding, it reads less like a novel of great moral seriousness and more like a hasty biography elaborated with fictionalized passages. Whereas the power of Casement’s rhetoric is precisely in its ability to avoid heightened, emotional rhetoric and grand-standing in favor of plain fact, Vargas Llosa moralizes at great length.
More disturbing, though, is Vargas Llosa’s attempt to deal with Casement’s sexuality, and the Black Diaries. Casement’s sex life appears late in the book; though the scandal is alluded to by Casement’s jailors and friends in the 1916 sections, it rarely appears in the flashbacks in the first two-thirds of the book. Perhaps because the 1903 diaries contain little sexual content, Vargas Llosa improbably concludes that Casement was chaste until his mid-forties, and his first sexual encounter did not occur until he reached Brazil and found himself swimming with two Bakongo youths. “It was the first time Roger made love,” Vargas Llosa writes, “if you can call it making love when he became excited and ejaculated in the water against the body of the body who masturbated him and undoubtedly also ejaculated, though Roger didn’t notice that.”
A particularly troubling ambiguity in Vargas Llosa’s writing is his use of words like “boy” and “youth” to describe the objects of Casement’s lust, without formally identifying their ages. It’s an important question, since in the years since his death, and in the years since homosexuality has ceased to be a damning sin and just one of many possible lifestyle choices, the crimes of Casement have had to evolve: now he is a pederast, a molester. In a recent Daily Beast headline, Casement was described as “Irish diplomat, humanitarian, sexual predator,” the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has referred to him as an “Edwardian sex tourist,” and Vargas Llosa in his own epilogue refers to Casement’s “pedaphilia.” This despite the fact that of the individuals mentioned in his diaries, the only ages range from 17 to 19—young, to be sure, but within the age of consent for Britain, Ireland, the Congo, Belgium, or Brazil during the time. Homosexuality may have been a crime, but here it would have been a crime amongst adults. That’s not to say that there isn’t something problematic with an older white man paying for sex from a younger man in a colonial country, even if that younger man is of the age of consent. But that power situation is a more complicated one involving colonialism, race, and a long history of factors that must be carefully teased out. It is not a case of pederasty. What seems more important is that even as attitudes towards homosexuality change, the scandalous nature of Casement’s Black Diaries must be maintained, even if that means exaggerating his supposed transgressions.
Despite these insinuations, Vargas Llosa is not all that interested in castigating Casement as a predatory pedophile. Given the odd situation surrounding the Black Diaries and their veracity, Vargas Llosa’s intervention is to imagine that Casement was himself a fabulist. As he writes in the epilogue, “My own impression—that of a novelist, obviously—is that Roger Casement wrote the famous diaries but did not live them, at least not integrally, that there is in them a good deal of exaggeration and fiction, that he wrote certain things because he would have liked to live them but couldn’t.” And so the more damning passages in the diaries are reframed, as with this scene in a Barbados bathhouse:
With pain in his heart, he felt that this beautiful boy was completely indifferent to the furtive messages he was sending with his eyes. Still, he approached and talked with him for a moment. He was the son of a Barbadian clergyman and hoped to be an accountant…. Roger invited him to have ice cream, but the boy refused.
Back at his hotel, seized with excitement, he wrote in his diary, in the vulgar, telegraphic language he used for the most intimate episodes, “Public bath. Clergyman’s son. Very beautiful. Long, delicate penis that stiffened in my hands. I took him into my mouth. Happiness for two minutes.”
Ultimately, Vargas Llosa’s turn is a rather cheap way out, and one more version of the old homophobic binary that caught up Casement’s early supporters: his reputation can only be cleared if he never actually engaged in these acts, if he was a homosexual in thought only.
Further, if Vargas Llosa’s invention seeks to absolve Casement of some accusations, it brings up other questions, namely, why would Vargas Llosa’s Casement write about things he didn’t actually experience? Vargas Llosa resorts to interpolating a great deal of shame into Casement’s attitude towards sex:
What shame he felt afterward. All the rest of the day he was in a daze, sunk in a remorse that mixed with sparks of joy, the awareness of having gone past the limits of a prison and achieving a freedom he had always desired in secret and never dared look for. Was he remorseful, did he intend to make amends? Yes, yes. He did. He promised himself, for the sake of his honor, the memory of his mother, his religion, that it would not be repeated, knowing very well he was lying to himself, and now that he had tasted the forbidden fruit, he felt how his entire being was transformed into a blazing torch, he could not avoid its being repeated.
Both writers, each in his own way, projects certainty, glosses over the ambiguity of the diaries and Casement’s life with a pat conclusion. Where Sebald reads empathy, Vargas Llosa reads shame. Neither, so far as I can tell, is entirely warranted by the diaries themselves, and this is of course part of their central enigma.
For one, despite their reputation for salaciousness, the sexual matter takes up barely a few pages throughout all three diaries. Further, as one might expect of personal diaries never meant for publication, the entries are basically shorthand, meant to jog the memory of the writer and not stir the imagination of the reader. As such, they are often inscrutable, and rarely offer the kind of easy explication that Sebald and Vargas Llosa seek. Which is not to say that they are not often beguiling, Casement’s shorthand leading to the occasional turn of phrase striking in its poetry, as in this description of a ship voyage in a storm while from February 25, 1903: “Ran 157 miles only. Gale in our teeth. She is a tub and horror.”
And if Casement’s published reports on the Congo and Brazil eschew poetry in favor of facts, it is in the diaries that Casement often resorts to lyrical moments to capture the horror around him, as in this entry from 1910:
At La Chorrera at 12:30 and Macedo, Tizon, Dr. Rodriguez and Ponce and others came on board to welcome us, also 7 Boras Indians nude save for their bark covering to carry our baggage. Five Barbadians there also to drive them. Three of the Boras showed broad scars on their bare buttocks, some of them 1 ½ or 2” broad. Weals for life. This is their welfare, their daily welfare, all slaves. Walked to Cataract with Cipriani. Played bridge with Tizon. Macedo looks a scoundrel. The whole place a penitentiary.
As Adam Hoschchild notes, Casement’s “horror pulses through the cryptic pages,” and the diary entries are often far more moving than the reports themselves.
One has to read the diaries through these ellipses and lacunae; their hallmark is these odd dark spaces, these gaps where meaning can find no footing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sexual descriptions themselves, which, curiously, are focused almost entirely on one aspect: penis length. “Dusky depredator huge, saw 7 in. in all,” reads one entry from 1903. Another from 1910: “Steward showed enormous exposure after dinner—stiff down left thigh. Then he went below and came up at St. Thereza where ‘Eliza’ launch was and leant on gunwale with huge erection about 8.” The strange, almost clinical manner in which the Black Diaries chronicle penis length with only a few additional details, does not bespeak either shame or empathy.
When Grove published the Black Diaries, they juxtaposed the Reports and the Diaries, the former on the verso pages, the latter running concurrently on the right half of the book. Whether or not this was intended to be a bit gimmicky, it has the effect of bringing into sharp contrast the rhetorical differences between the two documents. Where the reports are clear and detailed, almost to the point of redundancy, the diaries are elliptical, elusive. While one compels with its plain, descriptive language and its elegant rhetorical power, the other fascinates with its refusal to provide anything close to a definitive meaning.
The juxtaposition also makes plain the power of these two texts, each, in its own way, able to condemn a man’s legacy—the Congo report forever destroying Leopold II, the Black Diaries destroying Casement. Perhaps this is why Casement remains an alluring subject for writers, particularly those who believe in the power of the written word to change the world.
We’ve now had three great luminaries approach the life of Roger Casement—two Nobel prize winners, and a third who’d surely have also won it had he not died tragically soon. All three have come up short, and so a serious, literary treatment of Casement seems to remain beyond literature’s grasp. Of the three, Sebald’s work is the most generous, but it’s still far from adequate. Meanwhile, the man and the writer, or at least his ghost, continues to wait—in the dark, just beyond the door, knocking.