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More than 100 years ago, in 1916, Irishman Roger Casement was sentenced to death by hanging by the British government, accused of ‘high treason’ for his active support of the Irish independence movement. Only five years previous, the same Irishman was knighted, one of the highest honours the UK government can bestow, for his humanitarian work defending the rights of Amazonian Indians and rubber workers in the Belgian Congo.
To hang a knight and former diplomat who had served as Consul General for the British government in Brazil, and someone with many powerful and famous friends, would not be easy – it represented a potential public relations nightmare for the British government.
However, the humanitarian hero’s name would soon be sullied. His diaries were discovered during the investigation, typed out, and leaked to influential people. Known as ‘The Black Diaries’, the pages were filled with details of Casement’s ‘scandalous’ homosexual acitvities, including some explicit anotations regarding his sexual encounters and dimensions of his partners.
Many of his supporters distanced themselves, and famous friends like Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling declined to sign a petition for clemency. One of the few that stood by Casement to the end was author Arthur Conan Doyle. The creator of Sherlock Holmes had worked alongside the Irishman to raise awareness of crimes in the Congo and campaigned against the death sentence.
Casement is considered by many to be the ‘father of modern human rights’, whose actions stimulated the advent of non-governmental organisations. His name became synonymous with humanitarianism after the publication of his 1905 report into atrocities carried out in the Congo, under the rule of Belgian King Leopold II (Congo Free State was created in the 1880s as a private holding of a group of European investors).
The British Diplomat Casement was sent to Africa to investigate allegations of the exploitation of the native population during the rubber boom. He found children as young as five being forced to work, rape and mutilation being used as punishments for underperformance, and parents forced to view their childrens hands being chopped off for not working hard enough. The subsequent 40 page ‘Casement Report’ published in 1904 describing Leopold’s extraordinary cruelty shocked the world, and ultimately led to the King losing control over the nation.
Years later, Casement would be instrumental in helping to end the suffering of a group of indigenous tribes of the Amazon in the Putumayo region. He was sent from his Rio de Janeiro base, where he was serving as Consul General, with a team of investigators to look into alleged atrocities, once again related to the rubber trade. His subsequent report was key to changing the situation faced by local indigenous people at the hands of PAC – the Peruvian Amazon Company.
US Engineer Walter Hardenburg had travelled to the Amazon region in 1908 to work on the construction of the railway that would transport masses of rubber from the forest region, home to tribes like Witotos, Andoques, Boras, and one of the least accessible places on Earth. The engineer never made it to his destination, and when held captive by the rubber company, he witnessed the reality of the rubber trade back then. Hardenburg’s accounts of the imprisonment of Amazonian Indians, of mutilations, rapes and killings, of the slow death of indigenous people through malturition and disease, had international repercussions. So-called ‘marca da Arana’ was a phrase used to describe the welts in workers’ skin after they received a beating.
The Peruvian government launched an inquiry, and the UK sent their Consul General to find out more, because although the company was run by a Pervian, Julio Cesar Arana (after whom the whipping scars were named), PAC was headquartered in London and had three British directors. The stories that emerged were horrendous.
Casement described the use of the pillory, a medieval torture device. “Men, women, and children were confined in them for days, weeks, and often months. […] Whole families […] were imprisoned — fathers, mothers, and children, and many cases were reported of parents dying thus, either from starvation or from wounds caused by flogging, while their offspring were attached alongside them to watch in misery themselves the dying agonies of their parents.”
Casement was horrified by what he witnessed, and in his posthumously published ‘White Diaries’, the anger he felt was clear: “Poor Indians! Everything they like, everything that to them means life, and such joy as this dim forest at the end of the world can furnish to a lost people, is not theirs, but belongs to this gang of cut-throat half castes. Their wives, their children are the sport and playthings of these ruffians. They, fathers of families, are marched in, guarded by ruffians, to be flogged on their naked bodies, before the terrified eyes of their wives and children. […] I have never shot game with any pleasure, have indeed abandoned all shooting for that reason, that I dislike the thought of taking life. I have never given life to anyone myself, and my celibacy makes me frugal of human life, but I’d shoot or exterminate these infamous scoundrels more gladly than I should shoot a crocodile or kill a snake.”
The impact of what he had seen did not deflect from his work, and his subsequent report was so well-researched and documented, and vividly written, that it caused more than outrage and revulsion. It eventually led to the demise of PAC. Ruthless Arana was forced to liquidate the company in 1911, shareholders got nothing. International investors took their money to Asia in search of more ethically extracted rubber.
Only a few short years later, Casement would face the gallows for ‘high treason’, accused of recruiting young men in Germany to fight in the battle for Irish independence at home. The case was one of the most famous trials in UK and Irish legal history, and the unsuccessful appeal revolved around whether ‘high treason’ could be committed outside of the UK and Ireland. Many of Casement’s powerful and influential friends were nowhere to be seen by then, thanks to the leaking of his personal diaries.
Roger Casement is remembered as a hero by many, and none can deny that his influence was significant. A Catholic priest that visited around the time of the hanging made the following statement: “We should be praying to him, instead of for him.”
About “Secrets of Putumayo”
Documentary about Roger Casement (1864-1916), the Irishman who is considered the father of investigations into violations of human rights. Heroic actions during his time in Africa, Brazil and in his native Ireland still echo today.
Excerpts from ‘The Black Diaries’
February 28, 1910, Brazil
“Deep screw to hilt … Rua do Hospicio, 3$ only fine room. Shut window. Lovely, young — 18 & glorious. Biggest since Lisbon July 1904 … Perfectly huge.”
13 January, 1910
“Gabriel Ramos – X Deep to hilt” and ended “in very deep thrusts.”
2 March, 1910, São Paulo
“Breathed & quick enormous push. Loved mightily. To Hilt Deep X.”