Sir Roger Casement

I have just finished reading The Dream of the Celt by  MarioVargas Llosa, a fictional biography of Sir Roger Casement, the Irish Nationalist hanged in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising for his efforts to run German armaments into Ireland for the rebels.

Roger Casement

This was all that I had ever known of Casement. There was much more to him than his Irish nationalism. His knighthood had been earned for the work that he had done over twenty years in the original Heart of Darkness, the Belgian Congo, to expose the savage and sadistic brutality of King Leopold’s agents in their search for profit – mainly from rubber. The Belgian Congo had been granted to Leopold personally at the Congress of Berlin when Africa was being parcelled out amongst the European powers. Leopold hired the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to do his dirty work for him and with appalling ruthlessness Stanley put into place the infrastructure needed to suck the colony dry.

In the subsequent years, Stanley’s successors operated with savagery: mutilation, torture, rape and starvation became the norm. Casement, convinced of the civilising influence of  colonisation arrived in the Congo and there met and became a friend of Joseph Conrad. Their disillusion was total. They exposed what they found; Conrad, famously, through the fictional  Mr Kurtz (‘the horror, the horror’) and Casement by systematically documenting and then exposing the crimes being committed. The subsequent pressure from, ironically, the British Empire slowly bought an end to Leopold’s reign of terror. Casement became a virulent anti-imperialist.

His health wrecked, Casement undertook a similar task in Amazonia where an English company was doing to the Amazonian Indians what the Belgians were inflicting on the  Congolese. By the same methods he had used in the Congo, and at great personal risk, he used public pressure in Britain to drive the company into insolvency. He became a hero for his efforts.

An Irishman, though a Protestant from Ulster, his final crusade was for Irish independence - which culminated in him journeying to Germany after the outbreak of the First World War to gain support for an invasion of Ireland under the cover of which the Irish could obtain their freedom. He managed to raise a company of Irish soldiers from prisoner-of-war camps to fight against the British and famously travelled to Ireland with a cache of arms in a German submarine. He was captured with, amongst other things, a German train ticket in his pocket.

Naivety was a strong element of his character. He was homosexual and his diary, captured with him, contained explicit descriptions of his sexual adventures and it was this, as much as his treason that condemned him to death – though there is a theory that the diary was the work of the British Secret Service – and blackened his reputation even amongst the Irish during the long period of Catholic Puritanism from which the Republic has only recently emerged.

Vargas Llosa’s book is fictional biography – a medium that can be powerful and valuable - if the fiction respects the facts. Antony Beever, amongst others, is ambivalent about historical fiction, as he believes that if has a pernicious effect when facts are bent to the benefit of a good story. I think he has a point – and I believe that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for instance, crosses that line in making Thomas Cromwell a sympathetic character rather than the brutal and Machiavellian judical murderer that I think the evidence proves he was.

Given the heroic facts of Casement’s life and his achievements in the Congo and Amazonia, Vargas Llosa paints a deeply moral, but flawed, man who, at devastating  personal cost took on great causes and paid the ultimate price. The book is too long – as are so many – but the picture he paints is of an heroic and almost saintly man whose reputation and fame should be higher than they are.

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