Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Casement, Roger David

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CASEMENT, ROGER DAVID (1864-1916), British consular official and Irish rebel, the younger son of Captain Roger Casement, third Light Dragoons, of Ballymena, co. Antrim, by his wife, Anne Jephson, of Dublin, was born at Kingstown, co. Dublin, 1 September 1864, and educated at the Academy, Ballymena. He belonged to an Ulster protestant family, whose ancestors had come from the Isle of Man early in the eighteenth century. He travelled widely in Africa as a young man. In 1892 he was appointed travelling commissioner to the Niger Coast Protectorate. Shortly afterwards he entered the British consular service, and in 1895 was appointed British consul at Lourenço Marques; in 1898 he was transferred to the west coast as consul successively at Loanda for Angola and at Boma for the Congo Free State. In 1908 the agitation against the administration of the Congo Free State had reached its height, and public opinion in England made it necessary for the British government to take the lead in investigating the charges made. Casement was therefore ordered to report on the conditions prevailing in connexion with the rubber trade in the interior, and visited the Upper Congo. He had seen this region in 1887, and he admitted that much advance had been made in transport and European building since that time. But his report, dated 11 December 1903, disclosed that the whole system of collecting rubber was based virtually on unpaid labour enforced by penalties of which mutilation was among the commonest. The report was all the more damning because of its moderation in tone; its testimony was never shaken; it was, in fact, confirmed by the report of the official Belgian commission of inquiry two years later, and it was the solid foundation for the movement which ended in the extinction of the Congo Free State (1908).

Casement’s report had brought his name into prominence, and his personal distinction of manner and dark beauty added to the impression created wherever he appeared. He received the C.M.G. in 1905. Having been transferred to Brazil he became consul at Santos in 1906 and at Para in 1908; he was promoted to be consul-general at Rio de Janeiro in 1909. In 1910 he was directed by the Foreign Office to accompany a commission of inquiry sent out by the Peruvian Amazon Company to investigate charges of ill-treatment of the natives in the rubber-bearing regions by agents of the company. He accordingly went with the commission to the company’s stations on the Putumayo river, and returned after eight weeks spent there. His report had the concurrence of the company’s commission, and it charged the agents with ‘crimes of the most atrocious kind, including murder, violation, and constant flogging’. A list was appended of those agents against whom the charges were worst and the evidence strongest, and their punishment was demanded. This report was submitted in December 1910, but was withheld from the public by Sir Edward Grey until it was seen that the Peruvian government was taking no steps to punish adequately the atrocities disclosed. Its publication as a Blue Book in 1912 created an immense sensation, enhanced by the authority which its writer had already acquired. But the advent of the European War prevented effective action from being taken and the whole matter was allowed to drop.

Casement was knighted for his services in 1911. In acknowledging the honour done him, he wrote to the foreign secretary a letter beginning, ‘I find it very hard to choose the words with which to make acknowledgement of the honour done to me by the King’. He begged that his ‘humble duty’ might be presented, and that his ‘deep appreciation’ of the honour might be conveyed. He retired on pension shortly after, having completed nineteen years of valuable and conspicuous public work. He returned to Ireland in 1913.

The European War showed Casement in a new light. From boyhood an extreme nationalist, in spite of his Ulster protestant stock, he identified himself in 1904 with the Gaelic League. This was then a non-political organization; but while still employed by the British government he contributed articles to separatist papers signed ‘Sean Bhean Bhocht’. When the Irish National Volunteers were formed in 1913, to counter the Ulster force, he formed one of the governing committee; and, when the European War broke out in 1914, he sided with the minority of volunteers who separated themselves from Mr. Redmond. His first thought was to gain German aid to win complete Irish independence. He made his way to America, and thence, by way of Sweden, to Berlin in November 1914. Here he saw important political and military personages, and wrote a letter, which was published in the Irish separatist papers, indicating Germany’s intentions to recognize Ireland’s independence and to send her friendly assistance. He made an attempt also to induce Irish soldiers who had been captured by the Germans to join an Irish brigade in the German service. His appeal was solely to their nationalist ideals: but even when the Germans reinforced his efforts by bribes and threats, only a handful were persuaded to join.

Before long Casement found that he neither trusted the Germans nor was trusted by them: he felt that he was spied on both by German and by British agents; and he became convinced that Germany had no intention of risking an expedition to Ireland, without which he considered rebellion hopeless. By means of submarines he conveyed to the Irish volunteer head-quarters verbal messages designed to deter action. But a rising was in preparation for Easter 1916, an a German vessel, the Aud, was being laden with arms and ammunition for dispatch, under the Norwegian flag, to Ireland. Casement persuaded the Germans to send him also in a submarine, his purpose being to reinforce in person his advice against the projected rebellion. They set out on 12 April; but the adventure miscarried. The British government had been warned. The Aud was captured by a patrol boat on 21 April off the Kerry coast, and sunk by her crew while being taken to Queenstown. Casement, with two companions, was successfully landed from the submarine at Banna, near Tralee, but was arrested by the police and taken to London (24 April). He had succeeded, however, in sending a message to Dublin, announcing the capture of the Aud and urging postponement of the rebellion. He was brought up at Bow Street police court on 15 May and charged with high treason. After three days’ trial at the Old Bailey (26-9 June) he was convicted and sentenced to death. Strong efforts for a reprieve were made on the ground of Casement’s public services in the past. The Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed his appeal (18 July), and he was hanged at Pentonville prison 3 August 1916. He had been previously received into the Church of Rome. His knighthood had been annulled on 30 June, and his name taken off the companionage. His acceptance of these honours is difficult to reconcile with the limitations to his allegiance; but, when they were bestowed, all the world thought them richly earned. And those who knew Roger Casement knew him to be honourable and chivalrous as well as able far beyond the ordinary measure of men.

[Parliamentary Papers, vol. lxii, 357 (Congo), 1904, and vol. lxviii, 819 (Putumayo), 1912-1913; P. S. O’Hegarty, The Victory of Sinn Fein, 1924; Evelyn, Princess Blücher, An English Wife in Berlin, 1920; L. G. Redmond Howard, Sir Roger Casement, 1916; private information; personal knowledge.]

S. G.