Roger Casement's Global English: From Human Rights to the Homoerotic
One of the most controversial figures of the Irish nationalist pantheon, Roger Casement retains his allure and glamour nearly ninety years after his death. During his life, Casement did it all. Since his death, he has proved a remarkably durable cultural icon. As an international humanitarian, he risked his life exposing colonialist atrocities in Africa and South America. He delivered one of the most famous and rousing speeches on Irish nationalism from the English dock before being hanged for participation in the 1916 Easter Rising. Inspiringly queer, he enjoyed, in his global travels, all the lust and love of a modern homoerotic lifestyle. Casement has also been at the center of heated controversy between Great Britain and Ireland since his execution. Indeed, in many ways, as a cultural icon he condenses the vexing and violent history of Anglo-Irish relations over the course of the twentieth century.
Casement was born to a middle-class Protestant family in Sandycove, near Dublin, in 1864, and spent his career working both for and against the global economic and political arrangements of European colonialism. He became internationally famous while serving as a British consul heading a parliamentary investigation into alleged atrocities in the Congo Free State in 1903. Casement led a similar investigation into humanitarian abuses in the Putumayo region of the Amazon in 1910.1 In 1911 he was knighted for his service to the Crown.
Casement’s involvement in the investigation of colonial atrocities in Africa and South America led him to become increasingly sympathetic to the Irish colonial situation. In 1916, he was arrested in Ireland by the British after landing from a German submarine as part of an attempt to supply weapons for the planned 1916 Easter Rising. He was charged with high treason and hanged in August 1916. During the course of his trial, a set of so-called Black Diaries surfaced that detailed numerous same-sex sexual adventures and fantasies over the course of his career. These diaries were used by the British to secure Casement’s execution and to prevent his martyrdom among the Irish, particularly those in the United States. The origin of the diaries was suspect from the start, and their authenticity has been a subject of polarized dispute. Casement has remained a point of controversy between Britain and Ireland: despite numerous appeals his body was not returned to Ireland until 1965; his diaries were held in official state secrecy by the British until 1959, when scholars were first allowed special permission to view them, and not until 1995 were they released to the public. In 1997 two editions of the 1910 diaries appeared, though they failed to end the controversy: one edition claimed the diaries to be authentic; the other claimed them to be forgeries.2 Despite lingering conspiracy theories that point to the ambiguous provenance of the diaries, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the diaries are authentic.3
Notwithstanding the controversy, Casement remains one of Ireland’s nationalist heroes. In May 2000, at the request of the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Bertie Ahern, and with the cooperation of the British prime minister Tony Blair, the Royal Irish Academy held a major conference on Casement, entitled “Roger Casement in Irish and World History.” The symposium attempted to define Casement’s relationship to Ireland’s understanding of itself at the dawn of the twentyfirst century. Casement was situated at the beginning of an Irish tradition of inter-national humanitarianism and activism that could be traced to the current human rights efforts of former Irish president Mary Robinson. This tradition of international humanitarianism, however, was not thought to have any connection to Casement’s homoerotic activities and writings. The authenticity of the Black Diaries was debated at the conference, but no effort was made to understand their potential integration with his political and humanitarian work.
Most of the volatility of the critical discussion of Casement in Ireland and Great Britain over the last eighty-odd years has been focused through the lens of the biographical. This is perhaps no surprise—the story of Casement offers everything that melodramatic biography demands: romance, betrayal, secrecy, intrigue, violence, justice, and revenge. The biographical engagement with Casement has contended primarily with the authenticity of his Black Diaries while tending to obscure other issues, such as Casement’s role in modern Irish folklore and the provocative questions raised by the constellation of Casement’s political, humanitarian, and erotic writings.4
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- Both the Congo and the Putumayo were the sites of the brutal exploitation of indigenous populations for the harvest of rubber, which by the end of the nineteenth century had become an important commodity. See Barbara Emerson Weidenfeld, Leopold II of the Belgians: King of Colonialism (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979), 232–36.
- Roger Casement, The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, ed. Angus Mitchell (London: Anaconda Editions, 1997); and Roger Casement, Roger Casement’s Diaries: 1910: The Black and the White, ed. Roger Sawyer (London: Pimlico, 1997).
- In March 2002 the first fully independent forensic examination of the diaries concluded that the diaries are authentic. Specifically, the notion that a forger interpolated the homoerotic entries was dismissed. The study was commissioned by Professor Bill McCormack of Goldsmiths College, London, and was jointly funded by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Radio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ). Paul Tilzey, “Roger Casement: Secrets of the Black Diaries,” BBC, 1 January 2002 (available on-line at www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/protest_reform/casement_01.shtml). Also see William J. McCormack, Roger Casement in Death: Or, Haunting the Free State (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2003).
- For an introduction to Casement’s story, see Lucy McDiarmid, “The Posthumous Life of Roger Casement,” in Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland, ed. Anthony Bradley and Maryann Gialanella Valiulis (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997); and Roger Sawyer, Casement, the Flawed Hero (Boston: Routledge " Kegan Paul, 1984). The only complete edition of the Black Diaries has now appeared: Jeffrey Dudgeon, Roger Casement: The Black Diaries:With a Study of his Background, Sexuality, and Irish Political Life (Belfast: Belfast Press, 2002).