Sir Roger Casement is one of the super-heroes of international human rights, and was so before such a  phrase existed.  As a British Consul he conducted months long investigations in both the Congo, 1903, and Peru’s Putumayo rubber districts in 1910,  in unimaginable conditions, under the constant threat of death by those whose enterprises he was reporting on.  He found the patterns of slavery, torture, starvation and sickness in both places so appalling that he wrote in his journals and in letters of, on some evenings,  having to vomit up his sickness.  He was one of the first to use the phrase “a crime against humanity.”  He became a household name in much of England when his reports and public speeches, along with those of E.D. Morel and the Congo Reform Association   created enough public and diplomatic pressure to put an end to the worst of the  Congo atrocities and strip King Leopold of his private holdings in Africa.   After the Peru report he was knighted by King George V in 1911 for his work.

He is also, in the eyes of many British and even some Irish, a traitor.  In late October,  1914 he went to Berlin,  as England, France and Germany were tightening their 4 year mutual death-grip across the fields of France.  He  tried to persuade Irish POWs to join him in forming the Irish Brigades which would fight alongside the Germans against the common foe — the British.  Many of his strongest supporters, including his best friend Herbert Ward were outraged.  In 1916 he was captured on the west coast of Ireland on Good Friday,  two days before the bloody Easter Uprising in Dublin against the 800 year British occupation of  Ireland.

He was hanged on August 3, 1916

He was hanged despite his Knighthood, his great fame and despite widely circulated  petitions for clemency, in good part because beginning in July of that year scurrilous rumors began circulating about his homosexual obsessions; not simply that he was, but that he had pursued young boys wherever he went, that he had desperately offered himself  “to be used by others.”  At his trial, the finding of some diaries after a raid on his personal effects was mentioned.  But then, as now, it wasn’t the facts that mattered, it was the rumor of something scurrilous and unproven that was used to destroy his character.  Many who had once supported him refused to sign the clemency petitions.  Joseph Conrad, who had personally credited Casement with causing The Heart of Darkness to be written, refused.      George Bernard Shaw signed and wrote widely, encouraging others to sign.  Arthur Conan Doyle signed, though on the grounds that the accusations proved him insane.

Despite his obscurity today, there are many books about Casement, several good biographies, histories and accounts of the Congo campaigns.  One of the most famous novels in the western literary canon, Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, while it doesn’t mention Casement, owes its existence to him and his opening the eyes of the then British Merchant Marine Captain, Konrad Korzeniowski.   Casement’s name appears periodically in Ireland and England as debate is raised again about the Black Diaries, as the material purportedly found in the raid became known.

Given the availability of competently done books about a now little known man it seems at first an odd leap that  one of Latin America’s best known novelists would devote several years of research and writing to  bring us a sort of odd genre — a biography dressed as a novel, or a novel with the bones of a biography — El sueno del celta.  [due to appear in an English translation in the spring of 2012.] Because it is both biography and a novel questions can’t help but rising as we read:  is this account of Casement’s meeting with a Father Hutot  on the banks of the Lopori river in Africa in 1903, invented, or is it real? Is the conversation he had with Father Urrutia in Iquitos in 1910 invented, or somehow documented?   The purported thoughts of Casement as he lies in the jail cell, July 1916, thinking back to his first trip to the Congo in 1884, are they pure invention, informed guesses or taken from his journals? Letters? Letters from others?  And the accounts of sexual activity?  The pure lust for the size of a man’s member … has Vargas  Llosa accepted as genuine the contested “Black Diaries” and is he attributing as actual the encounters and desires?  At first it seemed to me an uncertain boat to set out on the ocean of the life of such a phenomenal man –English, Irish, tireless, self-sacrificing, malaria sick, conscience distraught, forgotten.  Why novelize a life when the risks of fictionalizing — for the good or bad– are pretty evident?

And yet it works, and works very well. Instead of  a traditional biography or history progressing from birth to death in a more or less linear way, Vargas Llosa works in chapters alternating  between Casement in his prison cell and Casement on one of his maniacal labors, in the Congo, Peru or Germany.   Though he gives us dates and places,  he does not walk us through in calendar order as say  Goodman’s recent The Devil and Mr Casement  does; a good book in its own right.

The story begins with the lines,   “When they opened his cell door…”

It is the week before Casement’s execution in Pentonville prison in North London.  He is taken from his small cell to meet with his lawyer’s assistant.  Why has the lawyer himself not come?  The young man  tells him with barely concealed disgust that the clemency petition before the Council of Ministers is not looking favorable.  Casement wonders what has happened; no news seeps into the prison.  He imagines the Germans, with whom he had worked as a wannabe ally,  might have reversed their decision not to attack England and have done it from Irish shores.  He is dumbstruck to hear that certain diaries, purportedly his own, have been taken from his room in London and are circulating all over London, alleging monstrous sexual proclivities, activities with young boys and sexual predation, with graphic description,  in every country he has been in.  His supporters are falling away in droves.

And thus the story begins: A Knight of the Empire, found guilty of treason but hung for sodomitical practices.

The prison chapters  have him talking to his jailer — who initially thinks of him as a man who had helped murder his son, lost a year before in the trenches in France  — or to one of his few visitors, his cousin Gee, the only person he has shown his poems to, his best friend Alice Stopford Green, or the Catholic prison chaplain, Father Carey.  We hear about the present days, the state of his petition for clemency — who has signed and who has not.  We hear about his immersion in The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas A Kempis, and his day-of-death embrace of his mother’s Roman Catholicism.  We hear about the torment of his memories:

  “Those poor people whipped, mutilated, those children with their hands and their feet cut off, dying of hunger and sickness,”  said Roger. “These beings squeezed to extinction and then murdered. Thousands, tens, hundreds of thousands.  By men who have received a Christian education.  I have seen them go to mass, pray, receive communion before and after committing these crimes. Many days I thought I was going to go crazy, Father Carey.”

We are also privy to his thoughts and memories, as Vargas Llosa gives them to him.  He reflects for example, on his own naivete in trying to recruit among the POWs in Germany.  Of the 2,200 British soldiers of Irish birth, only 60 or so joined the Irish Brigade, a scheme he himself had come up with, and convinced the most radical of the Irish to back.  He had been pelted with rocks and garbage when he tried to address the men and had to be escorted to safety by German prison guards.  Some of these thoughts and reflections, in the prison cell,  come early in the telling, before we know the events from which they come, and so act as a kind of foreshadowing for more detail and context  which comes in later chapters of  straight  narrative about one or other of the great enterprises.  So the life thickens, as it were, mixed by a master story teller:  ah! we say, now I see!   We become involved if not in a mystery, at least a discovery, of the man and the events of those years — from his birth in September 1864 through his first African trip in 1884, to his investigations of the Congo in 1903, of the Putumayo in Peru in 1910, to his 18 months in Germany and his death.

We get to know his friends and companions, those he came to distrust and those who came to distrust him, not as brought to us by a biographer, from the outside, a reporter,  but as remembered and talked about by Casement himself.  He was an boyish admirer of Henry Morton  Stanley, explorer of Africa.  He had worked under his hero on his own first trip to Africa in 1884, going from village to village, trading trinkets and spreading the word of the imminent arrival of fabulous wealth and European trade.  By the time of his 1903 investigation of the same area he  had come  to think of  Stanley as “one of the most unscrupulous rogues  the West had excreted on the African continent.”

He “remembers” a conversation with Captain Junieux of the Belgian Force Publique  [which the narrator, as if in Casement’s thoughts, characterizes as a “cyst, a parasite embedded in a living organism.”]

“Why have we come here, then?  I know of course:  to bring civilization, Christianity and free trade.  Do you still believe this,  Mister Casement?

“Not anymore,” replied Casement immediately.  “I used to believe it with all my heart.  I believed it for many years, with all the ingenuousness of the idealistic lad I was.  That Europe had come to Africa to save lives and souls, to civilize the savages.  Now I know I was mistaken.  … I am trying to redeem myself from this youthful sin, Captain.  That’s why I’ve come to Coquilhatville.  That’s why I am documenting, as quickly as I can, the abuses being committed here in the name of that supposed civilization.”

We don’t know if Vargas Llosa conjured this conversation up from plausible inferences, or if he found it recorded in one of Casement’s prolific diaries. It doesn’t matter too much, though.  It is certainly known that Casement later regretted his youthful ideals and that he was in that town in 1903 and met that Captain. If the words are not strictly true they are the kind of truth it takes fiction to reveal.

Photo from the Casement investigation of the Belgian Congo in 1903

Other thoughts are more surely attributed.  This for example, Casement wrote his dear cousin Gee (Gertrude) during that same trip.

“I am bordering on insanity.  A normal human being can not submerge himself for so many months in this hell without loosing his mind, without falling into some kind of  mental illness.  Some nights, when I can’t sleep I think it is happening to me.  Something is disintegrating in my mind.”

I wondered at first what had drawn the Peruvian to the Irishman.  It turns out there are many reasons but the most obvious  becomes clear as soon as the Amazon, Putumayo and Peru appear.   The geography and events of Casement’s second great investigation were in Vargas Llosa’s own Peru — or what was then Peru and is now Colombia.  Iquitos, the biggest town in the jump-off to the Putumayo rubber region, is now a well known destination for eco-tourists, most of whom have no idea of the murders, whippings, beheadings the town once saw.  One of Vargas Llosa earlier novels was partially set  in a similar Amazonian location.  In fact,  The Green House, has scenes set in Iquitos, which figures strongly in Casement’s story.  And though the time of The Green House is 30 years of so after the time of Casement’s investigations, and though the rubber enterprises of his time collapsed in Peru shortly after he made his reports, much is still the  same.  In The Green House the Indians are no longer slaves to others  but are still slaves to their own poverty and grueling rubber work; there are still whippings, now by soldiers instead of foremen; there is still bone squeezing poverty; there are still accounts of young girls being sold as house servants.  Vargas Llosa must have been electrified to find Casement’s story in a land and and era just before one he already knew well.

It is sometimes hard to remember this is a novel, not a biography, or a history.  Vargas Llosa has evidently done wide and methodical research.  His acknowledgments go out to researchers, librarians and authors in many countries.  Some of the material he used is available to anyone, in part because of the decades long furor over the sexual “Black” diaries. Both Black and portions of the White, at least for 1910, the year of the Putumayo investigations,  are available in published format.   One of them is even available as an e-book, suggesting how current the interest in the controversy remains. The White diaries of those months, September 23 to December 6,  1910, are rich in Casement’s observations, the data collected, interviews taken, conclusions arrived at.  They, along with the Blue Book, presented to Parliament in 1911 are the evident source of much of the novel’s Peruvian material.

Casement had been sent as a special consular investigator by the British Parliament following an uproar caused by an American, Walter Hardenburg who, trekking into the Amazon, was one of the first westerners to get reports of inhuman cruelties against the native people into the public eye.  An intrepid Peruvian newspaper man, Benjamín Saldaña Roca, at the risk of his life had also published articles in his papers, La Felpa and La Sanción, about the atrocities by the Arana corporation — a British incorporated firm with a British board of directors–  and the thieves and thugs attracted by the  “enterprise.”

Embedded in the atrocity stories was the news that some of the over-seers were Barbadians — British subjects at the time.  Parliament didn’t care so much about the native Indians — the Huitotos and Boras — but about possible mistreatment or misuse of its own subjects.  Memories of the enormous Congo campaigns to end Leopold’s rubber torture, and the shame brought to Belgium and its King,  were fresh in public memory.  The government was anxious not to have its citizens or itself implicated in a similar scandal. Casement, however, had no authority to investigate the treatment of the Indians. He was specifically warned away from that, “so as not to injure the feelings of the Peruvian government.” That he did report, nonetheless, and presented his findings to Parliament and the British population was among the most important of his acts of bravery.

During the course of his investigation he interviewed some 19 Barbadian blacks, among them men with names like Frederick Bishop, John Brown, Joseph Labadie.  He persuaded them, and eventually others — Peruvians, mestizos, and Indians themselves —  to give him detailed interviews, sometimes implicating themselves.  Some of them stood up to Arana  Company officers  and repeated their testimony at the risk of their lives.  Casement brought all the Barbadians  out of the Arana camps and let them go at the border with Brazil to ensure no retribution would occur.  He did this all by waving the power of his consulship, and relation to the British government at the local officials: no guns, no body guards, no magic potions.

That he could persuade those under such daily fear to testify is just one measure of  the miracle of his work.  I would have liked to know more, if possible, about the actual details of such persuasion; how he prevailed on his interviewees to testify about beheadings, whippings, starvation, some of them incriminating themselves.  In fact, that Bishop or Brown had themselves whipped and branded Indians was offered by them as proof that such practices went on.

As in the Congo, he meets a priest in the Putumayo, who begins to reveal the terrible acts.

  “Here the great problem here is the buying and selling of native girls”  He goes on to say  “You’ve heard of the famous ’round ups.’  They go out and attack the Indian villages to get rubber workers.  But they don’t only take the men.  The women and children too. To sell them here.  Sometimes they take them to Manaos [Brazil, 1200 river miles away],  to get a better price.  In Iquitos a family can buy a little servant for 20-30 soles at most.  Everyone has one, two, five little servant girls.  Slaves in reality. Working day and night, sleeping with the animals, being beaten for any reason, and of course, serving as sexual initiation for the sons of the family.

Famous Casement photo showing whip marks on young Indian boy

During a conversation with Juan Tizón, a second tier manager for the Arana company, who would soon be moved by what he was hearing and join Casement and the commission in collecting testimony, Casement pressed:

“I’ve seen many Indians, men and women, in La Chorrera, with scars on their back, on their buttocks and thighs.  This young woman, for example.  How many lashes do they get, normally, when they are whipped?”

There was a sudden silence, in which the guttering of the oil lamps and the buzzing of the insects grew louder.  Everyone looked at Juan Tizón, with serious faces.

“Most of those scars they do themselves,” he said, uncomfortably. “These tribes have initiation rites that are really, very barbarous you know, like scaring their faces, their lips, their ears, their noses, to put in rings, teeth and all sorts of hanging things.”

“… What I really want to know,” said Casement, “is that the Barbadians have told me that many Indians have the company initials, CA, for Casa Arana marked on them.  Like cattle, horses, pigs.  So they can’t escape or be stolen by Colombian rubber gangs.  They say they’ve done it themselves, sometimes with fire, sometimes with knives.  But I haven’t seen any of these marks. What’s happened to them, sir?”

Juan Tizón lost his composure and his elegant manners entirely. “I won’t permit you to speak to me in this way,” he said, mixing his English and Spanish.  “I’m here to help you, not to to take your insults.”

Some reports testified that after the whippings, vinegar or salt was applied to the wounds, before sending the caucheros back to make up their quotas.  Casement writes of breaking into tears when he hears of Indians being killed by being clubbed repeatedly on their testicles.  He writes of children being sold to make up the quota the parent could not fill. He says in his journal that the horrors in Peru are worse than those in the Congo.

…here is slavery without law, where the slavers are personally cowardly ruffians, jail-birds, and there is no Authority within 1200 miles, and no means of punishing any offence, however vile. Sometimes Congolese ‘justice’ intervened, and an extra red-handed ruffian was sentenced, but here there is no jail, no judge, no Law.

The most feared instrument of torture in the jungle was the “cepo,”  a word that is used for traps of all kinds but in the rubber trade meant stocks.  Though stocks from the American puritan era have come down to us as instruments more of public shaming than of physical pain, they were far different in the Amazon. Vargas Llosa doesn’t give us a great description of them, though several times he has Casement report them as instruments of torture. Unlike in the Congo, he says,  where similar devices were kept hidden away in store-rooms, in the Putumayo they were put in the center of each rubber camp.  Here is the description from Goodman’s The Devil and Mr. Casement.

The “cepo” “was made of two long and very heavy blocks of wood, hinged at one end and secured at the other by a padlock into a “staple.”  Small grooves are cut across just enough to fit the ankles in – often several feet apart…  the victim, lying on his back, or turned over on his face, is left for hours, days, weeks and sometimes for months.”

The grooves were so small that the ankles of a small man would barely fit, much less the shin, or the limbs of larger people.  All the better for the captors.  The top block was simply forced down on the bone and clamped shut, to incredible and continuous pain.  There were credible reports of women being raped by “los blancos” while held in the cepo.  Blancos meant any non-Indian, typically Peruvian-Spanish, though mesitzos and at least one Malta-Jew by the name of Victor Israel  were among the adventurers in the Putumayo.

From Casement's 1910 investigation in the Putumayo rubber region of Peru/Colombia

It is no wonder that on top of the sickness of  malaria, jaundice, recurring hemorrhoids, an anal fistula, the lack of sleep — he writes of writing up his observations to 3 in the morning sometimes– , the suffocating heat, the interviewing in clouds of swarming mosquitoes and biting insects of all kinds, Casement sometimes felt like vomiting the residue of his findings out behind his hut.  Through it all he kept on.  When other members of the commission, took breaks, and tried to engage in conversation or cards at night, Casement wrote, and thought and planned for the next day, and coming weeks.  He compiled lists of those he wanted to see, and made sure his questions were in order, and couldn’t be lied away from. He worked in a continual state of exhaustion until his departure.  Leaving the mouth of the Amazon he went to New York and immediately took a train to Washington D.C.  where the British Ambassador had arranged three days with the State Department and a meeting with President Taft and other high functionaries, concerned about his humanitarian reports, but also how such activities, by companies of other nations, might be contravening the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.  He arrived finally  in England to set to work at all possible speed to make his report ready for the Parliament, worried about their concern for embarrassing the Peruvian government and other diplomatic allies.  He not only  spent weeks writing up his own findings but translating into English documents in Spanish he had  obtained while in Iquitos.

Contained in the larger, almost unbelievable story of Casement’s life is a smaller, not fully developed small gem of what could be an entire novel, or gripping movie, all in itself.  On the 18 of July, 1914, 20 days after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo with the sounds of war growling everywhere,  Casement, now finished his work for the British government and committed fully to Irish independence from England, arrived in New York City.  He was there to hide out from a growing British dragnet for him in Ireland –he had become an eloquent and patriotism-stirring public speaker throughout the island.  He was also a trusted member of the board of the Irish Volunteers, founded by Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett in 1913, which had sent him to New York to work out with the old Irish revolutionary, John Devoy and others of the powerful  Clan na Gael,  plans for arms and funds from Irish patriots in the United States.   Perhaps the coming war with Germany would provide opportunities

On the day of his arrival he encountered a young Viking God, a Norwegian, Eivind  Adler Christiansen.

“A casual encounter?  That’s what he thought then.  Not for a solitary moment did any suspicion pass through his head that it could have been planned by the British spy services which had been following his steps for months.”

Almost his entire adult life had been spent in very difficult circumstances; he had worked himself to sickness and exhaustion and had never had an enduring and tender companion.  Whatever the truth of the Black Diaries in all their details, it is certain that at some point, probably in the Congo as a young man, he had discovered his attraction to men.  Given the disgust and criminal branding of homosexual behavior at the time, and that on the whole he was not in big cities where networks and meeting places and “safe houses” were known to most, his encounters remained furtive, fleeting and likely entirely physical, without time to develop into something deeper.  Christensen seems to have become, almost over night, the love-of-his-life.

Casement took him to meetings with the Irish revolutionaries in New York.  They were inseparable.  When an invitation came for Casement to go to Germany — secretly of course– to try to forge the Irish Brigades out of the POWs, Christainsen was sold by them both as the ideal traveling companion.  Part of the clandestine journey would be through Norway, where he would be of important service as a translator, as well as later with German which he also spoke.

While docked in Christiania, [renamed Oslo in 1925]  Norway, Christensen came back to their room with an alarming, and in retrospect entirely implausible tale, of having been abducted and taken to  the British Consulate where they were very interested in the mysterious man he was traveling with.  Roger Casement was in love, and he accepted the young man’s story.  In fact it proved all he had suspected of the British.  It was only later, when he was told  that German Intelligence knew Christiansen to be a British double agent, that his doubts and self-accusation began.   One can imagine the torment he must have gone through, torn between his love and trust in Christensen and his love and commitment to an almost mystical “nation.”  It had been his friend Herbert Ward, before their final breakup, who pressed him about his growing nationalism, at the expense of a wider love of humanity, who teased him about coming to his sense and out of  his “Celtic Dream,” the phrase Vargas Llosa took for the the title of the book.    Casement and Christensen agreed that the younger man would go back to Norway to visit his mother.    The two never saw each other again, though Casement heard later he had in fact gone back to New York City without stopping in his native land.

Vargas Llosa does not speculate about what details Christensen knew about Casement’s arrival plans in Ireland, or how much he may have told the British.  Nor do I know of any investigation of the actual relation of the betraying lover to British Intelligence.  It would make an absolutely gripping and terrible story to tell, in any event.

And so, Roger Casement departed Germany, smuggled to the west coast of Ireland aboard a German submarine with two others on Good Friday, 1916.  They were caught within hours.  Casement said he was trying to get his comrades to stop the Easter Rising.  Without a German attack somewhere to draw troops away from Dublin, he was certain the rising would fail, at great cost.  As it did.

No matter his intent.  He was hanged on August 3, 1916, his reputation damaged almost beyond repair.  As so often in human affairs,  one drop of the salacious poisons  the entire life of a man.  Though there are remembrances to Casement in Ireland he has never achieved the high status that his work would surely have given him.  Only now, and El sueño del celta, may be part of it, is his reputation beginning to rise, and the work he did become known.

The English translation is expected sometime in the spring of 2012.  Keep your eye on the lists and the shelves.  Along with Adam Hochschild’s ‘  King Leopold’s Ghost, you will learn much of this great man and his great work.

It  will not be a happy surprise to realize that the recent ugliness between Chevron Oil and the Indians of Ecuador involve portions of the same Putumayo region of the Amazon, and the same Indian people Casement tried so hard to protect:  rubber then was the oil of today.  Indian people then as now, are away from the public eye and great corporations do as great corporations will.