Roger Casement’s life does not fit neatly into one book. As the child of a mixed marriage his early years are an account of rural Ulster life in the late 19th century. His encounters with the vicious exploitation of rubber workers in the Belgian Congo and South America are tales of moral courage and physical bravery. The period as an Irish revolutionary, captured, condemned and complete with a speech from the dock, stands alone as a dramatic story. Casement’s execution became the focus of a long debate on ‘black ops’ by British intelligence, and on sexual morality in Edwardian England and Nationalist Ireland. Biographers foresee his disputed downfall in his earlier exploits. Goodman’s book is especially welcome, therefore, as it focuses on a single episode in Casement’s career – the campaign to relieve the brutal abuse of the tribes in the Putumayo region between Peru and Columbia.
Beginning with the misfortunes of two American adventurers crossing the Amazon jungle, the book gradually reveals the ruthless web of exploitation at the heart of the rubber industry. Finally arriving in England, one of the Americans contacted the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society with reports of the cruelty meted out to the Huitoto tribe along the Putumayo River. Soon this remote humanitarian campaign, unsuccessfully pursued by minor Peruvian newspapers, came to the attention of the British public, the Foreign Office and ultimately a parliamentary enquiry.
Goodman presents a world of high finance and industrial progress – a world in which modern convenience and comfort increasingly depended on the white latex bled from rubber trees deep in the South American jungle. The Peruvian Amazon Company’s efforts to raise finance in London promised huge rewards for its owner Julio César Arana, and his Peruvian and British investors. Their timing was bad, commercially speaking, as the public was becoming aware of the company’s methods. It was the London connection, and the allegation that British-Barbadian subjects in the Putumayo region were also being mistreated, that impelled the Foreign Office to investigate. The parallels with the atrocities committed by the Belgian rubber traders in the Congo were obvious, so too was the choice of envoy to conduct the investigation. Roger Casement had been knighted in 1905 for his part in exposing the situation in the Belgian Congo. A career diplomat (despite some misgivings) and a committed humanitarian, Casement threw himself into the work.
The book neatly balances intrepid jungle adventure with courtroom drama. In impenetrable and hostile jungle conditions outsiders were dependant on the transport and guidance of the Peruvian Amazon Company. Troublesome visitors might never return from a trek into the undergrowth – the disappearance of an French explorer in 1905 was blamed on the allegedly uncivilized and cannibalistic Indians. Arana’s rubber company attempted to distract and delay Casement and his fellow investigators on their travels through the Putumayo region. The visitors were transported on company steamers through a carefully prepared itinerary of exemplary rubber depots. Incisive questioning and disruptive side-trips, however, soon produced evidence of the company’s actual operations. Casement worked hard to convince his colleagues, some of whom stuck to their appointed tasks of researching local trade or flora, that a terrible crime was being perpetrated under their noses. His experience in gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and building a case would prove invaluable when challenging the company’s convincing denials back in London.
Goodman locates the seeds of Casement’s anti-colonial and republican convictions in the Putumayo. Britain had no authority in the region and the best efforts of concerned activists could only bring moral pressure to bear in Peru. Without US cooperation Britain could do little more than embarrass the government in Lima. The Peruvians unhelpfully pointed out that they were simply ‘doing in the Amazon what European powers had done for centuries worldwide: subduing local populations, often by force, and deriving great commercial benefit therefrom’ (p. 179). The Peruvian Amazon Company had opened the Putumayo to commerce and the world. As Arana’s spokesman logically asserted, ‘One does not conquer by caressing’. After his experiences in Africa and South America it would be this unavoidable truth which remained with Casement.
As is clear from the title, Goodman does not intend this to be a balanced analysis of the rubber industry. His demonising of Aran had a precedent however. A cartoon portraying Arana as the Devil accompanied a 1908 Peruvian newspaper headline which ran ‘The Crimes of the Putumayo: Flagellations, Mutilations, Tortures and Target Practice’. Later, drawing attention to Casement’s arrest on Good Friday, Goodman appears to position him as a martyred Christ-figure, in opposition to Arana’s ‘Devil’. Alternatively, Casement could be some medieval saint. His zeal on behalf of the oppressed, his ability to be ‘unreasonable’ in the face of platitudes, even his self-mortifying habit of wearing Irish tweed and coarse shirts in the sweltering tropical heat seem to belong in The Lives of the Saints. His absolute certainty of belief – in all his conflicts – also marked him out from the ordinary.
Personalising the story as a battle between ‘the Devil’ and Casement is more than a narrative device, their stories had clear parallels. The two men were the same age, and given the Irishman’s dark features, were not entirely dissimilar in appearance – but their self-confidence and ambition had propelled them in opposite directions. Coincidentally, while returning home from promoting his company in London, Arana travelled on the liner carrying Casement on his first trip to the Amazon. The Peruvian tycoon apparently took Casement’s accusations as a personal affront. When the reports and allegations began to fly, Arana tried persistently to meet with him, presumably to deploy his undoubted charm and diplomacy. His efforts were politely, but persistently, rebuffed. Arana did not forget his grievance, and struggled to undermine his opponent’s reliability. In the wake of the 1916 Rising, as Casement awaited trial for treason, he received a telegram from Arana. The perpetrator of countless cruelties on the defenceless Huitoto urged Casement to confess his guilt ‘only known by Divine Justice regarding your dealings in the Putumayo business’. After Casement’s execution Arana enquired whether he had replied to the telegram, but Casement had rebuffed him one final time.
With its themes of international finance, the global commodities market and exploitation of powerless people on one hand, and lobbying by humanitarian activists, pressmen and NGOs on the other, the book feels surprisingly contemporary. Certainly its main protagonists are men of the modern era. Arana, the Devil, was a debonair Peruvian rubber magnate and international businessman. His manipulation of the economy and politics in Peru, and persuasive manner in deflecting Casement’s accusations, would fit him for a directorship in a multinational firm today. Casement’s conflicted national identity, his struggles with his diplomatic ambitions, and his selfless commitment to human rights make him a sympathetic figure for modern readers. The plot of this drama, however, was all too real. Goodman’s choice of photographs illustrates the brutal treatment of the Huitoto Indians. Armed European and Barbadian overseers tower over the diminutive local population, while whip marks on a child and the cowed faces of the population can only hint at the routine rape, maiming and murder of resistant or unproductive Indians. But this book goes deeper than atrocity porn.
Goodman’s painstaking research reconstructs the travels and paper trails linking businessmen, politicians, diplomats and humanitarians. While these can be confusingly detailed on occasion, they give weight to his analysis and reveal the complexity of the issues involved. The rise of the USA as a global power at the start of the twentieth century is evident in Britain’s anxious respect for the US Monroe Doctrine, in which Washington claimed the sole right of interference in South America. Also apparent is a growing awareness (or admission) of colonial abuses around the world. A House of Commons report into the Putumayo case in 1912 noted that forced labour and abuse of the indigenous population were not confined to South America. At the height of the imperial age the book presents activists, and some administrators, who were critical of the colonial project.
Goodman’s research yields some fascinating facts. In the 1890s the town of Iquitos, centre of the Peruvian rubber trade located a thousand miles into the Amazon, boasted British, American and German consuls, and was served by a number of British banks. Only 280 automobiles were produced worldwide in 1895, by 1908 this had risen to 125,000 all running on rubber tyres. We learn that Casement brought two orphaned Huitoto youths to Britain. Goodman frankly states that they were used as exhibits, a common practice at the time. As an intriguing side-note, Casement proposed sending these exotic visitors to St. Enda’s, Pearse’s school outside Dublin. The plan never materialised but it is fascinating to speculate on how their lives might have turned out.
The book describes Casement’s evolving nationalist sympathies. Casement’s description of impoverished typhus sufferers in Connemara as ‘the white Indians of Ireland’ illustrates his inner journey. As further proof, Goodman cites Casement’s assertion that no race could be trusted with power over another, and that only Irishmen and Irishwomen could resolve the typhus outbreak in Co. Galway. Goodman does not pursue these claims. At this time, in fact, overwhelmingly nationalist local councils had responsibility for fighting contagious disease. Records from Dublin city and county show how effective councils could be in fighting such alarming outbreaks. Any failure to tackle typhus in Connemara therefore, could be largely attributed to Irishmen and Irishwomen. It is significant too that these ‘white Indians’ lived in the remote and Gaelic west, inspiration for so much nationalist mythologizing. The more familiar, and inconveniently modern, urban poor were regarded less romantically.
Such criticisms should not detract from the importance of this book in highlighting the personal courage of a significant and complex personality in modern Irish history. For a rising diplomat, concerns with the oppressed in Africa and South America were neither popular nor profitable. Casement’s dogged pursuit of the facts, and his determination to hunt down the perpetrators, are a testimony to the power of the individual to make a difference. The book’s subtitle is ‘One man’s struggle for the Human Rights in South America’s Heart of Darkness’, but it also reveals the many individuals and organisations that drove the Putumayo campaign. It is heartening to realise that even at the zenith of the imperial age activists could use ethical and moral pressure to force governments to act. Less encouraging is the fact that the debate on policing multinational companies, begun a century ago, continues to perplex legislators today.
Ciarán Wallace has recently completed his PhD at Trinity College Dublin. His thesis is on “Local politics & government in Dublin city and suburbs 1899-1914”, and his research interests include urban history and civil society.’
The Devil & Mr Casement. One Man’s Struggle for Human Rights in South America’s Heart of Darkness, by Jordan Goodman. Verso (London, 2009) pp 297.
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