Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist
May 25, 2016

Colm Tóibín on Roger Casement

The Casement Project Rehearsals Photo by Ste Murray 5

I’ve been thinking about people who might be interested in the biography of Roger Casement.  As I’ve tried to make clear, Butterflies and Bones which we premiere next week in London is an imaginative response to the life and after-life of Roger Casement.   It draws on his complex and queer history for contemporary and future ends. We’re not presenting a Casement biographical-dance. But I realise that there are many people with an interest in that biography and so I asked Colm Tóibín, who’s written a great deal about Casement, if we could share some of his economically-written and imaginatively stimulating account of Casement’s life. I’ve selected a review he wrote in the London Review of Books in 1997 because it conveys a lot in a short and elegant space. Elsewhere Tóibín suggests that ‘From the very beginning, anyone who has written about [Casement] has brought their own prejudices or personal histories to bear on the story.’ I could add that those who dance about Casement are probably doing the same thing.

Colm Toibin Pic: Mark Condren June 2006

Colm Toibin
Pic: Mark Condren
June 2006

With permission of the author, an extract from Colm Tóibín’s review of Roger Casement’s Diaries. 1910 edited by Roger Sawyer and The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement edited by Angus Mitchell, which appeared in the London Review of Books, 2 October 1997

A Whale of a Time

Jessie Conrad [wife of novelist, Joseph Conrad] remembered his visit:

Sir Roger Casement, a fanatical Irish protestant, came to see us, remaining some two days our guest. He was a very handsome man with a thick, dark beard and piercing, restless eyes. His personality impressed me greatly. It was about the time when he was interested in bringing to light certain atrocities which were taking place in the Belgian Congo. Who could foresee his own terrible fate during the war as he stood in our drawing room passionately denouncing the cruelties he had seen?

Conrad’s biographer Frederick Karl is unsure when this visit took place, but if we are to believe Casement’s Black Diary – and Angus Mitchell, who has edited The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, thinks that we should not – it took place on 3 January 1904 and lasted only one day.

Joseph Conrad had met Casement first in 1889 or 1890 in the Congo, when Casement was working for the Congo Railway Company. ‘For some three weeks,’ Conrad wrote,

he lived in the same room in the Matadi Station of the Belgian Société du Haut-Congo. He was rather reticent as to the exact character of his connection with it; but the work he was busy about then was recruiting labour. He knew the coast languages well. I went with him several times on short expeditions to hold ‘palavers’ with neighbouring village chiefs. The object of them was recruiting porters for the Company’s caravans from Matadi to Leopoldville – or rather to Kinchassa (on Stanley Pool). Then I went up into the interior to take up my command of the stern-wheeler ‘Roi des Belges’ and he, apparently, remained on the coast.

The visit which was remembered by Jessie Conrad had a purpose. Casement had read Heart of Darkness and he wanted Conrad to support him in the case he was making against atrocities in the Congo. ‘I am glad you read the Heart of D., tho’ of course it’s an awful fudge,’ Conrad had written to him. Conrad had based Heart of Darkness on his impressions – he had very little hard, detailed evidence – but, in any case, he did not want to get involved. He wrote to his friend R.B. Cunninghame Graham:

He is a Protestant Irishman, pious too. But so was Pizarro. For the rest I can assure you that he is a limpid personality. There is a touch of the conquistador in him too; for I have seen him start off into an unspeakable wilderness swinging a crookhandled stick for all weapon with two bull-dogs, Paddy (white) and Biddy (brindle) at his heels and a Loanda boy carrying a bundle for all company. A few months afterwards it so happened that I saw him come out again, a little leaner, a little browner, with his stick, dogs and Loanda boy, and quietly serene as though he had been for a stroll in the park. He … lately seems to have been sent to the Congo on some sort of mission by the British government. I always thought some particle of Las Casas’ soul had found refuge in his indomitable body … I would help him but it is not in me. I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories, and not even up to that miserable game … He could tell you things! Things I have tried to forget, things I never did know. He had as many years of Africa as I had months – almost

After Casement’s arrest in 1916, Conrad wrote to John Quinn in New York:

We never talked politics … He was a good companion: but already in Africa I judged that he was a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid. I mean that he was all emotion. By emotional force (Congo report, Putumayo etc) he made his way, and sheer emotionalism has undone him. A creature of sheer temperament – a truly tragic personality: all but the greatness of which he had not a trace. Only vanity. But in the Congo it was not visible yet.

Roger Casement was born in Ireland in 1864, of a prosperous Protestant family. He was brought up mainly in Northern Ireland. At the age of 20 he went to Africa, where he worked with various commercial interests in the Congo and then in what later became Nigeria. Subsequently, he found employment with the British Consular Service and in 1900 returned to the Congo, part of which was under the direct control of Leopold II, King of the Belgians. He began to investigate allegations of brutality in the region; his work was thorough and conscientious, and he was personally responsible for the decision of the Foreign Office to undertake a serious investigation of what was happening in the Congo.

In 1906 Casement began to work in the British Consular Service in South America: in Santos, Rio de Janeiro and then in Pará at the mouth of the Amazon. In 1910 he investigated allegations of atrocities against the Amazon Indians. He was knighted for his work. By the time he resigned from the Consular Service in 1913, he had become a fervent Irish nationalist; and on his return to Ireland he was made treasurer of the Irish Volunteers. He was a glittering prize for the new movement: a Protestant, a knight, an internationally-known humanitarian and anti-imperialist. He worked for the Irish cause in the United States and Germany, raising funds in the United States and trying to start an Irish Brigade with prisoners of war in Germany. He landed from Germany, after much adventure, on the coast of county Kerry on Good Friday 1916 in a German submarine, but the guns which were to come as well failed to arrive. He was captured and taken to London, where he was charged with treason. He was found guilty. His diaries, in particular his ‘Black’ Diaries – which consisted of diaries for 1903, 1910, 1911 and a ledger for 1911, and gave accounts of homosexual encounters in Africa and South America – were used to prevent a reprieve. He was hanged. After his death, there was great controversy about the diaries. Were they forged? Were they real? How could an Irish patriot be homosexual? Many books have been published on the subject. These two new books deal with Casement’s legacy: one of them believes that the diaries are genuine, the other does not.

Casement’s bones, or what was left of them – he had been buried without a coffin in quicklime – were returned to Ireland by Harold Wilson’s government in February 1965. The first request had been made to Ramsay MacDonald’s government sometime between 1929 and 1931. This was refused, as were de Valera’s requests to Stanley Baldwin and Churchill, and Sean Lemass’s request to Harold Macmillan. In her account of the discussions between the two governments about Casement’s body, and indeed Casement’s diaries, in the spring 1996 edition of Irish Archives, from which this information was taken, Deirdre McMahon writes: ‘Exasperated British ministers and officials were apt to attribute malice to de Valera’s concern for Casement: but in fact the controversy revealed the cultural chasm in Irish and British attitudes to death. What to the Irish was respect for the dead, to the British was a distasteful and morbid obsession.’

The exhumation took place after dark in Pentonville Prison: Casement had not been buried, as had been believed, beside Dr Crippen, according to the documents which the British officials had, but between two men called Kuhn and Robinson. The lower jaw, eight ribs, several vertebrae, arm bones, shoulder bones, a number of smaller bones and the skull, virtually intact and still covered with bits of the shroud, were found and put into a coffin. The bones belonged to a man of exceptional height – Casement was tall. The British paid for the coffin. (‘It was a gesture which they felt they should make and were glad to make,’ an Irish official said.) There was a state funeral in Dublin. The coffin was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery beside others who had fought and suffered for the cause of Ireland: Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Paddy Dignam.

Although there is a large collection of Casement documents in the National Library in Dublin (and other items which he brought back from Africa and South America – including costumes and a butterfly collection – in the National Museum and the Natural History Museum), his diaries remain in England. They were seen by Michael Collins and Eamon Duggan during the 1921 Treaty negotiations. In the early Thirties Duggan wrote:

Michael Collins and I saw the Casement Diary by arrangement with Lord Birkenhead. We read it. I did not know Casement’s handwriting. Collins did. He said it was his. The diary was in two parts – bound volumes – repeating ad nauseam details of sex perversion – of the personal appearance and beauty of native boys – with special reference to a certain portion of their anatomy. It was disgusting.

De Valera was careful not to become involved in the controversy about the diaries which erupted at regular intervals during his time in office, and he refused to ask the British Government to allow his representative to check their authenticity. When the diaries were published in Paris and New York in 1959, a British official asked a diplomat at the Irish Embassy in London what the reaction in Ireland would be to the release of the diaries, adding that ‘in view of the present attitude in Britain to homosexuality, few people now in this country would attach much importance to Casement’s failings in this respect.’ The Irish diplomat had to reveal that here perhaps was another cultural chasm between Ireland and Britain: ‘Opinion in Ireland had not moved so far and would probably not be much different from what it was in this country when Casement was on trial.’

When Sean Lemass came to power in 1959, he was anxious to have the diaries as well as the body, and the Irish Cabinet agreed that the diaries should be given to the Irish Government, with no copy being kept by the British, but Maurice Moynihan, secretary to the Government and secretary to the Department of the Taoiseach, was against this. Did the Government intend to keep them, to burn them, to publish them? he asked. In his opinion, the Irish Government should have nothing to do with them. Lemass eventually agreed with him. On 23 July, R.A. Butler announced that the diaries would be deposited in the Public Record Office in London, where they could be viewed by scholars and historians. Southern Ireland wanted Casement’s bones since they held no secrets and could not speak, but the diaries were, and still are, dynamite, and the English, as we all know, are better at handling that sort of thing.

The Black Diaries first became available in 1959. The Black Diaries: An Account of Roger Casement’s Life and Times, with a Collection of His Diaries and Public Writings, by Peter Singleton-Gates and Maurice Girodias, published by Grove Press in New York and the Olympia Press in Paris, was an extraordinary book. It included potted histories of Ireland, the Congo and the Putumayo in the Amazon basin, an account of Casement’s life and death, his report on the Congo, his report on the Putumayo, his diary from the Congo in 1903 and his diary from the Putumayo in 1910. The diary entries were placed facing the reports, so that on the left-hand page you got clear, factual statements about brutality, and accounts of Casement’s investigations often laced with his indignation, and on the right-hand page you got cryptic notes, times, money spent, meetings registered, the weather, news, opinions. On 17 April 1903 he noted Sir Hector Macdonald’s suicide in Paris – Macdonald was charged with homosexual activities in Ceylon – and wrote: ‘The reasons given are pitiably sad. The most distressing case this surely of its kind and one that may awake the national mind to saner methods of curing a terrible disease than by criminal legislation.’ On 19 and 30 April Casement made further references to Hector Macdonald’s suicide.

In March in the same diary, as Casement’s ship made various stops on the way to the Congo, there were references to Agostinho, 171⁄2 (‘Agostinho kissed many times,’ on 13 March), to X (‘not shaved, about 21 or 22’), to Pepe (‘17, bought cigarettes’). The very first entry of the diary for 1910, 13 January, Thursday, opened: ‘Gabriel Ramos – X Deep to hilt’ and ended ‘in very deep thrusts’. The next entry simply said: ‘Veldemiro – $20’. On 2 March he was in São Paulo: ‘Breathed – quick enormous push. Loved mightily. To Hilt Deep X.’ By 12 March he was in Buenos Aires: ‘Splendid erections. Ramon 7$ 10” at least. X In.’ By 28 March he was in Belfast: ‘Rode gloriously – splendid steed. Huge – told of many – “Grand”.’ Like many Edwardian men of his class he was, or at least these diaries say that he was, having a whale of a time. The above entries are merely a small sample.

We are asked to believe by those who say that these diaries were not forged that Casement kept two diaries during his long trips to the Congo and the Putumayo: one long and detailed for public consumption, and also for his own later use when he came to write his reports (the White Diaries), the other short and private, less than a hundred and fifty words per day (the Black Diaries).

This seems to me eminently possible. It would also seem probable that there would be odd inconsistencies between the two diaries: different spellings of names – Casement was not good at spelling names; a few items appearing on the wrong day; some items in one diary not being mentioned in the other at all; a different tone. On the Putumayo trip, when Casement’s eyes began to trouble him, he wrote in pencil and his handwriting deteriorated, but this only happened in the White Diary, the Black Diary was written in pen and the writing did not deteriorate. This can be explained, maybe, by the fact that work on the Black Diaries took only a few minutes, whereas work on the White Diaries was a strain. On the other hand, if I were a forger working on the Black Diaries, using the White Diaries for directions, I would have moved into pencil too, and made the handwriting deteriorate. The fact that the inconsistency remained suggests that no forger was involved.

To decide to leave the discrepancy you would have to be a very clever and confident forger; but it is clear that if the Black Diaries were forged, then the forger was very clever indeed – a genius. Because there is not one howler in the Black Diaries, there is no entry which could have been placed there only because a forger absolutely and clearly misunderstood a passage in the White Diaries. Although there are discrepancies which come close to being howlers, there is no moment in the Black Diaries which settles the argument either way.

Basil Thomson, who was the chief of the Special Branch created at Scotland Yard at the beginning of the First World War for the detection of enemy spies, interrogated Casement for three days after his capture. Thomson left five differing accounts of how the diaries – both Black and White – were found. In some of them, the diaries were discovered only after Casement’s capture, but in one account Thomson said that he was in possession of the diaries for some time before that. Casement’s cousin has insisted that Thomson had the diaries 16 months before the trial. But this confusion does not amount to very much, and certainly does not help us to know whether the Black Diaries were forged or not.

How would the idea of Casement as an Edwardian sex tourist have entered the forger’s head? There are some interesting passages in the White Diaries which Thomson had in his possession and could not have forged – were he the forger. Casement wrote with ease in the White Putumayo Diary about ‘the bronzed beautiful limbs of these men’ and ‘soft gentle eyes, a beautiful mouth’, to take just two examples. A forger looking at these innocent remarks could get the idea that this was how you could best stitch Casement up.

A possible forger, then, had the White Diaries to use, so he or she knew where Casement was every day, what he was doing and thinking. The Black Diaries would therefore have been easy to forge. It would have taken patience – there are weeks on end in the 1903 and the 1910 Black Diary where there is no mention of sex (the 1911 Black Diary is, I understand, a different matter, but this has not been published) [the 1911 Black Diaries have since been published in Jeffrey Dudgeon’s Roger Casement: The Black Diaries (2002) and are indeed the most sexually explicit] , and this either convinces us that they are not forged because a forger would have put sex on every page to serve his darker purpose, or that they are, in fact, forged since a good forger would have known the correct balance between sex and context.

Brian Inglis, in his 1973 biography of Casement, did not believe the diaries were forged. ‘The case against the forgery theory remains unshaken,’ he wrote.

No person or persons, in their right mind, would have gone to so much trouble and expense to damn a traitor when a single diary would have sufficed. To ask the forger to fake the other two diaries and the cash register (and if one was forged all of them were) would have been simply to ask for detection, because a single mistake in any of them would have destroyed the whole ugly enterprise. Besides, where could the money have been found? Government servants may sometimes be unscrupulous, but they are always tight-fisted.

The diaries, in any case, black and white, forged or otherwise, were in the hands of Casement’s prosecution team, led by F.E. Smith (later Lord Birkenhead), in the summer of 1916. Smith would have taken a rather personal interest in Casement, having himself been a fervent supporter of the Unionist cause. During the trial, the prosecution gave the defence a copy of a selection of Black Diary entries, wondering if the defence would like to use them as a basis for a Guilty but Insane plea. However, this may have been a manoeuvre on the part of Smith, who wanted the diaries made public in the trial but could not make them public himself. The defence refused the offer.

Casement was found guilty of treason and sentenced to hang.

Sixteen days before his execution, the Cabinet was presented with two memoranda by the legal adviser to the Home Office:

Casement’s diaries and his ledger entries, covering many pages of closely typed matter, show that he has for years been addicted to the grossest sodomitical practices. Of late years he seems to have completed the full cycle of sexual degeneracy and from a pervert has become an invert – a woman or pathic who derives his satisfaction from attracting men and inducing them to use him.

The second memorandum ended: ‘So far as I can judge, it would be far wiser from every point of view to allow the law to take its course and, by judicious means, to use these diaries to prevent Casement attaining martyrdom.’ The obvious implication of the first memorandum was that instead of Casement fucking the Africans and the Amazon Indians they had begun to fuck him. The British Cabinet at the time would have realised that this was not in keeping with the aims of the Empire. In any case, they agreed that he should be hanged.

Basil Thomson and his associates set about showing the diaries to influential people. The King saw them; so did several senior clergymen. American opinion was vital, especially after the shocked and indignant reaction to the executions of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. (These had happened in May. Casement was hanged on 3 August.) American journalists, including the representative of Associated Press, were shown the diaries. The American Ambassador saw them. They were shown to the Anti-Slavery Society, who sent the Foreign Office a six-point memorandum on the issue, one of which is worth quoting here: ‘It is unthinkable that a man of Casement’s intelligence would under normal circumstances record such grave charges in a form in which they might at any time fall into the hands of his enemies.’ Despite the government campaign to vilify Casement, there was a public commission demanding a reprieve, spearheaded by Arthur Conan Doyle. The signatories included Arnold Bennett, G.K. Chesterton, J.G. Frazer, John Galsworthy, Jerome K. Jerome, John Masefield and Beatrice and Sidney Webb. George Bernard Shaw also petitioned for a pardon – in fact, it would be hard to imagine such a campaign without him. In 1937 he wrote to the Irish Press:

The trial occurred at a time when the writings of Sigmund Freud had made psychopathy grotesquely fashionable. Everybody was expected to have a secret history unfit for publication except in the consulting rooms of the psychoanalysts. If it had been announced that among the papers of Queen Victoria a diary had been found revealing that her severe respectability masked the daydreams of a Messalina it would have been received with eager credulity and without the least reprobation by the intelligentsia. It was in that atmosphere innocents like Alfred Noyes and [John] Redmond were shocked, the rest of us were easily credulous: but we associated no general depravity with psychopathic eccentricities, and we were determined not to be put off by it in our efforts to secure a pardon.

The diaries were effective: they prevented a serious campaign for a reprieve; they may have affected the Cabinet decision; they seriously damaged Casement’s reputation and legacy. Now, eighty years later, they beggar belief: how could a forger have gone to so much trouble and made no mistakes? How, on the other hand, could Casement have been so stupid as to have left them to be found? It is easy to imagine the forger at work: the entries are short, it must have been fun burying the sexual adventures in all that boring detail. It is also easy to imagine Casement writing these little entries down, his secret life, his private moments which needed to be preserved somewhere, and then almost wanting to be caught, something in his psyche waving away natural caution.

The British had used forgery against Parnell, trying to implicate him in terrorist acts. And nationalist Ireland believed that this is what they did with Casement.

Afraid they might be beaten

Before the bench of Time,

They turned the trick by forgery

And blackened his good name


Yeats wrote in 1937. And now, it seems, the battle is still going on….



‘A Whale of a Time’, Colm Tóibín, London Review of Books, Vol. 19 No. 19 · 2 October 1997, pp. 24-27


Butterflies and Bones: The Casement Project, will be performed at The Place, London,  8pm 11 June, 4pm 12 June.  Book Here





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