The British Empire Library

Roger Casement: Imperialist, Rebel, Revolutionary

by Seamas O Siochain

Courtesy of OSPA

Manus Nunan QC (Nigeria 1953-64)
Roger Casement was bom in 1864 in Dublin to an Ulster protestant family. He served in the British Consular/Colonial Services for about twenty years in West Africa, the Congo and Portuguese African territories. In 1899/1900 he was active on British service during the second Boer War, his sentiments being vehemently anti-Boer. His report on Belgian atrocities in the Congo was sensational. In 1906-09 he was chosen by the Foreign Office to investigate atrocities against native peoples in the upper Amazon. He was knighted in 1911. His attitudes in early life seem to have been typically those of his class. Indeed his abhorrence of attempts to form an Irish Brigade in South Africa to fight for the Boers against the British as well as his trenchant criticisms of the Munroe doctrine gives a picture of a character which can best be described as blimpish. From about 1904 onwards, however, he became enraptured by the Irish cultural revival and immersed himself in Irish literature and history. In 1914 he went to the United States to collect funds for the Irish Volunteers. From the United States and after the First World War began, he went to Germany to seek support for Irish independence. While there he endeavoured, without success, to form an Irish Brigade from Irish prisoners of war captured by the Germans. After a miserable year and a half in Germany he returned to Ireland in a German submarine in April 1916 and was captured, taken to London, tried for treason, found guilty and hanged.

The police claimed to have found his diaries, later known as the 'Black Diaries'. These documents reveal and record an active homosexual life. The British authorities sent copies to a wide audience in London and the US. Many claim that the diaries were forged by the British to blacken Casement's name. It must be said, however, that the evidence for their authenticity is strong.

In 1953 as a Crown Counsel in the Colonial Legal Service I visited Calabar in Nigeria. I signed the Resident's book and subsequently called on the District Officer. The latter apologised for not putting me up during my visit. He explained that the guest wing of the house was occupied by a fellow countryman of mine. My eyes went to the stairway leading to the guest wing and to my amazement I saw that it had been completely walled up. "This was the house of Sir Roger Casement and his ghost still lives here" he explained with conviction. Casement had held a consular post in Calabar at the end of the nineteenth century but his functions had been substantially those of a District Officer. The DO told me of several incidents when a white man had been seen in those premises. Hence such drastic action. As it happened that day was the Queen's Birthday and I was invited to a drinks party at the Residency to celebrate. There I met some senior members of Hope Waddell College, a long established Church of Scotland mission school in Calabar. I introduced myself and raised the subject of Casement. Their predecessors had known him well. "What was his reputation here?" I asked. "He was regarded as a great Christian gentleman", replied the principal and the others nodded in agreement. Had there been any sexual misbehaviour by Casement in that place with its tiny European community it would have been known and the reaction of these missionaries would not have been what it was. If the 'Black Diaries' so indicate, they tell lies.

This biography by Seamas O Siochain must surely be the definitive life of this exceptional man. It gives impressions of Casement by such diverse people as Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury, Joseph Conrad, Edmond Morel and Conan Doyle. Casement emerges as a sensitive and noble character. After his conversion to the Roman Church in his final days, the prison chaplain described his execution. "He died with all the faith and piety of an Irish peasant woman. He marched to the scaffold with the dignity of a prince." According to his executioner, "Roger Casement appeared to be the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute".

British Empire Book
Seamas O Siochain
The Lilliput Press
978 1 843351 0215