September 1, 1864 – Roger Casement:
”If charity begins at home, empire begins in other men’s homes.”
Roger Casement led a queer life (in more ways than one). If you have never heard of Casement, who was executed by the British for treason, the reason is as simple as it is sad: he was gay. He was ignored, if not totally written out of Irish history, even though he was one of the most famous men of his age.
From 1880, the imperialism of the European powers meant conquering the African continent and dividing it between them. The biggest portion went to the most powerful country, Great Britain, followed by France. The new British Empire was in response to the rising economic power of Germany and the USA.
Britain proclaimed its mission was to enlighten and bring peace and the rule of law to the ”darker races” or ”the white man’s burden”. From the 1880s to 1914 there was propaganda on a huge scale boosting the empire and this great civilizing agenda.
Along with this went a hyper-racism seeing the conquered people as children needing guidance or, more often, as savages to be whipped into submission. Along with wars were an army of missionaries bringing a muscular Christianity to the heathens, sweeping away old beliefs and traditions and instilling new Christian values, whether wanted or not. This propaganda meant there was a huge gap between what the public at home thought was happening in the empire and the reality.
In 1883, Casement went to West Africa working as a purser. He decided to stay and by 1895 had become a British consul. By 1900 he was consul for the Congo Free State and the French Congo. The Congo Free State was unusual in that it was the personal domain not of a country but of a person: King Leopold II of Belgium. It was also bigger than all of Europe.
Casement heard rumors about the mistreatment of the local people by the authorities in their extraction of rubber, the booming industry of the time. He decided to investigate for himself. He went up the Congo River and talked to the local people and collected evidence directly.
What he found was shocking: torture, whippings, maiming, rapes, but it was also systematic. The collection of ivory and rubber was not done by farming but by forced terror. The local people were given quotas to bring in rubber from the forest. If they failed to meet them, they were tortured, and their families held at ransom and abused.
Casement published a report in 1904 and then campaigned with others for change. By 1908 the Congo Free State was replaced by the Belgian Congo and the personal rule of Leopold II ended.
The hellish conditions in the Congo provide the background for the novel Heart Of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad, Casement and Conrad met in the Congo, sharing a tent for a few weeks, which has led many to speculate that they were lovers. Conrad later wrote that Casement was one of the few decent white men he met in the Congo.
Casement became world famous for his exposé and was lauded by the British establishment for exposing the awful deeds of foreigners exploiting the poor native people.
His travels proved to him that the British Empire, and other colonial European powers, were profiting from the exploitation, cruelty and murder of other human beings.
He was witness to the enslavement of plantation workers in the Congo and the workers on rubber plantations in Peru. This had a radicalizing effect on his life and being secretly gay he found himself identifying with the oppressed rather than the oppressor.
He should be recognized by the annals of great revolutionaries, but a set of diaries, which British authorities claimed he had written in the years 1903, 1910 and 1911 were circulated. They revealed that he was gay, that he was remarkably promiscuous, and that he usually paid for his sexual encounters, which involved younger men and teenagers from the lower social classes.
The diaries also revealed that unlike most men of his background, he was not racist, he greatly enjoyed his assignations, and he did not think of himself superior to his conquests by virtue of his station.
These diaries were referred to in the press as The Black Diaries, to convey the universal condemnation they were expected to bring when they were published. To the British they were also a political tool, knowing how Conservative Irish Catholic disapproval of Casement’s queerness would undermine repercussions for his execution.
More than a century since his execution, many of Casement’s most ardent supporters insist that his infamous Black Diaries were forgeries, written by a British espionage office to diminish his name and achievements.
For many people it was thought that you simply cannot be a patriot, a humanitarian and a gay. For a long time, being gay was seen as incompatible with being Irish. Things do change. Handsome openly gay physician Leo Eric Varadkar served as the leader of Ireland from 2017 to 2020 and being gay is no longer seen as a blot on Casement’s life and work.
Casement’s gayness probably taught him greater compassion for the oppressed and enlightened him to the epic hypocrisy of the British Empire’s global exploits.
Most people of his era were horrified by what they read in the Black Diaries, which played right into the hands of the British intelligence. Casement the hero was quickly disavowed as Casement the degenerate pervert.
But the diaries show how Casement delighted in his own invigorating contradictions: Irish, yet knighted by the British, a Protestant turned Catholic, an establishment figure yet a hidden gay, a discrepancy between his rugged persona and the prevailing notions about homosexuality.
An insider and outsider, his double perspective allowed him to see what many others, constrained by class and creed, could not. Being gay allowed him to cross the rigid class and racial lines of his era.
Casement’s epic promiscuity led him into doubtful dalliances and opened him to charges of exploitation, response to the impossibility of living an openly gay life in the post-Oscar Wilde world.
This was a period when a strict moral code in law and tradition within the British Empire and in Britain itself was imposed. Homosexuality was considered an abhorrent and backward practice. In Britain homophobia was uniquely strong and bound up with empire building. Laws were passed in Britain to strengthen the criminalization of sexual deviation. Scandals whipped up a moral outrage, the most important were the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895. There was right-wing moral outrage after the Wilde trials, yet here was also a reaction against it. Edward Carpenter‘s gay works found readership among the new left in the 1890s.
The British imposed strict homophobic laws on their African colonies, laws that remain on the books to this day. According to the diaries, Casement found the acceptance of homosexuality was an aspect of African society that he was comfortable with and he wrote of his sexual adventures with local African men, but unlike other empire-builders, he saw the African not as a body to exploit but as an equal to love.
He saw that the evils of imperialism were universal. Casement:
“What has civilization itself been to them? A thing of horror, of smoking rifles and pillaged homes, of murdered fathers, violated mothers and enslaved children. I was looking at this tragedy with the eyes of another race, of a people once hunted themselves, and I said to myself then, that I would do my part as an Irishman, wherever it may lead.”
Casement’s sex life opened him up to whisper campaigns and blackmail, but furtive and fleeting encounters with nameless younger men (who were usually far below his own social station) kept most suspicions away.
The diaries are a record of his forcibly secret life, but they are in rebellion against it.
Like Wilde, Casement was forced to live his life twice, once as a member of the British establishment, and once as furtive queer and closet Irish Revolutionary.
Casement’s first anti-British essays were published in 1911. He resigned from the diplomatic service in 1913; by then he was already a convert to revolutionary Irish nationalism.
After resigning from the foreign service, he went to the USA in 1914 to get arms for an Irish uprising and then on to Germany where he stayed until 1916. He was arrested on the west coast of Ireland as he disembarked from a German submarine to join the uprising.
To stifle the outcry from Irish-Americans after his arrest for treason in 1916 (at the time the British were courting the USA to join them in war) the British sent salacious extracts from the Black Diaries to carefully handpicked journalists, politicians and community leaders in America and it worked. Calls for clemency evaporated.
He was arrested, convicted and executed by hanging for high treason on August 3, 1916. He was stripped of his knighthood. His body was placed in a grave at Pentonville prison. In 1965, the British government released his body for burial. His final wish to be buried in Northern Ireland was denied by prime minister Harold Wilson. He was buried in Dublin with full honors and finally recognized a pioneer of the human rights movement.