Roger Casement: 16 Lives, by Angus Mitchell, O’Brien Press, 432 pp, €12.99, ISBN: 978-0224096201
Angus Mitchell, author of The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement (Dublin 1997) and Sir Roger Casement’s Heart of Darkness (Dublin 2003), has erected an essential pillar in the pantheon series 16 Lives, which explores sixteen individuals who were executed after the 1916 Easter Rising with an eye on the guideline of the prompt “Who were these people and what drove them to commit themselves to violent revolution?” The series is edited by Lorcan Collins and Ruán O’Donnell.
Many biographers, after studying so much of the hands and mind of their subjects, often fall into the trap of using intuition to construct a living being out of the numerous artefacts they have found. Mitchell avoids such speculation by following Casement’s exact methodology. In the manner of the latter’s reports on injustices and exploitation in the Congo and Amazon, the author humanises his subject but allows the evidence itself to make the case. Just as Casement’s damnation of the imperial and secret state stands valid today, the evidence for Mitchell’s critique of the historiography and especially of the so-called “Black Diaries” (depicting alleged homosexuality) is too compelling in its primary evidence for any to ignore. The reader enjoys rich testimony from Casement and his contemporaries, whether it is official or unofficial correspondence, diary entries, government reports, newspaper coverage, or courtroom statements. This is both a narrative and a sourcebook for understanding Sir Roger Casement.
The author accepts the complexity of the human mind in all of its dynamic change, inconsistency, and even hypocrisy without grasping for exceptional or situational explanations. For instance, this biography accepts Casement’s confluence or even double-think on Irishness through nationalism and internationalism as two lobes of the same mind. This goes beyond those who have judged Casement as simply non-sectarian when landing in 1916 Ireland with the spirit of 1798 for a White, Green, and Orange Ireland. As Mitchell explores more globally than ever before, Casement was cosmopolitan Irish, who not only saw Irishness in the Loyalists he opposed but also saw Ireland in the Congo, the Amazon, Egypt, India and wherever there was unjust imperial rule. Yet one might judge after reading Mitchell’s description of the strong support that Casement gave to Irish schools, on the provision that they taught Irish only so as to expand the Gaeltacht, that this might make him guilty of the very same cultural chauvinism (coercion trumping choice) that imperial powers were imposing on Africans and Amazonians. But the author is right that the stronger interpretation remains that Casement, along with others, showed nobility in his efforts to save a dying language, envisioning parallels such as the Mayan language of Central America. Again, this biography allows for the complexity of the human mind. This is likewise true in Mitchell’s rendering of Casement’s relationship with the missionary fields in colonial Africa. While he valued and even relied upon the good intentions and actions of missionaries in the field, Mitchell shows that he was quite aware of the devil’s bargain present in imperial Christianity where the church and state often colluded in power and control.
In this biography, Casement appears as more linear and more focused in his attack upon unrestrained capitalism as the cause of suffering in imperial domination. Mitchell traces the moment of his epiphany in the Congo and shows how the suffering there was connected to that in Ireland; the epiphany and the report are convincingly compared to the work of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas who documented imperial exploitation in Spanish America in the sixteenth century. Casement did not live long enough to make a comparison between the later Black and Tans in Ireland and the Belgian Force Publique in the Congo, that is to say the placing of guns in the hands of the undisciplined and peace imposed through state terror. Yet he was present to make a personal assessment of the scale of German atrocities in Belgium during the First World War and to compare it with the much larger scale of Belgian atrocities that he witnessed in the Congo. This account, better than any other, shows the development of Casement’s acceptance of the right to resist terror. This philosophical breakthrough began in Africa and Casement was a revolutionary by the time he left the Amazon. Mitchell presents this as an evolutionary path, although there is also the theory that evolutionary change does not occur through slow incremental change but through radical moments of redevelopment and survival in crisis. Casement’s mental redevelopment and the survival of his conscience through what he observed along the banks of the Congo and the Amazon are processes that are paralleled in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Mitchell explores well the cross-influences between the two men.
The author reveals the breadth and depth of Casement’s role in the development of British intelligence during the Boer War, observing and inhibiting German arms shipments. This network established between consuls and naval intelligence was the method by which German guns were observed and inhibited while heading towards Ireland and India during the Great War.
Casement’s interaction with WEB Du Bois and African-American civil rights, nationalism in India, and socialist and labour movements around the world reveal the wide network of connections that he made in his life. There is much of interest to social, economic, cultural, political, or military historians. Equally, the biography contributes to feminist history, with a concurrent exploration of the leadership and influence of women such as Alice Stopford Green. These parallel accounts allow Mitchell to examine Casement not in isolation, but rather as living within a community of activists, artists and thinkers.
With much evidence, and no small amount of venom, Mitchell explores the downfall Casement met at the hands of the growing and secret powers of the state executive, the state-manipulated press, and the imperial lion young Winston Churchill. Considering today’s controversies regarding state intelligence-gathering, the biography features some highly topical issues, revealing the extent to which Casement was a whistleblower – or more accurately a miner’s canary – regarding the powers of the secret executive and emerging intelligence communities. Yet, as Mitchell concludes, Casement still took certain secrets to his grave, leaving historians with the task of figuring out what might have motivated his silence.
In addition to a well-evidenced and passionate account of the intensity of the courtroom and execution, Mitchell debunks the legitimacy of the so-called “Black Diaries” which the state used not only to publicly defame and embarrass Casement during the trial but also to ensure his death sentence. The book does so by leaving the true nature of Casement’s private life aside, without speculation and instead concentrates on the state’s manipulation of evidence, the press, the public and even some of his own defenders. Given Casement’s contribution to humanity in the Congo and Amazon, Mitchell’s account brings to mind Alan Turing and more recent character assassinations that resulted in tragic death. The book’s strongest criticism is of the prosecution, defence, and adjudication of Casement. There were scarcely credibly conflicts of interest for judges and prosecutors, including the prosecutor as attorney general prohibiting further appeal of his own case. Casement’s barrister was more interested in disputing legal minutiae to advance his own reputation than in defending his client with substantive arguments based on evidence and motives. As Mitchell points out, this courtroom is easier to imagine in the Soviet Union than the United Kingdom.
Indeed, the book’s strength lies in its handling of the courtroom experience – namely, it puts aside the many peripheral personalities and injustices, of which there were many, to dissect the real reason why Casement was willing to take the actions he did and the reason he himself believed he was in the dock: loyalty. Mitchell shows that Casement repeatedly explained in his professional life that when he officially represented the Crown and the government of the United Kingdom, as well as in spirit during his unofficial duties, he was always serving his King of Ireland and the people of Ireland. In other words, Britain was not the same as the dominion of England, but included British interests as a whole and even Irish interests in the particular. George V (r 1910-36) was King of Great Britain and Ireland and was therefore the King of England, the King of Scotland, and the King of Ireland. For Casement, if there were first betrayals within the United Kingdom, it was England who had already betrayed Ireland. This constitutional distinction has never been so well explained in previous biographies, despite the obvious conclusion one can draw from Casement’s own final words. Too often historians focus merely on the Irish Volunteers arming as a result of the Loyalists or Ulster Volunteers arming first and do not consider Casement’s own explanation of his loyalty and actions. This is who Sir Roger Casement was and why he, along with the fifteen others executed who feature in the 16 Lives series, chose violent revolution.
This biography looks at the intersection of the various paths of Casement’s legacy in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Rather than leave us lost at the crossroads, Angus Mitchell provides a thoroughly developed and detailed map to follow and understand Casement’s footprints in history.
Matthew E. Plowman is Associate Professor of History at Grand View University Iowa