More on Roger Casement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Aug 24 11:54:32 MDT 1999

The New York Times, February 8, 1998, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 7; Page 31; Column 1; Book Review Desk

Martyr for Many Causes

By Lucy McDiarmid;  Lucy McDiarmid is president of the American Conference
for Irish Studies. She is completing a book on Irish controversies.

Bernard shaw wrote a speech for him. Conan Doyle wrote a novel based on his
adventures; W. B. Yeats and Richard Murphy wrote poems about him. He gave
Conrad the idea for "Heart of Darkness," and he makes cameo appearances in
Joyce, Stevie Smith, Louis MacNeice and Paul Muldoon. Alfred Noyes, the
author of "The Highwayman," devoted an entire book to him. A minor muse for
many modern writers, Roger Casement (1864-1916) was the most sentimental of
Irish rebels and the most idealistic of humanitarians. Although someone has
put a curse on the many screenplays about him, which never seem to make it
to the screen, another one is always being written. In the 81 years since
his execution in London for committing high treason during World War I,
Casement has rarely been absent from the news in Ireland. Sooner or later
his thin, bearded face and intense, deep-set eyes will be as familiar in
American popular culture as Oscar Wilde's puffy cheeks.

Like Wilde, Casement belongs to a small but increasingly visible group,
Irish homosexuals. To state that as a simple fact is to ask for trouble,
because Casement's sexuality, like everything else in his life, has proved
a source of controversy. He was a Protestant with a secret Roman Catholic
baptism in childhood, and an anti-imperialist British diplomat who had the
harp of Ireland engraved on his consular stationery. In 1911 he was
knighted for his humanitarian work on behalf of Africans and South
Americans enslaved to gather rubber for European companies, but was
degraded from knighthood after he received the death sentence. Hanged and
buried on the grounds of Pentonville prison in London and reburied in
Ireland in 1965 in a magnificent state funeral, Casement has led a busy
posthumous life. It remains exceptionally busy because his notorious "Black
Diaries" may not be his.

The five diaries, whosever they are, contain coded and not-so-coded
descriptions of homosexual encounters in Ireland, England and South
America. Depending on which line of thought you follow, they're either the
ingenious contrivances of a British forger or Casement's private records,
stolen by Scotland Yard. In June 1916, Casement was on trial for attempting
to recruit Irish prisoners of war in Germany to fight in the Easter Rising.
During the summer, the diaries were circulated sub rosa to discourage
Casement's supporters from appealing his treason conviction and to ruin him
for martyrdom. Sir Ernley Blackwell, legal adviser to the Foreign Office,
wrote in his report, "I see not the slightest objection to hanging Casement
and afterwards giving as much publicity to the contents of his diary as
decency permits, so that at any rate the public in America and elsewhere
may know what sort of man they are inclined to make a martyr of." When the
American Ambassador told Prime Minister Herbert Asquith he had seen a copy
of the diaries, Asquith remarked, "Excellent; and you need not be
particular about keeping it to yourself."

As international smut, as forgeries, as the records of a closeted gay life,
the diaries continue to provoke discussion, though no longer sub rosa.
Their authenticity has been definitively confirmed and stubbornly
questioned in a dozen biographies, in W. J. Maloney's "Forged Casement
Diaries" (1936) and in the 1959 Peter Singleton-Gates book, "The Black
Diaries." Linking an Irish patriot with sexuality -- even, as in Parnell's
case, with heterosexuality -- has always caused commotion, but the
possibility of a gay martyr challenged fundamental notions of Irish
identity. Each new biography, whatever its theory of Casement, inspired
prolonged debate about national heroes, or sex, or both. Casement's
unsettled posthumous history meant that the mere mention of his name evoked
the thought of homosexuality even when the word wasn't mentioned. "The
fascination of the voluminous correspondence on the moral character of
Casement is only exceeded by its futility," a letter in The Irish Times
declared in 1956. Meanwhile, privately (very privately), Casement's friends
accepted the diaries' authenticity. Eamon De Valera, the Irish President,
who spoke movingly at the reinterment in Dublin, did not want the diaries
along with the bones, and they remain in the Public Record Office in London.

The newest diary controversy, the subject of a colloquium to be held at
Goldsmiths College, University of London, later this month, comes at a time
when argument about Casement seemed finally to have ceased. In the wake of
Ireland's decriminalization of homosexual acts in 1993, the BBC devoted a
program to the diaries, and a handwriting expert declared them genuine. Two
Englishmen, Angus Mitchell, a travel writer who moved to Brazil to study
the extermination of native tribes, and Roger Sawyer, the author of a
biography of Casement and a book called "Slavery in the Twentieth Century,"
signed a contract to edit the 1910 diaries.

In this age of peace talks in Belfast, annual demonstrations by the Irish
Lesbian and Gay Organization, Wilde's face visible on every street corner
in New York, London and Dublin, what could there be to argue about? The
editors discovered that they disagree about the diaries. Whereas Sawyer has
renounced his original belief in the forgery theory, "my co-editor," he
writes, "made a journey in the reverse direction." They came to a parting
of the editorial ways, and the project fissioned: in October, Mitchell and
Sawyer both came out with editions of Casement's diaries. Lilliput Press in
Dublin published Mitchell's "Amazon Journal of Roger Casement," a 500-page
transcript of notes Casement kept during 1910 as he investigated atrocities
in the Putumayo region. Pimlico Press in London published Sawyer's "Roger
Casement's Diaries -- 1910: The Black and the White," which combines the
1910 "Black" diary, with its sexual records, and an abbreviated version of
the "Amazon Journal" (which Sawyer calls "White").

The editors also disagree about sex. "I do not dislike homosexuals, but I
detest buggery," Sawyer told an Irish Times interviewer. Mitchell, in his
preface, argues against publishing the "Black" diaries because they do not
"serve the gay community or merit a place in 20th-century homosexual
literature." Reviewing the twin volumes in The London Review of Books, the
Irish writer Colm Toibin remarked, "There is nothing quite like two
Englishmen taking a high moral tone." (On the same page is an appeal for
money to erect a statue of Oscar Wilde in London.)

This season's commotion marks a new stage in the history of Casement
debate, because it is global Casement, not Irish Casement, whose heroism
may be read as either purified or adulterated by his sexuality. In
Mitchell's volume you can read one of the earliest and most detailed
narratives available of international humanitarian labors. In Sawyer's book
you can read the same narrative (abridged) and splice it with the record of
Casement's sexual attraction to some of the people he was trying to save
from torture and starvation. And in both volumes you can hear Casement's
voice -- sometimes witty, often outraged, always without guile. Defending
the South American Indians to one of the corrupt employees of the Peruvian
Amazon Company, Casement assures him, "Some of the nicest people I know on
the Congo were cannibals." Writing day after day about the steward on an
Amazonian steamer, the diarist uses a language of infatuation reminiscent
of Cherubino: "No Ignacio, or sign of him! Alack!"; "Looking out window saw
Ignacio waiting. Joy."; "Poor Ignacio! Never to see again."

What would Casement have thought had he known these notes on fleeting
sexual passions were to be debated in public for most of the century and
published in paperback? It is impossible to imagine how someone born in
1864 could cope with this kind of outing. Nevertheless, he left a paper
trail of his erotic life across the planet. Had the diaries been flung into
the Amazon, there would remain Casement's poem about his sexuality:

I sought by love alone to go
Where God had writ an awful no . . .

Why this was done I cannot tell
The mystery is inscrutable
I only know I pay the cost
With heart and soul and honour lost.

And were the poem lost, there would still remain a high camp letter from
1914 in which Casement crosswrites as an American girl, talking about his
hairpins and his sudden impulse to kiss the sailors from the ship Hibernia.

The diaries' record of intimate pleasures and Casement's witness of
colonial atrocities have kept each other in circulation throughout the
century. It is an accident of this historical moment that audiences exist
for whatever was hidden in the Amazonian heart of darkness in 1910.
Prurience and Anglophobia kept alive interest in the "Black Diaries" long
enough for an age of "queer studies" to welcome them, and human rights
activists of this postimperial time honor the humanitarian passions of
another era.

Copyright© 1999, LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights

Louis Proyect


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