Friday 24 November 2017

Speech from the dock that inspired the world - the trial of Roger Casement

Knight of the Realm Roger Casement's role in the 1916 Rising was the treason the British establishment was most eager to punish. His trial began 100 years ago tomorrow

Trial and tribulations: Roger Casement leaves the court.
Trial and tribulations: Roger Casement leaves the court.
The plaque marking Casement's role at Banna Strand.

Damian Corless

It will be one hundred years ago tomorrow since that Knight of the Realm and Irish Rebel Roger Casement walked into a London courtroom to face trial for treason. It would end predictably with a death sentence, but will be remembered too for a speech from the dock that would reverberate across the world.

The other executed rebels of the Rising had been court-martialled, denying them the opportunity to make a speech from the dock. Casement's civil trial afforded him the opportunity to explain his motivations and make the case that as an Irishman he should not have been charged with treason against the English Crown.

"My 'treason' was based on a ruthless sincerity that forced me to attempt in time and season to carry out in action what I said in word," he argued.

"If small nationalities were to be the pawns in this game of embattled giants, I saw no reason why Ireland should shed her blood in any cause but her own, and if that be treason beyond the seas I am not ashamed to avow to it or to answer for it here with my life."

His speech echoed around the globe. Pandit Nehru, later PM of India, wrote: "It seemed to point out exactly how a subject nation should feel."

Casement had been captured when he landed on Banna Strand in Kerry on the morning of Good Friday 1916, two days before the insurrection scheduled for Easter Sunday. Captured with him were almost two thousand rifles transported on the Aud for distribution to the rebels.

The seizure of the arms was a massive setback, and a major factor in the cancellation of the Rising throughout most of the country. Casement, in fact, had landed in the hope of persuading the leaders to postpone their rebellion, confident that with a little more time he could persuade the Germans to land troops on Irish soil.

From the moment of his capture, Casement's fate was all but sealed. The British authorities took a particularly dim view of his involvement with the Rising, as for two decades he had been regarded as a staunch pillar of the Establishment.

Coming from good Anglo-Irish stock, his father had served as a captain in the King's Own Regiment of Dragoons. By the time of the Rising, Casement himself enjoyed international celebrity status as a human rights campaigner, having been knighted in 1911 for his work exposing the plight of Amazonian indians at the hands of white slavers.

Before South America, Casement had made his reputation as a thorn in the side of the monstrous King of Belgium, Leopold II, who was inflicting a savage reign of terror on the Congo. In the mid-1880s, the great powers of Europe convened at the Berlin Conference to carve up the continent of Africa.

Little Belgium was not a great power, but the avaricious Leopold was determined to grab a piece of empire for himself. At the Berlin Conference, he proposed that Belgium would found and oversee a Congo Free State to improve the lives of the natives.

Under the cover of this supposedly noble enterprise, Leopold raped the Congo. He enslaved millions into forced labour, extracting a fortune in ivory and rubber. Historians differ on how many natives died under Leopold's brutal regime, but a figure of some ten million is widely accepted. Leopold's mercenary Force Publique instigated the foul punishment - seen during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s - of chopping off the hands of transgressors.

Roger Casement arrived into the Congo as the Belgian king prepared his land-grab. The Irishman joined the African International Association of Henry Morton Stanley, already famous for greeting a missing explorer with the line: "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?"

Casement quickly realised that Stanley's Association was a flimsy front for Leopold's evil exploitation of the land. Casement ran into the Polish writer Joseph Conrad and they compared notes on the appalling treatment of the natives by the Belgian colonists.

In 1899, Conrad published his devastating critique, Heart of Darkness, which exposed the racism and savagery of white imperialists. Conrad's novel would be transposed to the big screen many decades later by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now.

In 1903, now a senior diplomat in the British Colonial Service, Casement was commissioned to investigate human rights in Leopold's Congo Free State. He spent weeks travelling about the Congo Basin interviewing enslaved native workers, their overseers and even the mercenaries of the hated Force Publique.

The result was The Casement Report published in 1904. Packed with devastating eyewitness statements, the report laid bare "the enslavement, mutilation and torture of natives on the rubber plantations". The impact of Casement's report was swift and powerful.

Lobby groups came together across Europe and the United States to put pressure on Belgium, while governments demanded reform. As a direct result of Casement's investigation, the Belgian parliament conducted its own investigation, resulting in the Belgian State seizing the Congo from Leopold's personal grasp and setting up a more humane administration in the renamed Belgian Congo.

On leave in Ireland in 1904-5, Casement joined the Gaelic League and Sinn Féin. After retiring from the consular service in 1913, he immersed himself in republican activity, co-writing the manifesto of the Irish Volunteers with Eoin MacNeill.

After the start of the Great War, Casement travelled widely, fundraising in the US and attempting to solicit armed help from the Germans. Before, during and after his trial, the British government covertly circulated photographed passages from Casement's so-called Black Diaries in which he detailed his secret life as an enthusiastic homosexual.

The prevailing consensus of experts is that the diaries are genuine. Intended to blacken his image, the diaries didn't deter figures including WB Yeats, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George ­Bernard Shaw from pleading for clemency.

Dubliner Shaw - already world famous, and on his way to becoming the only individual to win both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar - even offered to script a defence for Casement, but Casement politely turned him down, a decision he was said to have later regretted.

Predictably his appeal failed, and he became the last of the Easter Rising leaders to meet the executioner.

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