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  • Roger Casement: How Effective Was the British Government’s Smear Campaign Exposing the Homosexual “Black Diaries”?
  • Elizabeth Jaeger (bio)


On 3 August 1916 the British government executed the Irish patriot Roger Casement, a former British consul, for treason at Pentonville Prison in north London. His trial, held in late June, had lasted only four days, and upon the pronouncement of his sentence his friends and supporters set ablaze an international movement aimed at the British government in an effort to secure a reprieve. Early in his career Casement had earned international notoriety when he exposed the imperialist European rubber-company atrocities occurring in Belgian King Leopold II’s Congo. Casement’s expedition, investigation, and report (delivered in 1904) resulted in the twentieth century’s first major humanitarian movement, which ultimately forced Leopold, who had been acting as an exploitative private entrepreneur, to surrender his personal holdings in Africa and to cede control of the Congo Free State to the Belgian parliament.1 Less than a decade later, in 1910, recalling his success in the Congo, the British government issued a similar assignment to Casement, this time to investigate the treatment of the Putumayo Indians of Peru, where the British-registered Peruvian Amazon Company held murderous [End Page 132] sway. Once again, Casement’s report (issued in 1911) exposed the extreme measures of cruelty and exploitation practiced by rubber-company barons against the natives of the region. While his account did not inspire a second humanitarian movement, the company responsible began to liquidate its assets and slowly withdrew from the area, and Casement received a knighthood for his efforts to shield the Amazonian Indians. As a result of his work in Africa and South America, Casement earned the respect of many prominent figures in different spheres of public life, from noted authors to influential clergymen and powerful politicians.2 Many of these people, and a host of others, rallied behind him in the summer of 1916, fighting unsuccessfully to save him from the gallows.3

The journey from hero to traitor was not really a long one for Casement, and in his mind the actions that resulted in his being hailed as a hero were not entirely divorced from those that branded him as a traitor. In 1914, only three years after his exposé of conditions in the Peruvian Amazon, Casement, who was now retired from the consular service, completely channeled his energy into fighting against what he perceived to be British colonial agression in Ireland, his beloved homeland. Since Britain was then engaged in the First World War, to advance his revolutionary ambitions, Casement, along with other extreme nationalists, looked to the Central Powers for aid. He journeyed to Germany, where he hoped to secure weapons for the Irish [End Page 133] Volunteers back home, and where he hoped to recruit a brigade from among the Irish prisoners of war who would be willing to fight for independence from Britain. Though he immersed himself completely in this endeavor, as he had in every other major effort of his life, he became dejected after less than two years when his illusion, that Germany would become Ireland’s savior, finally faded. Having failed to secure either enough arms or a sizeable Irish brigade, Casement decided to return to Ireland in a German U-boat with the intention of persuading Irish Volunteer chief of staff Eoin MacNeill to cancel the planned rising. Shortly after his landing on Banna Strand in Kerry on 20 April 1916, British authorities captured Casement and transported him to London, where he stood trial. The court found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to be hanged.4

The British government feared an emotional outpouring of support for Casement from around the world, especially in the United States—with its large population of Irish immigrants and men and women of Irish decent—a country that Britain was currently courting to become its ally in the war against Germany. British officials instituted a smear campaign designed to blacken Casement’s reputation, repulse potential supporters, and deter those who might be tempted to consecrate him as a martyr following his death.5 This campaign was founded upon evidence...


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pp. 132-169
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