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Roger Casement and History – A radical review Part One
18 April 2011
Roger Casement and his work and Casement as a subject and maker of history.
There are three areas of dispute that are
[W]hile bourgeois thought is indeed able to conceive of history as a problem, it remains an intractable problem. Either it is forced to abolish the process of history and regard the institutions of the present as eternal laws of nature which for ‘mysterious’ reasons and in a manner wholly at odds with the principles of a rational science were held to have failed to establish themselves firmly, or indeed at all, in the past. (This is characteristic of bourgeois sociology.) Or else, everything meaningful or purposive is banished from history. It then becomes impossible to advance beyond the mere ‘individuality’ of the various epochs and their social and human representatives. History must then insist with Ranke that every age is “equally close to God”, i.e. has attained an equal degree of perfection and that for quite different reasons there is no such thing as historical development.
In the first case it ceases to be possible to understand the origin of social institutions. The objects of history appear as the objects of immutable, eternal laws of nature. History becomes fossilised in a formalism incapable of comprehending that the real nature of socio-historical institutions is that they consist of relations between men. On the contrary, men become estranged from this, the true source of historical understanding and cut off from it by an unbridgeable gulf. As Marx points out, people fail to realise “that these definite social relations are just as much the products of men as linen flax, etc.”.In the second case, history is transformed into the irrational rule of blind forces which is embodied at best in the ‘spirit of the people’ or in ‘great men’. It can therefore only be described pragmatically but it cannot be rationally understood. Its only possible organisation would be aesthetic, as if it were a work of art.George Lukacs,Introduction to History & Class Consciousness1920.(1)
[Apologists for imperialism] are always romancing about “developing character” – developing it, one may add, by playing the despot and encouraging subservience. But when real “character” presents itself, character which is not to be cajoled or browbeaten which is not prepared to play the sycophant, and which demands its rights in no cringing tones, then a new tone is struck. That is not the “character” that the schoolmaster wanted to develop at all, and so he turns round and denounces and misrepresents and belittles those who exhibit it. Yet its existence confutes his case. For the most striking proof that can be afforded of a subject people’s capacity for freedom is that they strenuously demand it. Frederic Ryan. The Egyptian Standard [later Egypt], 23rd January 1908.(2)
My name maybe known to you – either as a friend of Mr Dryhurst and the late Egypt – or perhaps in connection with Congo and laterAmazon rubber crimes. Now I am only out to end the Irish crime.. [I enclose] a most treasonable pamphlet called the “Elsewhere Empire”. Read it if you are not shocked, for it is not polite literature but a crude appeal to nationality versus Imperialism. It is an instance, a poor one perhaps, of the new Ireland – and Ireland reverting to ’48 and ’98 – when Irishmen preached not freedom for themselves alone but freedom for all others. Roger Casement to Wilfid Seawen Blunt former editor of Egypt May 12th 1913(3)
Considering the life and work of Roger Casement –the various missions, campaigns and the revolutions he helped organize, it was to be expected that that life and its meaning, would become a battle ground for modern campaign’s of interpretation. Casement is as much of interest to conservatives as he is to liberals and radicals for not only was he part of the institutions that Lukacs describes above he also broke with them and tried to shape a new government; a revolutionary republican government for Ireland. When that government, eventually took power in March 1919 it was recognized by the Bolshevik government as the legitimate government of Ireland. That that democratic government was brutally suppressed by Britain is one of the reasons why Casement and his legacy of “not freedom for [the Irish] alone but freedom for all others” is still the subject of historical and political dispute.
The source of much of the allure is the dramatic story of Casement’s life and the vast tangle of data that Casement’s life and work has generated. Casement’s own writing and papers alone range from the personal and private (such as the Black Diaries which were used to secure his execution by the British for treason in 1916), to Casement’s Official reports for the British government, to his papers relating the groundbreaking parliamentary and extra-parliamentary campaigns for human rights in Peru and in the Congo, for an Irish Ireland, the organizing and arming of the Irish Volunteers, to his own account of his aborted mission to Imperial Germany to secure more volunteers and arms for the Easter Rising. Not only does this vast paper trail touch on the lives of some of the most important people of his time his writing articulates them and others in Casement’s own singular way.
This material has been variously approached and processed as evidence of a ‘flawed’ hero’s life, as evidence of personal incorrigibility, of negative pathological folly, of a dramatic journey that ends in political martyrdom. Casement’s Congo and Putamayo investigations are commonly described as late Victorian, early Edwardian journeys into ‘hell’ or ‘darkness’.(4) From the 1920s onwards there have been a series of biographies that hoped to give us the last judgment on Casement. The most common method of approach employed in these works is the overarching theme whether that be psychological, political or ideological. That the life became the source material for a sanitized Irish state funded history, which is in turn challenged by Unionist and Revisionist historians, gives an indication of the importance of Casement for Irish Historical debate. The mountain of data is then seen to yield to the teacher-writer-historian’s interested view of the story of Casement’s life.(5)
Recently however there have been attempts to step back from these dramatic story-telling narratives and to re-establish the facts of Casements life and to soberly record his achievements and treat his private life in un-sensationalist terms. This was the task that the anthropologist Seamus O’Siochain embarked on in his Roger Casement, Imperialist, Rebel, Revolutionary (2008). Certainly, confronted by this extensively researched work appeared to put an end to the dispute over the authenticity of Casement’s Black Diaries the authenticity of which were still questioned by Angus Mitchel(6) the Irish government’s sponsored historian. Professor O’Siochain’s work originating from one of the most prestigious Catholic colleges in Ireland at Maynooth has unwittingly superseded Mitchell’s official view. Professor O’Siochain describes himself as a ‘traditional scholar’ that is someone who does not practice forms of academic post-structuralism or postmodernism.(7)
A Post-structuralist Casement?
[Today there is] the more profound danger of a warping and closing down of intellectual horizons, the establishment of a narrow and overwhelming paradigm of what counts as knowledge. T J Clark Art Historian on the role of the University 2007(8)According to one time post-structuralist Terry Eagleton, the now obvious need for Critical Theorists to stabilize their academic positions and work within the context of current conservative social and ideological isolation, has seriously affected the ability of Critical Theorists to provide radical interpretations of the past and represent cultural and political disputes.(9) The main problem recently has been Discourse Theory where, following Foucault a discourse is considered as an account of the established writing practices of the day or ‘moment’ when the actions or writing took place. The results of this approach vary according to the degree of activism on the part of the theorist. Among the handful of writers that have attempted to explain Casement’s work in terms of Discourse Theory are Michael Taussig(10) and Leslie Wylie(11). The first in terms of Casement’s writing and the second in terms of Casement’s writing and image production.
Michael Taussig’s Approach
In the paper ‘Culture of Terror – Space of Death, Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Terror’(12) the anthropologist Michael Taussig begins his examination of Casement’s work as a human rights pioneer. This he later expanded in a bookform.(13) In this second work Taussig begins by giving an account of how the regions of the Amazon rain forest were written about and how these accounts were influenced by the traditional ideas of civilization versus barbarism. He tells how a number of authors and their audiences were seduced by the ‘romantic’ and gothic nature of these novel and travel narratives and the atmosphere created by stories of supposedly local barbarous rituals. He then expands this in his book to accounts of how these rituals were then later written up as part of the story of colonial terror the one re-enforcing and justifying the other. Taussig in both works tells us how Casement’s report(s) differed from other writing about the operation of imperialism:
Conrad’s way of dealing with the terror of the rubber boom in the Congo was [his novel] Heart of Darkness. There were three realities there, comments Frederick Karl: King Leopold’s, made out of intricate disguises and deceptions; Roger Casement’s studied realism; and Conrad’s which, to quote Karl. Fell midway between the other two, as he attempted to penetrate the veil and yet was anxious to retain its hallucinatory quality. (see below for works cited for full citation history)(14)However Karl’s description of Casement’s “studied realism”15is not the purpose of Taussig’s work. Expanding his argument in his book Taussig later condemns Casement’s report: “Yet the consul-general [Casement] had his job to do and that was to write a report that made sense to Sir Edward Grey and, through him, Parliament and public opinion.”(15) Taussig quoting the letter to Alice Stopford Green, which Casement wrote some four years after the publication of his report of 1903 in which Casement mentions his connection with Leopold’s victims:
I realised then that I was looking at this tragedy with the eyes of another race - of a people once hunted themselves, whose hearts were based on affection as the root principle of contact with their fellow men and whose estimate of life was not of some thing eternally to be appraised at its market ‘price’. Casement, Letter to Alice Stopford Green 20th April 1907.(16)Taussig then follows this admirable observation and upbraids Casement, “But it was into the official common sense of political economy that the author [Casement], willy-nilly, [sic] had to squeeze reality,” Taussig goes on, “so much sense-making was made dependent on market rationality to produce the following argument: It was not rubber but labour that was scarce in the Putumayo (the subject of Casements second human rights report). This scarcity was the basic cause of the terror.” Taussig continues, “even in blaming the market, it’s mode of appropriating reality and creating intelligibility was upheld.”(17) Thus Casement’s “studied realism” is summarily dismissed as part of the problem not part of the solution. Switching haphazardly as it does between descriptions of Casement’s Congo Report and Casement’s Putumayo Report Taussig’s account sees both documents as examples of the same thing: attempts to “rationalize” the terror that the indigenous people were subjected to.
Quoting Casement’s own words about the Putumayo where in by destroying their worker-slaves the station masters, “had lost sight of rubber-gathering – were beasts of prey who lived upon the Indians and delighted in shedding their blood” Taussig concludes: “To claim the rationality of business for this is unwittingly to claim and sustain an illusory rationality, obscuring our understanding of the way business can transform terror from a means to and end in itself.” No matter that it is Taussig that is making the claim here that the rationality of the terror is “illusory” not Casement, we shall let Taussig continue, “this sort of rationality is hallucinatory, like the veil that Conrad and Casement faced earlier in the Congo, as Frederick Karl points out, Conrad abandoned the realism practiced by Casement for a technique that worked through the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality”,(18) fond as he is of this type of switch back logic – the torturous logicof the Möbius strip – it is of course Taussig and not Casement that has abandoned “studied realism” but this needs some explaining and unraveling first in terms of the preset objectives of Taussig’s approach and to answer the charges that Taussig makes against Casement.
The General Direction of Michael Taussig’s Argument
Taussig weaves various accounts into a discursive tapestry to illustrate the horror and terror of imperialism. This grim and murderous panorama is then rejected in favor of the second part of Taussig’s book, which is entitled ‘healing’ his account of traditional healers of the Putumayo region. The implication being that although Casement had intended his reports on Leopold and the rubber company’s Putumayo regimes to end their reign of terror, Taussig places Casement’s Report as part of the discourse of terror. Indeed he collectively characterizes all the writing associated with this whole period of murderous imperialism as one of general “epistemic murk”. I shall deal with the specific charges Taussig lays against Casement below, as for Casement’s relationship to “epistemic murk”, Taussig’s method of approach has its role to play here as his account of Casements Report(s) begins with Karl’s comment (see above) which makes a clear distinction between the different modes of writing saying clearly that Conrad’s approach was “hallucinatory” and Casement’s was one of “studied realism”. One could begin by saying that Taussig like most Critical Theorists here as followers of Foucault have problems with traditional understanding of ‘realism’, in any case, it is this description of Karl’s of Casement’s realism that Taussig’s accepts he must struggle against. Reaching the end of the section on terror in his book, Taussig has simply reversed Karl’s judgment - now it is Casement’s writing that is “hallucinatory” and therefore invalid. In what follows I will attempt to show why Casement cannot and should not be framed by this approach.
Casement acknowledges that the rubber gathering was a pretext for terror but that the economic imperative to gather the rubber was the primary cause. If the historian takes Taussig advice and removes any semblance of a political or economic ‘cause’ or pretext, then history itself disappears into the subjective vortex of terror - something that was experienced by many including Casement himself as Taussig notes but completely rejects Casement’s purpose and determination in ending the illusion of the totality of the terror. But for Taussig the idea of terror has a specific value in itself something all pervasive and inescapable – yet another analogue of Michel Foucault’s rather tedious fetish of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon - a place of systemic omniscience - one of total surveillance and power over its prisoners.
Taussig Contra Lukacs
Although he does note how Casement’s work and judgments were of significance Taussig, contra Lukacs, places a wholly negative power-value on the fact that Casement was acting and writing officially. What Lukacs meant by history becoming, “fossilised in a formalism incapable of comprehending that the real nature of socio-historical institutions is that they consist of relations between men” is that meaning and history does not dwell in formalized discourse but must be seen as part of wider social action and political consciousness. Following the later Foucault and his work with prisoners Taussig introduces the history of writing and discourse about the Putumayo region as something to be rejected in favor of his own ‘practice’, which in Taussig’s case is to describe the work of the Amazon’s shamans, which he then does in a professional capacity. Having rejected previous institutional and traditional discourses he appears to be objective. Industrious as he is in structuring his argument - first as an opposition between Historical Terror/Modern Healing Taussig then proceeds to deconstruct this opposition and shows that however strong the need and robust the indigenous people were and are in finding for a way out of or to transcend their disabling history Taussig following poststructuralist precepts then reprises his master concept of “epistemic murk” as value in itself not surprisingly the state of knowledge and information about the Putumayo following this operation is rendered incommensurable:
..[T]he domain of chance foregrounds the epistemic murk of sorcery where contradiction and ambiguity undermine [Gods] steadfastness in a weltering of signs crackling the divine and the natural apart from one another and into images from which what Barthes called the third or obtuse meaning erupts into play. [he begins quoting Barthes] “I even accept for the obtuse meaning the word’s pejorative connotation.He then appends the following extended quote from Barthes:
the obtuse meaning appears to extend outside culture, knowledge, information; analytically it has something derisory about it: opening out into the infinity of language, it can come through as limited in the eyes of analytic reason; it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery, unless expenditure. Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories (the trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of the carnival.Thus Taussig concludes, “It is this it seems to me, that shaman and patient jointly create in the space of death”.(20)
What Taussig is indicating indirectly here is the very real need for the indigenous people to transcend their history so that they might change the ‘space of death’ into a space in which they can claim back their lives – lives worthy of their own place in the world. Barthes ideas and notion of ‘play’ is more redolent of the effect of modernity on Barthes own intellectual trajectory (and its attendant crisis) than the strategies of the victims of modernity. Taussig foregrounding of Barthes here deflects from the value the indigenous peoples hope then and now claim for themselves (I will discuss this problem more directly in Part Three).
The result here is that the “the veil” of the Putumayo remains impenetrable not least due to the inappropriate theoretical layers applied by Taussig which makes his work akin to the Dance of the three hundred veils - in reverse, where everything is left up to Taussig’s poststructuralized imagination.
Casement’s First Human Rights Report – The Congo 1903
Argumentation and Context
Taussig bases his rejection of Casement’s “studied realism” on Casement’s understanding of the Congo’s economy. It is therefore worth examining historically the context of Casement’s reports and the argumentation that Casement employs. The Congo Free State had been set up by an international conference at Berlin in 1884, which agreed to place the region under the personal control of Leopold II King of the Belgians. Leopold agreed that the purpose of the state was to ‘suppress slavery’ and establish ‘free trade’. The concept of ‘free trade’ it is worth noting had had a radical appeal in England connected as it was to the repeal of the Corn Laws and the establishment of the Manchester School of political economy and ideas of democratic representation and social welfare (Manchester has remained a centre of municipal socialism for over 100 years). By the end of the 19th century it is generally understood as a positive term and therefore open to abuse. In the African context the term ‘free trade’ was understood to mean that the general population would benefit by trading with the various foreign trading missions then present on the continent. Casement’s report examined the purpose of Leopold’s state in detail: “Free Trade” and the “suppression of slavery” and concluded that there was little are no ‘free trade’ in the Congo. If the purpose of the state was not ‘free trade’ what was it? Casement is unambiguous: it was murderous terror motivated by the supreme greed of one man – Leopold. However, Casement’s Report does not as Taussig implies just consist of the economic analysis of the non existence of free trade what he does do is devote the second part of the report to witness accounts of Leopold’s atrocities implying the opposite: that there was simply capital accumulation driven by industrialized state barbarism:
During this period [1893-1901] the Congo State commenced the system of compelling the natives to collect rubber, and insisted that the inhabitants of the district not go out of it to sell their produce to traders. Rev. J. Clark Casement Congo Report 3rd Enclosure.(21)As Free trade was suppressed the witness continues to explain that the decline and the decimation of local the population had two causes first due to “the demands made for rubber” made by Leopold’s regime occasioning the natives to leave the state and become refugees in nearby French controlled Congo, but secondly and more importantly:
“War”, in which women and children were killed as well as men. Women and children were killed not in all cases by stray bullets, but were taken as prisoners and killed I have seen their bodies and know the circumstances of their death. Statement from Rev J. Clark from the 3rd enclosure to Casement’s Report.(22)This, and other such accounts, are what the report largely consists of – a documentary history of Leopold’s state and the crimes that had been committed under his authority. Casement’s own contribution was to record, witness and counter sign individual statements to him personally of evidence of the continuation of the brutality – for example, his enquiry into who had cut off the boy Epondo’s hand:
A copy of the statement under my hand and seal left with Commandant Stevens, second in command of Coquilhatville, on 10th September, 1903, when Epondo charged Kelengo with the crime, and I requested the latter’s immediate arrest. Signed Roger Casement. From Casement’s Report ‘Note’ on The Cutting off of The Boy Epondo’s Hand(23)Taussig’s approach informed as it is by the tropes of Foucaultdian methodology proceeds without even considering the unique construction and deliberation of Casement’s Report(s) or the actual case he documents. Rushing to judgment, Taussig is quick to frame and damn Casement’s work as something constituted by official economic discourse and constructed by official rationality and for the Foreign Office and Parliament. Taussig cannot logically follow through on this charge, for in alleging that Casement’s approach was not up to the job, Taussig does not even attempt to show how Casement report was a political failure. Taussig cannot do this as Casement’s report did achieve its aim: by politically stopping Leopold. Taussig also does not draw any conclusions on Casement extra-parliamentary action on the problems that his Report gave the Foreign Office as written. The British Foreign Office aware that France and Belgium were about to become Britain’s allies were too ready to accept Leopold’s officials explanations of what had happened in the Congo as Brian Inglis points out:
The other issue about which the Foreign Office was nervous was mutilation. By confronting the [Leopold’s] Free State authorities with the boy Epondo and denouncing the practice to [Leopold’s] Governor-general, Casement had given advance notice that was to be one of his lines of attack. Brian Inglis Roger Casement.(24)Thus forewarned the Belgian press claimed that the practice of cutting off of hands was a previous custom of slavers, something that the Foreign Office were prepared to accept but as Inglis points out:
Casement was able to secure confirmation of his own recollection – that neither the tribes nor slavers had used mutilation as a punishment – from Ward, from Conrad, and from missionaries who had been out in the Congo at the same time as Stanley’s men.(25)These are just some of the details and issues that Taussig does not give a full and fair account of – not least the political campaigning that Casement thought necessary to secure the authority of his judgments against the Foreign Office and Leopold’s propaganda machine (Casement along with Conrad and Conan Doyle set up the Congo Reform Association in 1903 to pressurize the Belgian government into sacking Leopold as head of the Congo Free State).
The truth about Casement’s Report(s) are that they in fact do not belong to any official traditional established procedure or discourse save perhaps one: the official factory reports that Marx consulted as part of his research into the social conditions of the working class. Marx famously praises the Factory Inspectors for their work in recording the horror of industrial capitalism such as women trying to persuade Mill owners to allow their disabled children to work so that they could have a means of support. To paraphrase Belfast historian John Grey recently, “to collect such accounts and not be affected by them assumes that all official legal language and their producers were incapable of humanity.” And as the philosopher Gillian Rose has pointed out the doctrinaire trope of post-structuralism to reject the idea of “humanism” continually distorts the historical reality of modern political struggles to legally challenge authority and establish concepts of the rights of the oppressed. For if Foucault and Taussig are right about the discourse of modern society, then legal concepts of Civil Rights are nonsense. What Casement’s work essentially amounted to was a prosecutor’s brief, a legal case that documented evidence and outlines charges that can be put to those who were liable. Indeed the very concept of the legal liability for an atrocity was entirely new and stems from Casement’s work.
In Part Two I will look in more detail at Casement's second human rights report of 1910 into the rubber gathering of the Putumayo and how the inherent conservatism of current poststructuralist approaches can end up doing the Conservative and Revisionists work for them.
In Part three I will report and comment
on the recent special meeting at New University of Ireland at Maynooth
called to explore recent writings on
1. George Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness
Trans R. Livingstone Merlin (1971) Edition P. 48
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