Book Review: The Devil and Mr Casement by Jordan Goodman

Contributed by Ciarán Wallace

Roger Casement’s life does not fit neatly into one book.  Biographers try to foresee his disputed disgrace and execution in his earlier exploits.  Goodman’s book is especially welcome as it focuses on a single episode in Casement’s career – the campaign to relieve the abuse and exploitation of the tribes in the Putumayo region between Peru and Columbia.

With its themes of international finance, the global commodities market and exploitation of powerless people on one hand, and lobbying by humanitarian activists, pressmen and NGOs on the other, the book feels surprisingly contemporary.  Certainly its main protagonists are men of the modern era.  Julio César Arana, the Devil, was a debonair Peruvian rubber magnate and international businessman. His manipulation of the economy and politics in Peru, and persuasive manner in deflecting Casement’s accusations, would fit him for a directorship in a multinational firm today.  Casement’s conflicted national identity, his struggles with his diplomatic ambitions, and his selfless commitment to human rights make him a sympathetic figure for modern readers.  The plot of this drama, however, was all too real.  Goodman’s choice of photographs illustrates the brutal treatment of the Huitoto Indians.  Whip marks on a child and the cowed faces of the population hint at the routine rape, maiming and murder of resistant or unproductive Indians.  But this book goes deeper than ‘atrocity porn’.

Goodman’s painstaking research reconstructs the travels and paper trails linking businessmen, politicians, diplomats and humanitarians.  While these can be confusingly detailed on occasion, they give weight to his analysis and reveal the complexity of the issues involved.  The rise of the USA as a global power at the start of the twentieth century is evident in Britain anxious respect for the US Monroe Doctrine, in which Washington claimed the sole right of interference in South America.  Also apparent is a growing awareness (or admission) of colonial abuses around the world.  A House of Commons report into the Putumayo case in 1912 noted that forced labour and abuse of the indigenous population were not confined to South America.  At the height of the imperial age the book presents activists, and some administrators, who were critical of the colonial project.

Goodman describes Casement’s evolving nationalist sympathies.  Casement’s description of impoverished typhus sufferers in Connemara as ‘the white Indians of Ireland’ illustrates his inner journey.  Casement asserted that no race could be trusted with power over another, and that only Irishmen and Irishwomen could resolve the typhus outbreak in Co. Galway.  These claims are not pursued.  At this time local councils, with overwhelmingly nationalist membership, had responsibility for fighting contagious disease.  Any failure to tackle typhus in Connemara therefore, could be largely attributed to Irishmen and Irishwomen.  It is significant too that these ‘white Indians’ lived in the remote and Gaelic west, inspiration for so much nationalist mythologizing.  The more familiar, and inconveniently modern, urban poor were regarded less romantically.

Such criticisms should not detract from the importance of this book in highlighting the personal courage of a significant and complex personality in modern Irish history.  For a rising diplomat, concerns with the oppressed in Africa and South America were neither popular nor profitable.  Casement’s dogged pursuit of the facts, and his determination to hunt down the perpetrators, are a testimony to the power of the individual to make a difference.  The book’s subtitle is ‘One man’s struggle for the Human Rights in South America’s Heart of Darkness’, but it also reveals the many individuals and organisations that drove the Putumayo campaign.  It is heartening to realise that even at the zenith of the imperial age activists could use ethical and moral pressure to force governments to act.  Less encouraging is the fact that the debate on policing multinational companies, begun a century ago, continues to perplex legislators today.

Ciarán Wallace has recently completed his PhD at Trinity College Dublin. His thesis is on “Local politics & government in Dublin city and suburbs 1899-1914”, and his research interests include urban history and civil society. You can read an extended version of this review on the Irish Left Review.

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