16 Lives: Roger Casement, by Angus Mitchell (O’Brien Press).
This book describes in detail the work of a great humanitarian. It gives a very moving account of his trial and last days, but all told it is far more hagiography than history, and ultimately proves disappointing.
It contains a number of “terminological inexactitudes” and misunderstandings: Churchill’s famous retort to Baldwin, “I shall write ... history” (p. 366) has a double meaning that Mr Mitchell misses. Edward Carson never prosecuted Oscar Wilde (p. 84), and the “parallels” Mr Mitchell sees between Casement’s and “the trial and public humiliation of both Charles Stewart Parnell and Oscar Wilde” (p. 330) are hard to find. Wilde brought his trial and humiliation on himself by his hubris, and it was Parnell’s arrogance that led to his humiliation by his own party after he was cited in a civil divorce court. There is no evidence of British state machinations in either of those cases, unlike in Casement’s.
We find more such inexactitudes: the “letter of sympathy [the Kaiser sent] to Kruger, which aroused fierce reaction in England” was in fact a telegram of congratulations on the defeat of the Jameson Raid “without appealing to the help of friendly powers”, and the reason it aroused reaction was because of its implicit offer of German support for the Boers. Winston Churchill’s “support for the leaders of the Ulster Volunteer Force” will raise the chuckles if not the hackles of historians who know about his support for Home Rule—albeit qualified and conditional—and the physical attack made on him by Loyalists because of his speech to Nationalists in Celtic Park. Perhaps Mr Mitchell was thinking of Sir Winston’s long-dead father?
Perhaps, too, concerns other than historical exactitude may exercise Mr Mitchell. His presentation of Carson as persecutor of another Irishman may constitute deliberate “poisoning of the well”; later an “associative fallacy” implies that somehow Carson was engaged in the Crown’s prosecution of Casement. Indeed every well from which any of Casement’s opponents might drink is subtly poisoned. That IPP members refused to condemn the King of the Belgians on religious grounds may well be right; but did all of them do so? And why no end-noted source for this claim? Mention of “Britain’s lucrative slave trade” in the eighteenth century has no more relevance to Casement’s concerns with humanitarian horrors in the twentieth-century Belgian Congo than the fact that Leopold II was “a first cousin of Queen Victoria”. Such nugatory sly remarks evoke an intelligent reader’s distrust of their author.
It is not at all clear why the Putamayo atrocities would destroy Casement’s “beliefs in the ‘civilising’ potential of the British Empire”. Putamayo was far from any British colony, and run by South Americans. The Peruvian Amazon Company was registered in London, and British venture capitalism had recently been invested in it, but how many investors know where their money goes? Even if they did, they could not have known the conditions in Putamayo until Casement exposed them; and the result of that exposure was a British parliamentary investigation that led to tightening of anti-slavery legislation across the Empire. A rather civilising measure, any reader might be excused for thinking.
Two pages after making this odd assertion (of the alleged destruction of Casement’s beliefs), Mr Mitchell acknowledges the advocacy of the British ambassador in Washington’s efforts to “apply pressure on the Peruvian government” to end the abuses (p. 148); and elsewhere (p. 110), he quotes Casement’s “appeal to the humanity of England” to end the Congo atrocities.
Given many and various inconsistencies and contradictions, it becomes hard not to suspect that Mr Mitchell is using the life of an admirable man to advance some agenda of his own. My own reading of Casement’s work is regrettably quite limited, but I find nothing to support the notion that he was an “internationalist” in the sense that Mr Mitchell imputes; rather, internationalism of such a flavour would have been at odds with the views of Advanced Nationalists. If Casement perceived an independent Ireland better served by links with Continental Europe than with Britain, he did so on different ideological grounds than Mr Mitchell’s: “early Europe was very largely Celtic Europe, and nowhere can we trace the continuous influence of Celtic culture and idealism, coming down to us from a remote past, save in Ireland only” (“The Romance of Irish History”). It would seem from this that Casement looked on Ireland as setting a standard for the rest of Europe, not toward the philosophy of a German refugee who had beavered toward the betterment of mankind in the safety of a British library.
Evidence of Casement’s simplistic understanding of history is never harder to find than his biographer’s endorsement of such understanding. Elsewhere (in this same essay) Casement claims: “[Sir Hugh] O’Neill would have driven Elizabeth from Ireland, and a sovereign State would today be the guardian of the freedom of the western seas for Europe and the world”.
The unromantic facts are that O’Neill was a warlord with no concept of Casement’s Enlightenment values or even nationalism, far less internationalism; that his concern was not for Ireland but personal hegemony of Tyrone, Ulster, or however far his might could reach; that until Elizabeth failed to appoint him Lord President of Ulster Sir Hugh fought with the English against his fellow-Irish and only fought against the English when that better served his personal ambition.
Casement’s misinterpretation of the Nine Years’ War (and his analysis of its counterfactual outcome) reveals both blind hostility to Britain and naïveté. His hostility as an Irish nationalist is of course understandable, but it nevertheless blinded him to modern reality, and Mr Mitchell, rather than applying an historian’s corrective analysis to such naïveté, blandly reports and implicitly would seem to endorse Casement’s views. Indeed he claims that the failure of Britain’s Continental enemies over the centuries was because “they underestimated Ireland’s significance” (p. 218). Defeat in military and naval engagements had rather more to do with things. Those enemies, no less than Britain, were very well aware of Ireland’s value as a “back door”.
Certainly Germany was; and one of the most perturbing mysteries of Casement’s life is his relationship with the Second Reich. In The Crime Against Europe he claims “We must find the motive for England allying herself with France and Russia in an admittedly anti-German ‘understanding’ if we would understand the causes of the present war”; he proceeds from there to “understand” the war in light of the Anglophobia shared by Germans and Advanced Nationalists and elsewhere he claims that “only a German victory could deliver a true balance of power in Europe”. Given that the Reich’s aim was European hegemony, not a balance of power, this is self-evident nonsense.
There is neither need nor room to itemise the mistakes in “understanding” here; but one might expect an historian, in a full-length book, to examine Casement’s beliefs and place them in a context of modern scholarship. Instead, Mr Mitchell just nods along. He claims that “a host of studies ... endorse several of Casement’s opinions and arguments articulated in The Crime Against Europe” (p. 368).
It’s true that in the interwar years of disillusionment some historians did indeed argue that Britain provoked the Great War. The best known was probably the flamboyant Harry Elmer Barnes, long since discredited. Like many others, Barnes was funded by the Zentralstelle zur Erforschung der Kriegschuldfrage, set up by the Weimar Republic to exonerate Germany of responsibility for the late war. Arthur Ponsonby, a colleague of ED Morel, proved a very “useful fool” (to borrow from Lenin); very old Germans may still be high-fiving each other at mention of Falsehood in Wartime. In recent years Niall Ferguson has blamed Britain too (though for different reasons than Casement), but Ferguson is hardly less flamboyant than Barnes, and seems to revel in being a contrarian; and while he has a great deal to offer any student of history, he is way off the mark, his main mark anyway, in The Pity of War.
Mitchell is closer to the mark when he says: “the First World War was a deliberate counter-revolutionary strike by reactionary ruling elements in Europe against democratic trends” (p. 368). Since 1912 the Social Democrats had been the largest party in the Reichstag, and a minor consideration in German war plans was to roll back this democratic “menace” and impose full autocracy on the Reich. However, it is hardly German worries about democracy that Mr Mitchell has in mind with his remark.
Nor was it with German domestic or imperial matters that Casement was concerned. He was aware of the “atrocious conduct of the Germans” in Kamerun (p. 53), and he cannot have been unaware of the far more extensive atrocities in Südwestafrika and Ostafrika. One of the great disappointments in an otherwise-admirable life is his failure to condemn what was deliberate genocide in German colonies. Again acknowledging that my reading of his work is far from comprehensive, he seems not to engage with these horrors at all.
Rather, he claims (in The Crime Against Europe) that “German Militarism ... has not been employed beyond the frontiers of Germany until last year ”. His complaint of “atrocious conduct” in Kamerun directly contradicts this assertion. Was Casement a brazen liar—or did he have a psychological problem, the possibility of which sometimes worried him? (Fear of the family strain of madness is something else that Mr Mitchell fails to address in his biography.) Joseph Conrad’s assessment that Casement was governed by emotion rather than intellect would seem to be shrewder than Mr Mitchell credits (pp. 47-49). Casement’s embitterment by his experiences in Germany, his complaint to his diary in early April 1916 “that Germany tried to incite a revolt ... in Ireland by a paltry gift of second-hand rifles put in the hands of excitable young men”, are inconsistent with his reversion to support for the Reich.
It’s difficult not to conclude that Casement’s refusal to condemn Germany was rooted in sheer Anglophobia. Quite apart from what he attested to in Kamerun, he saw too much of the Rape of Belgium to pretend that it did not happen (“a gruesome sight, and ... a horrible story”), yet his response is downright disquieting: “I feel there may be in this awful lesson to the Belgian people a repayment” for what was done in the Congo (pp. 237-38). In his essay, “The Far-Extended Baleful Power of the Lie”, he rightly denounces the risible Bryce Report, but fails to denounce the war crimes he himself had witnessed; rather, he justifies them.
If he merely sought to equate two wrongs as a right it would be morally bad enough; but Casement, more than any other man, knew that “what was done in the Congo” was not done by the Belgian people, or even in their name, but by a private autocrat who deceived his subjects; the purchasers of his monopolies; private colonial police; and native mercenaries. Absolutely not by the thousands of old men (one over eighty), women and children (one under three weeks) murdered by the Germans.
Instead, Casement justifies the Reich’s invasion of Belgium, violation of a neutral country, breaking of an international treaty, because “[Germany] only asked for a right of way”—as if, to borrow from King Albert, Belgium were merely a road and not a nation; a small nation whose rights Casement, one might expect from his extensive writings previously, ought to have been defending, not whose invasion and rape he was downplaying and excusing.
How could such an otherwise great humanitarian, such an admirable, heroic and self-sacrificing human being, justify such outrages?
One looks in vain for hard questions such as this in Mr Mitchell’s hagiography, far less for satisfactory answers.
Instead Mr Mitchell prefers to prove that “the Black Diaries are indeed forgeries” (pp. 17-18). He abjectly fails. Indeed, he doesn’t even argue his case directly, but at best marshals circumstance and innuendo to constitute an army of “faulty generalisations” to fight his case. Protestations of innocence by obviously vested interests do not constitute persuasive argument. And why does Mr Mitchell so studiously evade examination (even mention) of the scientific analysis he ostensibly sets out to disprove?
No fair-minded historian would argue that Dr Audrey Giles’ analysis of the Black Diaries is beyond criticism; but no critical reader of a book that would dismiss those Diaries as forgery can fail to wonder at the evasion of that book’s author to engage with the Giles analysis; especially an author whose thesis is flatly contradicted by that analysis.
How eloquent can elision be? Mr Mitchell would seem to have set an unenviable standard.
Mr Mitchell’s fixation on the forging of the Black Diaries distracts him from the fact that whether forged or not, it was the unscrupulous use to which the Diaries were put—poisoning any well from which Casement and his supporters could have drawn—that is of far greater import. The British were utterly set on seeing Casement swing, and a strong case can be made that by their use of the Diaries they compromised British justice. This is a more important and disturbing matter than whether the Diaries were forged or not. Mr Mitchell does eventually address this issue, but he might have said more had his focus not been distracted from the outset.
The hanging of such a humanitarian as Roger Casement can be regarded as an outrage even by those who take issue with some of the things he did and the disastrous foolishness of his alignment with the Second Reich. His appeal was badly bungled by his own counsel, but had the Diaries not been deployed by his enemies, his life might have been spared.
16 Lives: Roger Casement is not at all a bad book but it has significant shortcomings, so many that it is surprising to find its publication associated with the University of Limerick. It would never get the imprimatur of a university press in Britain or the USA. It constitutes a blatant endorsement of the “agreed version” of the Irish Revolutionary years, and while there always must be room for anti-revisionism in scholarship, all scholarship must be grounded in the historical method if it is to earn its name.