Gregg Homme
A former British consul who became a revolutionary for Irish independence, Sir Roger Casement was hanged as a traitor in 1916. But Casement's homosexuality also played a significant role in his sentencing and has continued to stir debate through the years.

Casement started out life with conflicted ties to Ireland and England. He was born in 1864 in Ireland - at that time still a British territory - to a Protestant father of the landed gentry and a Catholic mother. But when Casement was orphaned as a young boy, a maternal aunt raised him in Liverpool. Even in his youth in England, he apparently showed interest in the Irish independence movement, avidly reading books about the history of his country and papering his bedroom walls with political cartoons about Irish nationalism.

As a young man, Casement took off for Africa, where he eventually became a British customs director in Niger. Soon after his career in foreign service got under way, his countryman Oscar Wilde was arrested and imprisoned in England for homosexuality - a sensational event that had a deep emotional impact on many gay men of that era. Understandably, Casement guarded his homosexuality while forging a public identity as a conscientious and selfless civil servant, wedded to his job instead of to a woman. His reports from Niger so impressed officials back in England that he was appointed consul to Lorenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa, but he called this a "trifling" position that required him to "listen to a drunken sailor's complaint, or the appeal to my charity of a distressed British subject."
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In 1898, Casement embarked on a more important diplomatic assignment, investigating atrocities committed by Belgian soldiers against African rubber workers in the Congo. In his consular diary, Casement dutifully recorded what he called "the daily agony of an entire people" - whippings, mutilations, and starvation by "the savage soldiery." His work in the Congo earned him acclaim in England and eventually led to his appointment as consul-general of Brazil in 1908, where he uncovered more exploitation - this time of Brazilian Indians by a Peruvian rubber company. Casement's official findings, released in 1912 as the "Putumayo Report," made Britain and other world powers take a hard look at the abuse of colonized people, and Casement was honoured with knighthood. But ironically, his exemplary work soon led to scandal.

Casement documented more than just his consular life in his diary. Included with his daily observations about the torture of native people were specifics about his sexual encounters with "rent boys," stevedores, and sailors - sometimes multiple tricks in one day. Casement occasionally noted only the man's first name and how much he paid for sex, but he also often included explicit details: "Biggest since Lisbon 1904! Perfectly huge"; "Deep screw and to the hilt"; and "Rode gloriously, splendid steed." An occasional quote from Wilde also turned up in the diary's pages. Of course, none of these references ever appeared in Casement's final reports.

His homosexuality might never have come to light had he not begun working for the Irish nationalist cause as a speaker and fundraiser soon after his return from Brazil and his retirement from consular duties in 1912. Casement's shift from public servant to revolutionary probably owed much to his work against colonial exploitation, which had given him a new understanding of the British oppression of the Irish.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Casement actively lobbied the Irish people to support Germany, which had issued a statement in favour of Irish independence and had pledged arms and manpower to the revolutionary cause. But when Casement travelled to Germany to bring back soldiers and rifles, he found that country's support of Ireland little more than a scheme to scare the British. Because Irish rebels were planning a massive uprising that was based on Germany's promised aid - and sure to fail without it - Casement hurried back to try to stop the rebellion. British intelligence learned about his movements, however, and Casement was arrested in Ireland on Good Friday - unable to block the so-called Easter Rebellion of 1916, which ended in defeat for the Irish rebels. (Twenty-six counties of southern, predominantly Catholic, Ireland finally won independence from England in 1921, the rest making up the current Northern Ireland.)

In June 1916 Casement was tried in England and convicted of treason, a crime punishable by death. There was some talk, however, about an appeal based on his record of faithful public service. But before that could happen, Casement's diaries, which British authorities had seized, were made public; the details of his "perversion" shocked the King and Parliament and ended all speculation about a pardon. He was hanged in London on August 3.

That didn't end the saga of Roger Casement, however. For years, many in Ireland insisted that British authorities had forged Casement's "Black Diaries" (they were dubbed that on account of their homoerotic content, while his official journal was called "The White Diaries") in order to discredit him and the Irish nationalist movement. Scholars made entire careers studying and arguing over the diaries, which were published in book form in 1959.

Finally, an analysis of Casement's diaries at Goldsmiths College of the University of London subjected them to handwriting, ultraviolet, and electrostatic tests that confirmed their authenticity and - after 86 years - Casement's own homosexuality.

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books, including The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites.

 

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