Although perhaps remembered most in Britain as one of the sixteen Irish rebel leaders to be executed in following the Easter Rising in 1916, Roger Casement was a pivotal figure in the history of the Congo Free State. In 1884, when he was nineteen, Casement joined the African International Association (AIA), an organization established by Leopold II, King of the Belgians, to colonize the Congo. Three years later Casement left the AIA, but stayed around in the Congo until 1891 doing various jobs. In 1887, he briefly joined the famous African explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, on his ill-fated Emin Pasha Relief Expedition.
In 1890, Casement happened to share a room with a young Joseph Conrad in Matadi. Hochschild also suggests that while in the Congo, Casement met Guillaume Van Kerckhoven, a vicious Belgian Force Publique officer, and possibly the prototype for Conrad’s most infamous character, Mr. Kurtz.
Two years later, Casement would begin working for the British Foreign Office in British West Africa, where for nearly ten years he carried out consular duties and conducted intelligence work for the government. By 1903 the British government had become aware of reports of human rights violations in the Congo Free State and felt pressured enough to act. Casement was sent back to the Congo to investigate, where he collected evidence from victims and perpetrators of atrocities for nearly a year. Casement discovered that during the “Rubber Terror” Congolese natives were forced by Force Publique soldiers to harvest huge quantities of wild rubber. Thousands were worked or beaten to death, shot, and maimed; although estimates vary, an estimate from 1919 claimed that 10 million, or half of the Congolese population, had been wiped out. In his diary from 1903, Casement writes in one village, “August 30: 16 men women and children tied up from a village Mboye close to the town. Infamous. The men were put in the prison, the children let go at my intervention. Infamous. Infamous, shameful system.”
In January 1904, Casement’s official report, the first to have the legitimate backing of the British government, was published. To ensure its publication, Casement had contacted various people involved in the Congo reform movement, including Conrad. Casement became a key member of the movement, writing letters, raising money, and helping to lobby members of Parliament. In 1910, Casement was sent to Brazil, to investigate more reports of atrocities, this time committed against the Putumayo Indians. Like in the Congo, Casement again found himself documenting abuses inflicted on a native people forced to collect rubber for a greedy European company. In 1911, Casement was knighted for his services in Brazil and Congo.
Two years later, Casement resigned from the Foreign Office to help agitate for Irish Home Rule. Casement traveled around Ireland, speaking at meetings, and helping to recruit for the Irish Volunteers, which in 1919 would become the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Shortly before WWI began, Casement left for the United States to raise money for the movement. Using a false passport, Casement traveled to Germany, where he hoped to buy weapons and recruit from Irish POWs. On April 21, 1916, Casement was arrested a few hours after he had been dropped off the coast of Ireland by a German U-boat. Casement was charged with high treason and stripped of his knighthood; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle contributed money to his defense and George Bernard Shaw drafted a speech for Casement, and thousands offered their support. Despite pleas for clemency, Casement was hanged August 3, 1916.
Burroughs, Robert. “Imperial Eyes or ‘The Eyes of Another Race’? Roger Casement’s Travels in West Africa.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 37, no. 3 (September 2009): 383-397.
Hawkins, Hunt. “Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and the Congo Reform Movement.” Journal of Modern Literature 9, no. 1 (1981/1982): 65-80.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. New York: First Mariner Books, 1998.
Mitchell, Angus. “New Light on the ‘Heart of Darkness.’” History Today 49, no. 12 (December 1999): 20-27.