Black days on the Putamayo

 

In 1910, at the request of the British Foreign Office, Roger Casement journeyed to the Putumayo River on the border between Brazil and Peru to investigate allegations of atrocities carried out by the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company against the local Indian population. His account of his travels charts the grim story of violence, cruelty and exploitation which Casement gradually uncovered.He had helped to reveal the brutality of Leopold II's administration of the Congo but he thought that the Putumayo "far exceeds in depravity and demoralisation the Congo regime at its worst". As Casement's investigations neared their end, there was a palpable atmosphere of menace and fear in his journal; witnesses were reluctant to talk while the Company's agents and spies were closely watching Casement.The Peruvian government was also deeply suspicious that the British were using humanitarian issues as a brake on Peruvian commerce at a time when British investment was switching from wild Amazon rubber to Asian plantation rubber. Casement's Amazon journal, as editor Angus Mitchell observes, is a major primary source not only for the history of the Amazon and for US and British foreign policy in South America, but also for the history of the humanitarian movement.Unfortunately, these aspects of the journal have already been subsumed in the wider controversy over Casement's diaries.

Considering how enduring this controversy has been, it is remarkable that we have had to wait until now for a scholarly text of even one of the disputed journals, although they have been in the public domain for a long time.For this edition Angus Mitchell has meticulously examined the various texts and documents for Casement's 1910 journey which exist in Irish and British archives. Mitchell himself lives in Brazil and his access to important local sources there, as well as his knowledge of the area where Casement travelled, sheds valuable new light on this period of Casement's life.

Mitchell's edition of the journal is largely based on Casement's manuscript Putumayo journal and other diary fragments in the National Library of Ireland, and on Casement's contemporary letters and reports to the British Foreign Office. Mitchell's scrupulous analysis of these texts reveals major omissions and discrepancies, at least twenty-four for the five-month period covered by the journal, between these documents, whose authenticity is not disputed, and the allegedly contemporaneous "Black Diary" for 1910, now available at the Public Record Office in London. There are also serious inconsistencies in style and handwriting. Among the discrepancies are the evidence of Casement's eye troubles which affected his diary keeping, and the omission of important conversations from the Black Diary.The Black Diary is unconvincing in other key areas which are highlighted by Mitchell's research.It portrays Casement as a sexual predator prowling the Amazon river ports but, as Mitchell notes, not a single witness to Casement's sexual activities on the Amazon ever emerged. With agents of the Peruvian government and the rubber company watching Casement's movements like hawks, waiting for the slightest slip-up in those last tense weeks so graphically described in the journal, sexual adventuring on the scale described in the 1910 Black Diary looks distinctly improbable.Mitchell also thinks it highly unlikely that Casement, who stayed at various times with representatives of the rubber company during his journey, would have kept such a compromising document among his belongings. Mitchell's publishers have put excerpts from the Black Diary and from this edition on their website so that readers can compare them. It is to be hoped that similar scholarly editions of the remaining diaries, and the release of files still closed in London, will help to resolve a controversy that has gone on for too long. Deirdre McMahon lectures at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.