Why Roger Casement is still remembered by the people of the Amazon
Casement is famous for his Congo crusade. But ‘Roger’ is also a hero in Colombia, where he investigated atrocities allegedly committed against rubber-gatherers
Roger Casement: wrote humanity back into the narrative of the Putumayo Indians
The first time Fr Brendan Forde said Mass in La Chorrera in southern Colombia, he was introduced as “Padre Brendan from Ireland, Roger’s country”.
The Irish priest from Clontarf has lived in Latin America for more than three decades. He had heard of Roger Casement’s investigations into the atrocities of Belgium rubber plantations in the Congo. But he was unaware of Casement’s work in the Putumayo region of the Amazon and his legacy in this small jungle community.
“Before I went to La Chorrera, I had no idea of the work that Casement had done there,” Forde says. “Like most Irish people, you associate Casement with the Congo and the 1916 Rising. But Casement is still very much held in high regard by the people of the Putumayo region.
“The headmaster of the local school was very excited to meet somebody from Roger’s country,” he says. “You could see it in the way he introduced me to the children. Even though we were talking about events that happened over 100 years ago, he always referred to him as ‘Roger’.”
In 1910, Casement, who would be executed six years later, was sent by the British government deep into the Amazon jungle to investigate alleged atrocities committed by the Peruvian Amazon Company, which collected rubber in the region of the river Putumayo. The Irish-born British diplomat had already achieved recognition for his 1904 report into the enslavement and torture of rubber-gatherers in the Congo.
Today this rainforest region can be found in southern Colombia; in 1910 the nearby borders were highly contested, creating a no man’s land.
"The rubber boom was absolutely defining in what it did to that region of the world,” Angus Mitchell from the University of Limerick tells The Irish Times. “Peru had taken control of the region, largely through occupation and as a result of Arana’s operation in that area.”
The rubber extraction business had been set up in the area at the turn of the century by a Peruvian entrepreneur and politician named Julio César Arana. In September 1910, Casement left the jungle city of Iquitos and travelled upstream to La Chorrera, where he spent nearly two months investigating the mutilation, torture, rape and exploitation of the Putumayo indigenous people.
“When Arana started to exploit extractive rubber in a brutal way, he absolutely decimated the communities there,” says Mitchell. “Casement starts writing humanity back into their narrative. He talks about their physical beauty, their bravery, their courage in the face of this oppressive regime of power.”
Juan Alvaro Echeverri, an anthropologist at the National University of Colombia, writes that the total indigenous population in the Putumayo region was reduced to less than one-tenth between 1900 and 1930.
“The impact of the rubber industry and the Casa Arana regime on the Putumayo Indians was enormous,” he says. “Their social, political and ceremonial organisation was severely shattered, and their territory was depopulated.”
When Fr Forde visited La Chorrera in 2013, the headmaster of the school showed him around the stone building once known as the Casa Arana, the local headquarters of Peruvian Amazon Company. The building was also where Casement conducted some of his interviews with men from Barbados who were brought to the Amazon to work under the predominantly white Peruvians in charge of rubber extraction. These Barbadians employees were used “to help control the Indian population”, Casement wrote in his diaries.
Now a secondary school, the headmaster gave the priest a tour of the aging building while describing the work carried out by “Roger” more than a century before.
“He told me this is where Roger did the testimonies, and then he brought me into a room and said this is where they tortured them,” Forde says. “The way their ancestors were treated, the community are still very aware of it.”
During his time in the region in 1910 and 1911, Casement wrote in his diaries of the appalling treatment of workers in Arana’s rubber company which included floggings, shootings, cases of men being held under the water and half-drowned, and women being raped while in the stocks.
Casement kept a “White” diary during his 1910 trip. In it he recorded his findings from two months of investigations. He also reportedly kept a private “Black” diary, in which he wrote accounts of his homosexual encounters. To this day, opinion remains divided as to whether the Black diaries, which effectively sealed Casement’s fate in 1916, were genuine or forged.
Roger Casement “was not perfect”, Peruvian author and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa told the BBC in 2011. “His life was full of contradictions, and people don’t like contradictory heroes. I think he was a tragic figure. But he should be regarded as a pioneer in the fight against colonialism, racism and prejudice.”
“Casement is very much held in high regard by the people in La Chorrera,” says Fr Forde. “He will always be ‘Roger’ to them.
“The last thing the headmaster said to me when we were saying goodbye was: ‘Why would anybody want to kill someone like Roger?’ They could never understand that.”