Sex, lies and the Black Diaries
In this extract from his new book, Colm Tóibín argues that Roger Casement deserves our admiration for the passion and erotic complexity revealed in the Black Diaries, and that his homosexuality may have made him a great humanitarian
"He could tell you things! Things I have tried to forget, things I never did know. He had as many years of Africa as I had months . . . He was a good companion: but already in Africa I judged that he was a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all. I don't mean stupid. I meant that he was all emotion. By emotional force he made his way, and sheer emotionalism has undone him. A creature of sheer temperament - a truly tragic personality: all but the greatness of which he had not a trace. Only vanity. But in the Congo it was not visible yet."
- Joseph Conrad on Roger Casement
Roger Casement was born in Ireland in 1864, of a prosperous Protestant family. He was brought up mainly in Northern Ireland. At the age of 20 he went to Africa, where he worked with various commercial interests in the Congo and then in what later became Nigeria. Subsequently, he found employment in the British Consular Service and in 1900 returned to the Congo, part of which was under the direct control of Leopold II, King of the Belgians. He began to investigate allegations of brutality in the region; his work was thorough and conscientious, and he was personally responsible for the decision of the Foreign Office to undertake a serious investigation of what was happening in the Congo.
In 1906 Casement began to work in the British Consular Service in South America: in Santos, Rio de Janeiro and then in Pará at the mouth of the Amazon. In 1910 he investigated allegations of atrocities against the Amazon Indians. He was knighted for his work. By the time he resigned from Consular Service in 1913, he had become a fervent Irish nationalist; and on his return to Ireland he was made treasurer of the Irish Volunteers. He was a glittering prize for the new movement: a Protestant, a knight, an internationally-known humanitarian and imperialist. He worked for the Irish cause in the the United States and Germany, raising funds in the United States and trying to start an Irish Brigade with prisoners of war in Germany. He landed from Germany, after much adventure, on the coast of Co Kerry on Good Friday 1916 in a German submarine, but the guns which were to come as well failed to arrive. He was captured and taken to London, where he was charged with treason. He was found guilty.
Although there is a large collection of Casement documents in the National Library in Dublin (and other items which he brought back from Africa and South America - including costumes and a butterfly collection - in the National Museum and the Natural History Museum), his diaries remain in England. They were seen by Michael Collins and Eamon Duggan during the 1921 Treaty negotiations. In the early 1930s Duggan wrote: "Michael Collins and I saw the Casement Diary by arrangement with Lord Birkenhead. We read it. I did not know Casement's handwriting. Collins did. He said it was his. The diary was in two parts - bound volumes - repeating ad nauseum details of sex perversion - of the personal appearance and beauty of native boys - with special reference to a certain portion of their anatomy. It was disgusting."
The Black Diaries first became available in 1959. The Black Diaries: An Account of Roger Casement's Life and Times, with a Collection of His Diaries and Public Writings, by Peter Singleton-Gates and Maurice Girodias, published by Grove Press in New York and the Olympia Press in Paris, was an extraordinary book. It included potted histories of Ireland, the Congo and the Putumayo in the Amazon basin, an account of Casement's life and death, his report on the Congo, his report on the Putumayo, his diary from the Congo in 1903 and his diary from the Putumayo in 1910. The diary entries were placed facing the reports, so that on the left-hand page you got clear, factual statements about brutality, and accounts of Casement's investigations often laced with his indignation, and on the right-hand page you got cryptic notes, times, money spent, meetings registered, the weather, news, opinions.
These notes included the following as Casement's ship made various stops on the way to the Congo: references to Agostinho, 17½, ("Agostinho kissed many times", on 13 March), to X ("not shaved, about 21 or 22"), to Pepe ("17, bought cigarettes"). The very first entry of the diary for 1910, 13 January, Thursday, opened: "Gabriel Ramos - X Deep to hilt" and ended "in very deep thrusts". The next entry simply said: "Veldemiro - $20". On 2 March he was in São Paulo: "Breathed & quick enormous push. Loved mightily. To Hilt Deep X." By 12 March he was in Buenos Aires: "Splendid erections. Ramon 7$000 \ 10" at least. X In." Like many Edwardian men of his class he was, or at least these diaries say that he was, having a whale of a time. The above entries are merely a very small sample.
We are asked to believe by those who say that these diaries were not forged that Casement kept two diaries during his long trips to the Congo and the Putumayo: one long and detailed for public consumption, and also for his own later use when he came to write his reports (the White Diaries), the other short and private, less than 150 words per day (the Black Diaries). This seems to me eminently possible. It would also seem probable that there would be odd inconsistencies between the two diaries: different spellings of names - Casement was not good at spelling names; a few items appearing on the wrong day; some items in one diary not being mentioned in the other at all; a different tone.
On the Putumayo trip, when Casement's eyes began to trouble him, he wrote in pencil and his handwriting deteriorated, but this only happened in the White Diary, the Black Diary was written in pen and the writing did not deteriorate. This can be explained, maybe, by the fact that work on the Black Diaries took only a few minutes, whereas work on the White Diaries was a strain. On the other hand, if I were a forger working on the Black Diaries, using the White Diaries for directions, I would have moved into pencil too, and made the hand-writing deteriorate. The fact that the inconsistency remained suggests that no forger was involved.
To decide to leave the discrepancy you would have to be a very clever and confident forger; but it is clear that if the Black Diaries were forged, then the forger was very clever indeed - a genius. Because there is not one howler in the Black Diaries, there is no entry which could have been placed there only because a forger absolutely and clearly misunderstood a passage in the White Diaries. Although there are discrepancies which come close to being howlers, there is no moment in the Black Diaries which settles the argument either way.
A possible forger, then, had the White Diaries to use, so he or she knew where Casement was every day, what he was doing and thinking.
The Black Diaries would therefore have been easy to forge. It would have taken patience - there are weeks on end in the 1903 and the 1910 Black Diary where there is no mention of sex (the 1911 Black Diary is, I understand, a different matter, but this has not been published) and this either convinces us that they are not forged because a forger would have put sex on every page to serve his darker purpose, or that they are, in fact, forged since a good forger would have known the correct balance between sex and context.
Whether forged or not, the diaries sealed Casement's fate. Sixteen days before Casement's execution, the Cabinet was presented with two memoranda by the legal adviser to the Home Office: "Casement's diaries and his ledger entries, covering many pages of closely typed matter, show that he has for years been addicted to the grossest sodomitical practices. Of late years he seems to have completed the full cycle of sexual degeneracy and from a pervert has become an invert - a woman or pathicwho derives his satisfaction from attracting men and inducing them to use him." The second memorandum ended: "So far as I can judge, it would be far wiser from every point of view to allow the law to take its course and, by judicious means, to use these diaries to prevent Casement attaining martyrdom."
The obvious implication of the first memorandum was that instead of Casement fucking the Africans and the Amazon Indians they had begun to fuck him. The British Cabinet at the time would have realised that this was not in keeping with the aims of the Empire. In any case, they agreed that he should be hanged.
In the weeks before his execution the diaries were used to prevent a reprieve; they were shown to prominent public figures and seriously damaged Casement's reputation and legacy. Now, 80 years later, they are still surrounded by controversy. The two books which have added most fuel to the current debate came out in 1996. Both were written by Englishmen who begged to differ about whether the diaries were forged or not. However, both agreed on the damage the Black Diaries have done.
Roger Sawyer, who has edited the 1910 Black and White Diaries, believes that much of the sexual detail "may be disillusioning to admirers of Casement's humanitarian work"; Angus Mitchell, who has edited Casement's Amazon Journal, believes also that the Black Diaries "have poisoned the reputation of Casement" anddo not "serve the gay community or merit a place in 20th-century homosexual literature".
There is nothing quite like two Englishmen taking a high moral tone. Let us pretend that the Black Diaries were not forged. What emerges from Casement's writing about the Congo and the Putumayo is the extent to which he felt for people, men, women and children, how appalled he was by the plight of each individual he came across, how he hated those who made others suffer.
He loved the people of the Congo and the Amazon Indians. During the day he took notes and statements and worked out a strategy to get the British Government on his side so that he could help them, and when night fell (or even sometimes during the day), he wanted to fondle them and make love with them in a way which would give him most pleasure. Since he was gay, he did it with blokes. One presumes that some of them took pleasure in it too - maybe even some of the ones he paid. On the other hand, having it off with a large, bearded man from Northern Ireland might not have been to everyone's taste.
And more. Perhaps it was his very homosexuality, and his deep interest in "a certain portion of their anatomy", to quote Eamon Duggan, which made him into the humanitarian he was, made him so appalled. Unlike everyone around him, he took nothing for granted. His moral courage came perhaps from his understanding of what it meant to be despised. He is, pace Sawyer and Mitchell, a gay hero. The Black Diaries should be published in full so that everyone's prejudices can have a great big outing. I admire Casement more because of his Diaries. I admire the quality of his desire, his passion, his erotic complexity, his openness, his doubleness, his sexual energy.
Angus Mitchell is right, however, when he emphasises that what Casement saw was serious and important and should be remembered. The controversy surrounding the Congo and the Putumayo in the years of Casement's investigation had the same source: rubber. It was pure gold for the companies which traded in it. Casement proved that the local people were enslaved, were constantly flogged and tortured, were even murdered, and that in many cases British companies and capital were involved.
His accounts are explicit and convincing and shocking, and because Angus Mitchell's edition of the Amazon Journal has no reference to Casement's sexual activities, we are allowed to focus on a disgraceful episode in colonial history which has considerable relevance to what is happening in the Amazon basin and the Congo now.
Casement's involvement in the 1916 Rebellion was disastrous and quixotic. Slowly, in the months after the Rising, the British realised that executing Irish nationalists was counter-productive. But they still wanted to hang Casement. After they hanged him, they had a doctor examine him, who said that he had "found unmistakable evidence of the practices to which it was alleged the prisoner in question had been addicted".
In all the images we have of Anglo-Irish relations over the centuries, perhaps this one is the saddest and the most stark: a prison doctor examining Casement's arsehole a short time after he had been hanged, on the orders of the British Government.
It is important for us to know whether the diaries were forged or not, even if it is clear, and agreed by all, to what use they were put in the time between Casement's sentence and his execution.
It is unlikely that the argument will end in the near future, especially since those who believe the diaries were forged remain passionate and committed to proving their case. It seems to me that both as a humanitarian and a gay martyr Roger Casement remains our contemporary. While his bones were laid to rest in Glasnevin in 1965, returned at the request of the Irish government, it is likely that his legacy will remain turbulent and open to debate.
Extracted from Love In A Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar by Colm Tóibín is published by Picador on March 22nd, at £16.99 sterling. © Colm Tóibin 2001