Freedom and flowers blossom under Roger Casement’s gentle care

The revolutionary hero was executed by the same empire that once knighted him, writes Fiann Ó Nualláin.

Freedom and flowers blossom under Roger Casement’s gentle care

One hundred years ago today, the unstoppable revolution was gathering momentum. Many of my childhood heroes were cleaning their guns and polishing their boots, readying for the go.

OK, I know the axle is already groaning under the commemoration bandwagon and while the timing of this article rhymes with the week that’s in it, it is not an attempt to crowbar in a nationalist hero for the sake of it — rather it’s a chance to look at a horticultural hero who happens to also be a national one — Roger Casement.

In 1911, Roger Casement, then a career diplomat and fully immersed in the British empire project, took a deep breath, knelt before the British king, George V, and was knighted for his humanitarian work in the Congo and Peru. Five years later, he would be hanged for treason against that very same king, at London’s Pentonville prison and his naked body would be thrown into an open grave.

A darling of the realm discarded without a shred of decency and a plan put in place to discredit him in Ireland and around the world by leaking details of homosexual activity with black men.

Through the lens of today, we might think “who cares?” — only homophobic racists would be irked — but it worked and Casement’s contribution to Irish liberty and his furthering of republicanism over imperialism was not hailed as loudly as it could have been — more like faltering whispers.

Historians and conspiracy theorist still argue over whether or not Casement was homosexual and even Ireland’s gay community has not claimed him as an inspirational figure.

A hundred years later, and he is still mostly left in the shadows in his own country. I recently meet up with some Peruvian friends, (as you may have guessed from last week’s article), and one reminded me that Mario Varga Llosa, a Peruvian Nobel laureate, wrote a novel based on Casement’s life called El Sueño del Celta (The Dream of the Celt).

It will be interesting, as this year unfolds, to see how we will or won’t celebrate Casement. It would be great to see an exhibition in the national botanic gardens.

The Dublin-born man was orphaned in his pre-teens and sent to live with his uncle in Co Antrim. After leaving school, he moved to Liverpool to take up a job in the civil service. By 1895, he was appointed to consular roles at various locations across Africa.

One such place was the Congo — then ruled by Britain’s colonial rival, Belgium. The Congo was at that time a big player in the rubber trade and the manner in which the local populations were coerced into harvesting the rubber — low wage, no wage, and chained-up slave labour — was all witnessed by Casement.

Harvesters were made to smear the rubber tree sap on their bodies to harden while they continued to work and later the peeling off of the solidified latex cause some damage — dermatitis and pigmentation loss the least of it.

Workers who didn’t make their quota were beaten, denied food, and subject to other cruel punishments. Those who didn’t meet the quota the following week might get a hand or foot severed.

Casement chronicled the atrocities and drew up a report which the House of Commons published, putting the spotlight on the infringement of human dignity, never mind human rights, in the rubber industry.

In an industry which was central to the British empire, discrediting Belgium did Casement no harm. He was then commissioned to undertake a report on the rubber industry in the Putumayo basin in Peru.

His activism there set a precedent whereby the British Consulate would intervene on behalf of native peoples and earned Casement international recognition as a humanitarian and the knighthood.

While in the Congo, and later in the Amazon basin, his interest in botany gave him some respite from the horrendous cruelties he witnessed. Over these years, he sent back sample plants to Kew gardens and the botanic gardens in Dublin — those items still in good keeping at both.

He conversed with expert botanists and helped to further an understanding of indigenous plants in the regions his diplomacy brought him to, and he had a role in advancing an understanding of local ethnobotany and economic botany.

But while all this was happening, Casement, drawing on Irish history and the way colonisation damaged Ireland, grew in consciousness of the oppression around the world and found a contempt for all colonial systems — Belgian, Dutch, and British alike.

He came to see his knighthood as support for British colonialism and he retired from diplomacy and began to explore and dedicate himself to the Irish nationalist cause.

He played a role in the setup of the Irish Volunteers, the Abbey, discussion groups, and agitator activities, and was eventually arrested and executed for trying to bring German guns in to Ireland in time for EasterWeek.

Casement is a reminder that 1916 was a fight against colonialism, racism, injustice, and prejudice. But intent is as important as achievement and maybe over the next few years we can finish the job. I’m not saying dig up your guns, I’m saying love your neighbour — and advocate respect.

The touching end of the story is that in 1966, (for the 50th anniversary commemorations), Casement’s body was reclaimed from Britain (where it had remained in that Pentonville pit) and was interned with State honours in the republican plot in Glasnevin.

It’s right next door to the National Botanic Gardens that house his specimens from the Congo to this day.

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