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Casement’s quest

The Devil and Mr Casement: One Man's Struggle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness by Jordan Goodman (Verso, 2009). Andy Higginbottom reviews

January 31, 2010
3 min read

The Devil and Mr Casement tells of Roger Casement’s campaign to end the horrific treatment of Huitoto, Andoko and Bora indigenous peoples along the Putumayo river, a remote area nominally in Colombian territory but under de facto Peruvian control.

Jordan Goodman details a system of inhuman extortion and the geography of extraction. The devil of the title is Julio César Arana, a Peruvian trader who established a network of collecting stations run by his agents, who forced local peoples to go into the jungle and bring back wild rubber. The Indians had to carry crushing loads to river posts, from where the rubber was transported downriver to join the Amazon, and on again to Liverpool as a raw material to the motor vehicle boom.

Arana recruited from Barbados a team of black overseers who were obliged to hunt down, beat and kill Indians who failed to meet the required production targets. Arana set up the Peruvian Amazon Company, with a London address, which, together with the fact that the Barbadians were British subjects, allowed an official investigation of reported atrocities, appearing in the British press from 1909 onwards.

Casement, a career consular official of the British empire with a pronounced humanitarian streak, had already shown exceptional qualities in his investigation revealing atrocities in Belgian King Leopold’s private empire in the Congo, also fuelled by rubber profiteering. Goodman brings out how Casement’s Irish sympathies sensitised him to colonial oppression and exploitation. Casement was determined and incredibly resourceful. He persisted against all manner of difficulties to seek out and interview the Barbadians in Putumayo, documenting irrefutably the huge crime against humanity that was taking place.

Casement’s aim was to reconstitute the Peruvian Amazon Company on a reformed basis. He won allies both within the company and the Foreign Office for his project of a more enlightened operation. But Arana had everything stitched up on his home patch, where he used his wealth and a range of dirty tricks reminiscent of present-day Colombia to guarantee impunity.

Casement’s report was finally published as an official UK government Blue Book in 1912, and he was knighted. Yet Casement was wary of receiving this honour, his attention drawn to the pressing claims of Irish sovereignty.

Where the account is disappointing is in failing to reflect on the significance of Casement’s homosexuality, which Goodman believes was ‘irrelevant … to this story’. The converse possibility is not investigated – that Casement’s homosexual identity may have been, with his Irish nationalism, integral to his personal quest for humanitarianism.

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