Modern history

13. BREAKING INTO THE THIEVES' KITCHEN

WHEN MOREL'S ALLIES in Parliament got the Congo protest resolution passed in May of 1903, the Foreign Office sent a telegram to His Majesty's consul in the Congo, ordering him "to go to interior as soon as possible, and to send reports soon."

The consul who received this telegram was an Irishman named Roger Casement, a veteran of twenty years in Africa. The first time we catch a glimpse of him in connection with the Congo, in fact, is in a photograph from some two decades earlier. It shows a group of four young friends who went to work in the territory in the very early days of King Leopold's regime. They wear coats, ties, and high, starched collars. Three have bluff, hearty British faces, faces from a thousand other posed group photos of army cadets or rugby players. But the fourth man, with a handsome black beard, black hair, and heavy brows, has a quizzical tilt of the head and a pensive look that sets him apart from the other three. "Figure and face," wrote the Irish writer Stephen Gwynn, who knew Casement only later, "he seemed to me one of the finest-looking creatures I had ever seen; and his countenance had charm and distinction and a high chivalry. Knight errant he was."

It was back in 1883 that the nineteen-year-old Roger Casement first made the long voyage out to the Congo, working, as it happened, as a purser on an Elder Dempster ship. He returned the following year and remained in the territory through the rest of the 1880s. He ran the supply base for the ill-fated Sanford Exploring Expedition and worked for the surveyors charting the course for the railway around the rapids. He became, he claimed, the first white man who ever swam across the crocodile-infested Inkisi River. When he served as the lay business manager of a Baptist mission station, he drew some gentle disapproval from his employer, who thought he didn't bargain hard enough at buying food. "He is very good to the natives, too good, too generous, too ready to give away. He would never make money as a trader."

When Stanley slogged through the Congo on his Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, Casement accompanied him for a week. "A good specimen of the capable Englishman," noted the explorer in his journal, not noticing that Casement was Irish. Casement was a better judge of Stanley, for although the explorer remained something of a hero to him, Casement recognized Stanley's sadistic streak. A dog-lover himself, Casement later learned, to his horror, that Stanley had cut off his own dog's tail, cooked it, and fed it to the dog to eat.

Casement saw much more brutality on the part of other white men in Africa. It is hard to tell whether there was a particular moral turning point for him, as there would be for E. D. Morel when he made his discoveries in Antwerp and Brussels. One such moment for Casement may have been in 1887, when he traveled up the Congo River on a steamboat that also carried a Force Publique officer named Guillaume Van Kerckhoven. Van Kerckhoven was a hot-headed, notoriously aggressive commander with a rakish grin and waxed-tip mustache, one of whose expeditions even the Congo's governor general called "a hurricane which passed through the countryside leaving nothing but devastation behind it." Casement listened, aghast, as Van Kerckhoven cheerfully explained how he paid his black soldiers "5 brass rods (2½ d.) per human head they brought him during the course of any military operations he conducted. He said it was to stimulate their prowess in the face of the enemy."

In 1890, when Joseph Conrad arrived at Matadi, he jotted in his diary: "Made the acquaintance of Mr. Roger Casement, which I should consider as a great pleasure under any circumstances.... Thinks, speaks well, most intelligent and very sympathetic." The rough-and-ready Matadi, a hot, humid collection of corrugated sheet-iron buildings spread on a hillside overlooking the Congo River, was filled with drunken sailors, African prostitutes, and young European and American adventurers hoping to get rich quickly off the ivory boom. Both Casement and Conrad felt alienated from this gold rush atmosphere; they shared a room for some ten days while Conrad waited to go inland, and together visited nearby villages.

Everyone found Casement an impressive talker. "His greatest charm was his voice, which was very musical," a colleague remembered. "Casement doesn't talk to you," another person said. "He purrs at you." Talking or purring, Casement had a fund of stories that seems to have darkened Conrad's vision of colonialism in Africa. As he was leaving the Congo at the end of his six months there, Conrad saw Casement once more. The two men met again at a dinner in London, later in the decade, and according to Conrad, "went away from there together to the Sports club and talked there till 3 in the morning." The novelist wrote to a friend: "He could tell you things! Things I have tried to forget, things I never did know." One of those things—another possible source of Kurtz and his palisade of human skulls—may well have been the story about Van Kerckhoven, the collector of African heads.

In 1892, Roger Casement went to work for the British colonial administration in what is today Nigeria. He was developing an eye for injustice, however, even though he was employed by the leading colonial power of the day. His first recorded public protest, in an outraged letter he wrote in 1894 to the Aborigines Protection Society, was against a hanging. The twenty-seven victims were African conscript soldiers and their wives in the German colony of the Cameroons; the men had mutinied after the women were flogged. "I trust you may do something to raise a protesting voice in England," Casement wrote, "against the atrocious conduct of the Germans. Altho' the men were their soldiers we all on earth have a commission and a right to defend the weak against the strong, and to protest against brutality in any shape or form."

Casement soon transferred to the British consular service; after serving in several posts in southern Africa, in 1900 he was assigned to set up the first British consulate in the État Indépendant du Congo. When he passed through Brussels on his way to taking up the new job, King Leopold, with a keen eye for anyone in a position to help his cause, invited him to lunch. The lowly consul found himself eating at the Royal Palace with the King, Queen Marie-Henriette, their daughter Princess Clementine, and Prince Victor Napoleon of France.*

Leopold invited Casement to come again the next day, and he did so, listening to the king ramble on for an hour and a half about the civilizing, uplifting work he was doing in the Congo. Although Leopold granted that some of his agents might be guilty of excesses, Casement reported, the king also claimed that "it was impossible to have always the best men in Africa; and indeed the African climate seemed frequently to cause deterioration in the character." As ever, the king tried to make sure that if any damaging information turned up, he would be the first to hear. "His Majesty, in bidding me farewell," Casement wrote, "asked me to write him privately at any time, and to write frankly, should there be anything of interest I could, unofficially, advise him of." Unlike most visitors, Casement appears not to have been charmed by Leopold. He had already seen too much of the Congo.

At his post as consul, Casement remained fascinated by Africa, but it was a restless time in his life. He was approaching forty and seemed stuck in a backwater job that did not use his talents. The consular corps was the poor stepchild of the British diplomatic service. Beyond that, being responsible for the Congo was a far cry from being British consul in Paris or Berlin, a post far more likely to go to someone from a well-connected family in England than from a middle-class one in Ireland. Casement felt he was always at the bottom of the list. His everyday life was one long battle against leaky roofs, mosquitoes, dysentery, and the boredom of inglorious work—"sometimes being even compelled to rise from bed when ill, to listen to a drunken sailor's complaint."

Casement had other frustrations as well. His indignation at the wrongs of colonial rule had no room for expression in his work as a consul. He had a vague interest in Irish history but could not pursue this in the tropics. He had ambitions as a writer but no outlets except long-winded reports that left the Foreign Office staff in London amused; few other consuls routinely sent twenty-page dispatches from West African ports. He wrote large quantities of mediocre verse but managed to publish almost none.

Other white men in the Congo considered the new British consul an eccentric. When traveling for the first time as consul from Matadi to Leopoldville, for instance, Casement did not take the new railway; he walked more than two hundred miles—in protest against high railway fares. On later trips he did use the railway, one baffled Congo state official reported back to Brussels, but "he always traveled second class. In all his movements he is always accompanied by a big bulldog with large jaws."

At the back of his mind was something further, which Casement could not share even with close friends or relatives, although several had their suspicions. He was a homosexual. In a poem that could never be published in his lifetime he wrote:

I sought by love alone to go
Where God had writ an awful no
....
I only know I cannot die
And leave this love God made, not I.

Casement lived in a time when to be found out meant disgrace or worse. It was in 1895 that Oscar Wilde, a fellow Irishman, was sentenced to two years at hard labor for "committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons." In the spring of 1903, as Casement was returning to the Congo from home leave in Europe, another case captured the headlines, that of Major General Sir Hector Macdonald, among the most decorated British soldiers of his time. Exposed as a homosexual and scheduled for court-martial, he killed himself in a Paris hotel room.

"News of Sir Hector Macdonald's suicide in Paris!" Casement wrote in his diary on April 17, 1903. "The reasons given are pitiably sad. The most distressing case this surely of its kind." Two days later, he added, "Very sorry at Hector Macdonald's terrible end." Eleven days after that, in the Congo port of Banana, thoughts of Macdonald pursued Casement through a sleepless night: "A dreadful room at Hotel. Sandflies. Did not close my eyes. Hector Macdonald's death very sad."

Casement must have known that if he ever acquired powerful enemies, he would be open to blackmail. Yet with a touch of unconscious self-destructiveness, he kept a meticulous diary of his assignations, almost all of which were paid for. On that same voyage from England to the Congo, he taunted fate by recording all his sexual encounters along the way. Madeira: "Agostinho kissed many times. 4 dollars." Las Palmas: "No offers." Shipboard: "Down and oh! oh! quick, about 18." Boma: "Tall, 'How much money?'" If the diary were discovered by someone who wished him ill, he would be destroyed. Until then, it was a time bomb, with a fuse of unknown length.

In May 1903, the month following his diary entries about Macdonald's suicide, Casement found something to be happy about; moreover, it was something that promised a big advance in his career. For two years, he had been sending reports to the Foreign Office about the brutal conditions in Leopold's Congo. Now that the Congo protest resolution had been unanimously passed by the House of Commons, the British government had to make a high-profile move in response.

The previous year, Casement had cabled London proposing that he make an investigative trip to the rubber-producing areas of the interior. He was given permission, but home leave in England and Ireland delayed the trip. The parliamentary debate immediately put it back on the agenda, and soon after returning to the Congo, Casement was under way.

He knew the journey would be arduous; writing to a friend later, Casement quoted an African proverb: "A man doesn't go among thorns unless a snake's after him—or he's after a snake." He added, "I'm after a snake and please God I'll scotch it."

***

To carry out his investigation, Casement could have taken the new railway up to Stanley Pool and spent a few weeks touring areas within easy reach of the comfortable brick house where he stayed there. He didn't. Instead, he spent more than three and a half months in the interior. In order not to depend on the authorities for his transportation—a key hold they had over many visitors—he rented a narrow, iron, single-decker steamboat from some American missionaries and traveled far up the Congo River. He spent seventeen days at Lake Tumba, where the state ran its rubber slavery operations with no intermediaries; he visited concession-company territory; he directed his steamer up side rivers and walked when the rivers gave out; he counted the exact number of people held hostage in a village that had not delivered its rubber quota; he canoed across a river and walked several miles through a flooded forest to meet one victim and inspect his injuries in person.

Sometimes Casement stayed overnight at a mission station; sometimes he camped in a riverside clearing or on an island. ("Hippo downstream. Saw three pelicans feeding, close to us. Also saw a beautiful Egyptian ibis, black body, white wings; a lovely fellow in full flight over us.") He was traveling, as always, with his beloved bulldog, John, and he brought with him as cook and helper an otherwise unidentified man who appears in his diary only as Hairy Bill. "Poor old Hairy Bill. A queer life." Hairy Bill's repertoire as chef seems to have been limited to three dishes: chicken, custard, and something known as boiled or stewed sugar. "Chicken, chicken, custard, custard ... every day.... Goddam," writes Casement. Sometimes he turns sarcastic: "We had boiled sugar again for change, also custard." Or: "Stewed sugar and custard again twice daily for a month and beats me hollow."

Casement sent a ceaseless flow of dispatches to the Foreign Office. "They'll curse me at F.O.," he noted with satisfaction. Surely others cursed him too. He penned a torrent of letters to Congo state officials condemning specific atrocities and, most undiplomatically, the entire way the colony was run. "That system, Monsieur le Gouverneur-Général, is wrong—hopelessly and entirely wrong.... Instead of lifting up the native populations submitted to and suffering from it, it can, if persisted in, lead only to their final extinction and the universal condemnation of civilized mankind." Small wonder that word filtered back to a worried Leopold that his regime would not be treated kindly in the British consul's report. Similar rumors also reached E. D. Morel, who eagerly waited for Casement's return. To the British foreign secretary, Casement exulted, in a most unconsular manner, that he had "broken into the thieves' kitchen."

He was a man possessed. His anger at what he saw had a dramatic effect on many of the other Europeans he encountered; it was as if his visible outrage gave them permission to act on stifled feelings of their own. Two missionaries Casement visited were so inspired by his example that they promptly set off on their own investigative trips; one began writing critical letters to the governor general. Casement, heading downriver, met the steamer of the veteran British missionary George Grenfell heading up, and the two men stopped and talked. After listening to Casement, Grenfell promptly resigned from Leopold's sham Commission for the Protection of the Natives. (A fruitless gesture, incidentally: the king had let the commission's mandate expire a few months earlier, without informing any of its members.) The Italian consul in the Congo, disturbed by what Casement told him, abandoned plans for a European holiday and made an investigative journey of his own that confirmed Casement's findings.

Casement's daily diary entries are far more moving to read than his carefully worded official report; his horror pulses through the cryptic pages.

June 5: The country a desert, no natives left.

July 25: I walked into villages and saw the nearest one—population dreadfully decreased—only 93 people left out of many hundreds.

July 26: Poor frail folk...—dust to dust ashes to ashes—where then are the kindly heart, the pitiful thought—together vanished.

August 6: Took copious notes from natives.... They are cruelly flogged for being late with their baskets [of rubber].... Very tired.

August 13: A. came to say 5 people from Bikoro side with hands cut off had come as far as Myanga intending to show me.

August 22: Bolongo quite dead. I remember it well in 1887, Nov., full of people then; now 14 adults all told. I should say people wretched, complained bitterly of rubber tax.... 6:30 passed deserted side of Bokuta.... Mouzede says the people were all taken away by force to Mampoko. Poor unhappy souls.

August 29: Bongandanga ... saw rubber "Market," nothing but guns—about 20 armed men.... The popln. 242 men with rubber all guarded like convicts. To call this "trade" is the height of lying.

August 30: 16 men women and children tied up from a village Mboye close to the town. Infamous. The men were put in the prison, the children let go at my intervention. Infamous. Infamous, shameful system.

August 31: In the evening a dance was organised in my honour; all the local chiefs and their wives, etc., came (at L.'s orders) to it. Poor souls. I was sorry for it, of all the forced enjoyment I ever saw this took the cake.

September 2: Saw 16 women seized by Peeters's sentries and taken off to Prison.

September 9: 11.10 passed Bolongo again. The poor people put off in canoe to implore my help.

***

Living long after the movement against slavery and well before the appearance of organizations like Amnesty International, Casement in his diary wrote in the tones of the Abolitionists: "Infamous. Infamous, shameful system." But the official report he composed subsequently is in the language that Amnesty and similar groups would later make their own: formal and sober, assessing the reliability of various witnesses, filled with references to laws and statistics, and accompanied by appendices and depositions.

In late 1903, Casement sailed back to Europe to prepare his report. He spent some weeks in London dictating and correcting, and made his final revisions on a train while returning from a visit to Joseph Conrad and his family at their country house. The information in Casement's report was largely familiar to people like E. D. Morel and his small group of supporters, but for the first time it was to be laid out with the authority of His Britannic Majesty's Consul. The report was all the more authoritative because Casement was a veteran of Africa who made frequent comparisons between the Congo he had once known and the same territory under the rubber terror.

Again and again Casement describes hands being cut off corpses. Sometimes it wasn't the hands. His report quotes one witness:

"The white men told their soldiers: 'You kill only women; you cannot kill men.' So then the soldiers when they killed us (here PP. who was answering stopped and hesitated, and then pointing to the private parts of my bulldog—it was lying asleep at my feet) then they cut off those things and took them to the white men, who said: 'It is true, you have killed men.'"

Despite the restrained tone and careful documentation, the report's accounts of sliced-off hands and penises was far more graphic and forceful than the British government had expected. The Foreign Office, already uneasy, began getting urgent requests to delay publication from Sir Constantine Phipps, the fervently pro-Leopold British minister to Brussels. Phipps, a conceited man of limited intelligence, couldn't believe "that Belgians, members of a cultivated people amongst whom I had lived, could, under even a tropical sky, have perpetrated acts of refined cruelty." The only reason the companies used "sentries," he explained to the foreign secretary, was to protect the rubber harvesters during their work. "Please manage to prevent issue of report by Casement until after 10th instant, date on which I must unavoidably encounter King of the Belgians," Phipps telegraphed. "The publication will inevitably put me in an awkward position at court."

More pressure came from another quarter. Urged on by an apprehensive Leopold, Sir Alfred Jones of the Elder Dempster line twice visited the Foreign Office to try to soften the report, or to at least get an advance copy for the king.

Casement was so distressed by what he had seen in the Congo that the Foreign Office could not control him, and he gave several interviews to the London press. Their publication made it hard to censor or postpone his report, though Foreign Office officials did water it down by removing all names. When the report was finally published, in early 1904, readers found statements by witnesses that read: "I am N.N. These two beside me are O.O. and PP." Or: "The white man who said this was the chief white man at EE ... His name was A. B." This lent the report a strangely disembodied tone, as if horrible things had been done but not to or by real people. It also made it impossible for Casement to defend himself by reference to specific people and places when Leopold's staff issued a long reply. Belgian newspapers tied to Congo business interests joined in the attack; one, La Tribune Congolaise, said that the people Casement had seen with missing hands "were unfortunate individuals, suffering from cancer in the hands, whose hands thus had to be cut off as a simple surgical operation."

Casement was both angry and disappointed. Mercurial (he himself had at first wanted to protect his witnesses by omitting their names, then changed his mind) and easily offended, he sent off an eighteen-page letter of protest to the Foreign Office and threatened to resign. In his diary he wrote that his superiors were "a gang of stupidities"; one in particular was "an abject piffler." In a letter, he called them a "wretched set of incompetent noodles."

But then, at last, Casement found someone with whom he could share his feelings. He had avidly read Morel's writings while still in the Congo, and the men were eager to meet. "The man is honest as day," Casement wrote in his diary after the long-awaited meeting took place. "Dined at Comedy [a restaurant] together late and then to chat till 2 A.M. M. sleeping in study." Casement was staying at a friend's house in Chester Square; Morel left after breakfast the next morning.

It is easy to imagine the two men talking that night: the tall, black-bearded Casement, simmering with fury at what he had seen; Morel, with his handlebar mustache, almost a decade younger, also big, but stocky, filled with his own earnest anger at the evidence he had uncovered in Europe. In a sense, each had seen half of what made up Leopold's "Free State." Together, they had as full a version of the story as was likely to be told. Morel remembered the meeting for the rest of his life:

I saw before me a man, my own height, very lithe and sinewy, chest thrown out, head held high—suggestive of one who had lived in the vast open spaces. Black hair and beard covering cheeks hollowed by the tropical sun. Strongly marked features. A dark blue penetrating eye sunken in the socket. A long, lean, swarthy Vandyck type of face, graven with power and withal of great gentleness. An extraordinarily handsome and arresting face. From the moment our hands gripped and our eyes met, mutual trust and confidence were bred and the feeling of isolation slipped from me like a mantle. Here was a man, indeed. One who would convince those in high places of the foulness of the crime committed upon a helpless race.... I often see him now in imagination as I saw him at that memorable interview, crouching over the fire in the otherwise unlighted room ... unfolding in a musical, soft, almost even voice, in language of peculiar dignity and pathos, the story of a vile conspiracy.... At intervals he would rise, and with swift silent steps, pace the room; then resume his crouching attitude by the fire, his splendid profile thrown into bold relief by the flames.

I was mostly a silent listener, clutching hard upon the arms of my chair. As the monologue of horror proceeded ... I verily believe I saw those hunted women clutching their children and flying panic stricken to the bush: the blood flowing from those quivering black bodies as the hippopotamus hide whip struck and struck again; the savage soldiery rushing hither and thither amid burning villages; the ghastly tally of severed hands....

Casement read me passages from his report, which he was then writing, whose purport was almost identical with oft-repeated sentences of my own. He told me that he had been amazed to find that I, five thousand miles away, had come to conclusions identical with his in every respect.... An immense weight passed from me.

It was long hours past midnight when we parted. The sheets of his voluminous report lay scattered upon the table, chairs and floor. And it was with the debris of that Report around me, that Report which was ... to tear aside the veil from the most gigantic fraud and wickedness which our generation has known, that I slept in my clothes upon the sofa; while its author sought his bedroom above.

A few weeks later, Casement visited Morel's home at Hawarden, a small Welsh village near the border of England; he jotted in his diary, "Talked all night nearly, wife a good woman." He was trying to persuade Morel to found an organization devoted solely to campaigning for justice in the Congo, but Morel was at first reluctant. The Aborigines Protection Society was wary at the prospect of a new group encroaching on its turf and perhaps cutting into its fundraising. But Morel's wife, Mary, agreed with Casement, and it may have been at her urging that Morel went to Ireland to talk further with Casement. He wrote: "Casement's plan found fervid support in my wife, and if I crossed the Irish Channel ... to meet him ... it was very largely owing to [her] influence.... It was ... on that Irish soil ... fertilised by so many human tears, that Casement and I conspired further...[and] discussed ways and means and drew up a rough plan of campaign."

The men talked over dinner at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, where Morel became convinced that "the Congo evil was a special and extraordinary evil calling for special means of attack.... If the British people could be really roused, the world might be roused.... Britain had played that part before [in the campaign against slavery].... Could we raise a throbbing in that great heart of hers?"

Although he was between posts, Casement was still a member of the consular service, so Morel would have to run the new organization. "But how were the vulgar details to be overcome? I explained to Casement that I had no money.... Neither had he.... Without a moment's hesitation he wrote out a cheque for £100." For Casement this was more than a month's income.

Shortly afterward, Casement wrote to Morel, "We shall grow in numbers day by day until there go up from the length and breadth of England one overwhelming Nay!"

A few weeks after their dinner in Ireland, Morel formed the Congo Reform Association. Using some of Casement's donation, he bought the first supplies, including a typewriter. He rounded up the public endorsement of an impressive list of earls, viscounts, businessmen, churchmen, members of Parliament, and, to evoke the heritage of the battle against slavery, the great-grandson of the famous British Abolitionist William Wilberforce. The C.R.A. attracted more than a thousand people to its first meeting, in Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall, on March 23, 1904.

Although Casement and Morel each had his prickly side, the friendship between them was immediate and lasting. "I think Casement is about as near to being a saint as a man can be," Morel wrote to a friend. Each now had the perfect ally. The relationship deepened over the years; in their many letters back and forth, Casement became "Dear Tiger" and Morel "Dear Bulldog." Leopold was "the King of Beasts."

Although he could be only a silent partner in the reform campaign, Casement urged on Bulldog with enthusiastic advice about political strategy, about whom to lobby, even about what clothes to wear. Without the Foreign Office's knowledge, he helped to raise money for the campaign. Morel, for his part, encouraged Casement to return to the Congo to conduct a further investigation. The consul replied that officials might "hang me as they did Stokes—and one couldn't do better than be hanged in order to end that den of devils." This is not the last time that we will hear from Casement a hint of a desire for martyrdom.

That meeting between Bulldog and Tiger as they plotted their attack on the King of Beasts would later be compared by their admirers with the legendary conversation beneath a spreading tree between William Wilberforce and William Pitt the Younger, more than a hundred years earlier, one step toward the beginning of the British antislavery movement. But like the British Abolitionists, Morel and Casement were for the moment safe in England; for all their good will, they were not themselves subject to the lash of the chicotte or the weight of shackles. They were white men trying to stop other white men from brutalizing Africans. Most of the Africans who fought this battle in the Congo perished, their very names unrecorded. In a sense, we honor Morel and Casement in their stead.

The two men, however, were far more than armchair do-gooders. They were people of conviction—and both ended up paying a high price. At the time they met and shared their passion about the Congo in December 1903, Morel and Casement did not know that more than a dozen years later they would have something else in common. Each would be taken, in custody, through the gates of London's Pentonville Prison. One would never emerge.

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