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The Easter Rising, My Grandfather and the Untold Story of Sir Roger Casement
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The 100th anniversary of the Easter uprising of 1916 saw the beginnings of a deeper appreciation of the achievements of Sir Roger Casement who was hanged as a traitor in Pentonville prison on 3 August 1916. Over the following century he has never lacked for notoriety, famous as an Irish patriotic martyr, but discussion of his life has frequently focused on his sexuality and revolved around the “Black Diaries” that were covertly used by the British government to blacken Casement’s name and sabotage the campaign against his execution.

The controversy over whether or not the diaries were forged never discredited Casement – in Ireland, if anything, they further sanctified his name as a victim of British machinations – but it did divert attention from his work in exposing the mass murder and enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Congo and Amazon. He detailed how they were not only being mistreated, but actually wiped out by the terror imposed by those seeking to obtain rubber through forced labour.

To understand what Casement was trying to stop, it is best to quote some of the Congolese interviewed by Casement for his report published in 1903 which describes the atrocities being carried out by King Leopold 11 of Belgium and his private army in the Congo. The witnesses are identified only by their initials or are unnamed. R.R. said “I ran away with two old people, but they were caught and killed, and the soldiers made me carry the baskets holding their cut-off hands. They killed my little sister, threw her in a house, and set it on fire.” U.U. gives a similar account of the reign of terror, saying that “as we fled, the soldiers killed ten children, in the water. They killed a lot of adults, cut off their hands, put them in baskets, and took them to the white man, who counted 200 hands…. One day, soldiers struck a child with a gun-butt, cut off its head, and killed my sister and cut off her head, hands and feet because she had on rings.”

A refugee from the rubber producing regions of the Congo interviewed by Casement gave a description of the ghastly mechanism by which people were forced either to collect natural rubber or to die: “We had to go further and further into the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved. Wild beasts—leopards—killed some of us when we were working away in the forest, and others got lost or died from exposure and starvation, and we begged the white man to leave us alone, saying that we could get no more rubber, but the white men and their soldiers said: ‘Go! You are only beasts yourselves.’”

Casement stresses that these abuses were exterminating the entire local population as they were slaughtered and their villages and towns burned. As a British consular official, Casement suspected that he was finding out more than the British government would want to know, but he felt he had no choice but to expose what was happening in order prevent it. He wrote later in a letter cited in 16 Lives: Roger Casement by Angus Mitchell that “I burned my boats deliberately, and forced the Foreign Office either to repudiate me, or back my report.”

Casement combined several qualities which made him uniquely qualified to investigate and expose the horrors he saw in the Congo and the Peruvian Amazon. He was a fearless and experienced traveller. Joseph Conrad, who met him in the Congo in 1890, wrote of seeing him “start off into an unspeakable wilderness swinging a crook handled stick …with two bulldogs”. Conrad met him a few months later, a little leaner and browner, still with his bulldogs and otherwise looking little changed.

Physical courage and moral outrage are not enough to combat the beneficiaries of exploitation and mass murder. A politically sophisticated and cosmopolitan Irish nationalist, Casement saw that his reports alone would not be effective against the powerful commercial and political interests headed by the King of Belgium. He wrote that the rubber profiteers were united “and only systematised effort can get the better of them.” He supported, semi-secretly because of his official position, British and Irish politicians, writers and journalists agitating against Belgian misrule in the Congo. Thanks to his Irish background, Casement said he could understand that exploitation of the weak by the strong and of small nations by big nations has the same basic motivation and mechanics regardless of whether it took place in Ireland, Congo or Peru.

I had heard about Casement and in a hazy way admired him when I was a child, through a brief but dramatic encounter between my grandfather and Casement when he was a prisoner. He had been arrested on a Banna Strand in Kerry after landing from a German submarine three days before the Easter Rising began in Dublin on 24 April. He had been in Germany trying to persuade Irish prisoners to fight against Britain and obtain arms for an insurgency in Ireland.

I knew Casement’s name, though not much else, because when I was seven or eight I was shown a drawing of him hanging on the wall in Myrtle Grove, a Tudor house belonging to my uncle Bernard Arbuthnot just inside the medieval town walls of Youghal in County Cork. I was told that the sketch was by my grandfather Jack Arbuthnot, a Major in the Scots Guards who was also an artist and had drawn Casement in his cell in the Tower of London sometime between his arrest and his execution. The words “Tower” and “execution” caught my attention, but otherwise I was uninterested in the little picture.


My father, Claud Cockburn, was interested in the story, had seen the drawing and had known Jack Arbuthnot, whom he liked. He described him as a genuine kind of High Tory who felt that regulations were all very well for others, but should not “interfere in any way with what seemed good to him at the time.” Though a career army officer, he was also part time journalist – speeding from Fleet Street to Windsor Castle to take up guard duty – as well as a cartoonist and artist. My father believed he was Casement’s full time jailer in the Tower and had sketched the prisoner days before he was hanged, though actually the connection was a little different, and the sketch was made before Casement’s trial.

The connection between Major Arbuthnot and Casement is confirmed by a diary written by Gertrude Bannister, Casement’s cousin. This is now in the National Library of Ireland where it was read by the author and historian Kieran Groeger who kindly passed on to me a copy of the relevant pages in the diary. After Casement’s arrest and imprisonment, Gertrude and her sister had been desperately searching for him, but British officials refused to say where he was held. Eventually, the sisters received a hint that he was in the custody of the Life Guards, which Gertrude thought unlikely, but they went to Whitehall where “at last, we saw a certain Major Arbuthnot who showed courtesy and sympathy.” He told them that they should really apply to the Governor of the Tower and they said they had already done so and had received no reply. He said: “‘I will write personally’. He then told us that he had seen Roger. He said he needed clothes and suggested we should send in some.” Casement had been kept for weeks in the same clothes in which he had been arrested in what was presumably an effort to demoralise him.

Gertrude and her sister went to the Tower and waited a long time until Casement was brought in by two soldiers and Major Arbuthnot. Gertrude asked “couldn’t you leave us alone.” By her account, he hesitated and then ordered the two soldiers out of the room and stood outside himself. “The interview was terrible,” she wrote. “Roger thought he was to be shot & that was why we had been brought to say goodbye.” In reality, he was still to be tried and was some months from his execution. He had been told by his interrogators that his family, who were hunting for him all over London, were refusing to see him because of his “treachery”. After some time, Major Arbuthnot returned and told Gertrude that “Roger must go and the soldiers took him away.”

The sketch of Casement which my father and I saw at Myrtle Grove must have been drawn soon after this visit and before he was transferred to Brixton Prison. It has since gone missing, though hopefully it is only misplaced and will be found again one day.

Patrick Cockburn’s ‘Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East’ is published this month by OR Books

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Ireland, Roger Casement 
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  1. Rehmat says:

    Yes – Mr. Cockburn you have your 100-year-old ‘Easter victimization story’ – Pakistani Muslims and Christians have their latest ‘Easter victimization story’.

    On Easter Day, at least 71 people, mostly children and women, were killed in a suicide attack at a children park (Gulshan-i-Iqbal) in Lahore. The city is the second most populated (7.5 million) after Karachi. Another 341 people were injured, some in critical conditions.

    The attack was claimed by Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP), a terrorist organization.

    Just as CIA created Al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Free Syrian Army and Daesh/ISIS – it also created TTP in 2004, after recruiting Abdullah Mehsud in Guantanamo Bay concentration camp. Primarily, TTP was a CIA-Mossad Black Ops. But due to its heavily religious content, Saudi-funded Darul Uloom Deoband India and RAW joined in as ideological patrons. Slowly, CIA withdrew to Drone warfare only, using TTP assets as spies against Afghan Taliban. RAW and Mossad took over anti-Pak ops of TTP.

    “Pakistan is important. For years, the CIA and other intelligence organizations have been in Baluchistan sneaking in and out of Iran blowing things up. How much of that is CIA and how much is Mossad, nobody knows for sure. This is another terrorist organization, called the ‘Jundallah’. Like the PKK in Turkey and the ‘Tehrik-i-Taliban’, the terrorist group making life in Pakistan a living hell, the Jundallah get all the money, weapons, training, transportation and maybe more, much more, they need to fight covert wars against the targets of Tel Aviv,” Gordon Duff, senior editor Veterans Today wrote on September 3, 2010.

    • Disagree: Wizard of Oz
  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Casement has hardly been overlooked recently. Roger Casement’s work was prominently featured in Adam Hochschild’s magisterial book on the Congo. His life (and work) was wonderfully dramatized in Mario Vargas Llosa’s “Dream of the Celt”.

    I’m unsure as to what Mr. Cockburn’s point here is. Casement was certainly guilty. It’s too bad such a wonderful humanitarian was seduced by the appeal of violence in achieving his goals for Ireland.

    • Replies: @Joseph Moroco
  3. Casement was certainly guilty.

    Yes, he was guilty of trying to smuggle rifles into Ireland to kill British soldiers during WW1. He deserved to be executed. How many innocents were killed during the Easter uprising?

    And it accomplished nothing.

  4. iffen says:

    And it accomplished nothing.

    How did Ireland become independent? Did it just fall from the sky one day?

  5. Giuseppe says:

    He deserved to be executed.

    Only if England deserved to enslave Ireland.

    • Agree: Bill Jones
  6. @Honesthughgrant

    Irish separation from Britain, if it accomplished nothing else, let Ireland stay neutral in World War II. The British would have loved to have wasted Irishmen on foreign battlefields in a stupid war that could have been avoided had the Brits and French had intelligent leadership.

    Other than those who wanted to leave and join up, no Irishman was forced to fight for the dying British Imperialism

    De Valera objected to conscription in Northern Ireland and no Orangeman was forced to fight for their beloved king either.

    In that context, 1916 was a grand victory for all the people of Ireland.

  7. @Anonymous

    “It’s too bad such a wonderful humanitarian was seduced by the appeal of violence in achieving his goals for Ireland.”

    Or maybe he was being a humanitarian and saw the utter corruption of Britain in Ireland.

    In Tim Pat Coogan’s book on Michael Collins, he points out all the informers the Brits kept in Ireland. It was a police state with elections.

    • Replies: @Matra
  8. I’ve got some unpleasant news for you, Patrick. Blacks in Subsaharan Africa still torture, mutilate, and kill one another. For all kinds of reasons.

  9. Rehmat says:

    @ Wizard of Oz – Personally, I give a damn even if all the 100,000 Israel Hasbara filth disagree with me. The truth always prevails.

    On Friday, Joshua Cohen, regional director of America’s top pro-Israel Jewish hate group ADL set an alarm that America’s new generation needs more Holocaust education.

    His alarm is based on an anti-Holocaust entertainment involving a group of students at Princeton High School, New Jersey. The students allegedly played a sort of ‘Jew v. Nazi’ pong beer game in a basement using Nazi and Zionist Jewish symbols, such as, arranging beer cups in shape of Swastika (a Hindu symbol of ‘good luck’ going back centuries), and the Star of Zion. Rules include the Anne Frank move, in which the Jewish team can hide one of their cups, and the Auschwitz move in which the Nazi team can make one of their opponents sit out for a period of time.

    A local Jewish news site Planet Princeton broke this Jew-hating game news on Thursday. It also claimed that some of the students involved in the game were Jewish. Damn! Where were all those Israel-hating Muslim students?

  10. Matra says: • Website
    @Joseph Moroco

    Tim Pat Coogan is a laughing stock. Every time he appears on a panel discussion his ignorance is embarrassing. He’s about as reliable on Irish history as Ta-Nehisi Coates is on American history.

    FWIW far more Irish Catholics volunteered to fight in the British Army throughout the entire 19th century and early 20th than ever volunteered for Republican causes or for that matter the post-independence armed forces. Some police state! They also happily joined the English and Scottish in colonising many parts of the Empire. Republicans being left wing ideologues leave out all the these inconvenient bits of Irish history. The same Republicans are now supporting mass immigration from Africa.

    • Replies: @Joseph Moroco
  11. JustJeff says:

    These days the Irish all speak English, love the queen, and don’t give a damn about the Catholic Church. They fought to be independent of Britain just so they could turn into Brits!

    • Replies: @Joseph Moroco
  12. @Matra

    They enlisted, and emigrated because the imperial system did not allow for much opportunity at home.

    The point was not about how many volunteered, but that thanks to independence, no one in Ireland was forced to be slaughtered by a government who did not care how many lives it wasted.

    I have seen Coogan on panels and he is less ridiculous than some of your comments. Anyway, it was not his tv personality I was referencing, but his documentation of the police state in power that Collins found. I guess that is a distinction some find hard to grasp.

  13. @JustJeff

    I agree that there is a lot of that in Ireland. I would not say it is love of the queen, but just not hating the Brits, which is not a bad thing.

    As to turning into Brits, there are many who seem like that, but there is more of a desire to be European than Brit.

    When I was in Dublin during the week of the celebration, there was an outpouring of patriotism that seemed like the American Bicentennial, with a lot less state hype.

    As to the church, they did that to themselves. The Irish hierarchy is as clueless as the American.

  14. Michelle says:

    This a fantastic article. I love first hand accounts. As for the Catholic Irish loving the Queen, B.S. . They do not, but maybe they should. The Irish Catholics have a lot to answer for. Priests raping alter boys with the tacit consent of Irish Catholic mothers and fathers? Rumors, rumors, everybody heard the rumors. The rumors were true! Protestants knew what was going on, why didn’t Catholics? Gay priests telling women how to conduct their marriages? Gay priests running the show! As far as I am concerned, Irish Catholics are the Devil! EFF them! My Grandma, who was really, really smart, once said that Catholicism was alright for the Italians and alright for the Spanish, but really, really bad for Native Americans and the Irish. I have to agree with her.

  15. colm says:

    Casement was trying to prevent evolution.

    His death was deserved.

    It is inevitable that the less intelligent has to be sacrificed to make way for civilization, and given the record of Congolese has not been so great on themselves, the Belgians were right to treat the natives like that.

  16. @Honesthughgrant

    He was only guilty of fighting against British colonialism in Ireland and it led to independence for 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. He certainly accomplished a lot more than most people do during a lifetime.

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