Luminous Traitor: The Just and Daring Life of Roger Casement, a Biographical Novel

Luminous Traitor: The Just and Daring Life of Roger Casement, a Biographical Novel

by Martin Duberman

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"Martin Duberman is a national treasure."
—Masha Gessen, The New Yorker
 Roger Casement was an internationally renowned figure at the beginning of the 20th century, famous for exposing the widespread atrocities against the indigenous people in King Leopold's Congo and his subsequent exposure—for which he was knighted in 1911—of the brutal conditions of enslaved labor in Peru. An Irish nationalist of profound conviction, he attempted, at the outbreak of World War I, to obtain German support and weapons for an armed rebellion against British rule. Apprehended and convicted of treason in a notorious trial that captured worldwide attention, Casement was sentenced to die on the gallows. A powerful petition drive for the commutation of his sentence was inaugurated by George Bernard Shaw and a host of other influential figures.
A gay man, Casement kept detailed diaries of his sexual escapades, and the British government, upon discovering the diaries, circulated its pages to public figures, thereby crippling what had been a mounting petition for clemency. In 1916, he was hanged. In this gripping reimagining, acclaimed historian Martin Duberman paints a full portrait of the man for the first time. Tracing his evolution from servant of the empire to his work as a humanitarian activist and anti-imperialist, Duberman resurrects and recognizes all facets—from the professional to the personal—of the fantastic life of this pioneer for human rights. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520298880
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,133,327
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Martin Duberman is Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at City University of New York, where he founded and directed the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. He is the author of numerous histories, biographies, memoirs, essays, plays, and novels including Has the Gay Movement Failed?, Cures: A Gay Mans OdysseyPaul RobesonStonewallBlack Mountain: An Exploration in Community, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, and more than a dozen others. He is the recipient of the Bancroft Prize, multiple Lambda Literary Awards, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Historical Association, and he has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 2012 Duberman received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Amherst College and in 2017 an honorary Doctor of Letters from Columbia University.

Read an Excerpt



The Years of Innocence

IN THE AUTUMN OF 1884 — at just the time Otto von Bismarck is opening the watershed conference in Berlin designed to bring order to what has been a fractious European scramble for power in Africa — Roger Casement, a mere lad of twenty, is working beside his close friend Herbert Ward on preparing a survey for a railway designed to run between Matadi and Stanley Pool on the Upper Congo.

The two young men share a close friendship, though you'd hardly know it from their contrasting appearance. Ward prides himself, against the odds, on immaculate grooming, even as Roger takes humorous pleasure in teasing him about his relentless attempts, despite the heat and heavy underbrush, to manage a daily shave. He also likes to bait Ward about the way he picks with distaste at their only source of food, the native quanda — a mix of pounded root and coconut milk — which Roger devours with spirited gusto, tossing the leftovers to his beloved bulldogs, Paddy and Biddie. Ward, in turn, cheerfully denounces Roger as a "shameless ruffian — yes, all six foot three of you, a skin and bones scarecrow for all the sustenance that wretched quanda provides!" The two take great enjoyment in mocking each other, secure in their affection. Ward even makes fun of his friend to others, and deliberately within Roger's earshot: "Look at him, will you?! Tramping ahead of even the bearers, his beard down to his ankles, his clothes in ribbons, pieces of bark for shoes secured with pieces of string! Her Majesty's representative in full regalia!"

Roger is not yet in fact in government service. He works — and will for a good half dozen years more — for a number of commercial enterprises exploring and surveying the region for possible economic exploitation. Like Ward, Roger sees European expansion on the Africa continent as a "civilizing" mission, bringing the blessings of Christianity and (in his words) "useful and diligent" labor to a native population that is at present "disinclined." Yet, unlike most of his European contemporaries, including Ward, Roger has from the first seen much to admire in native customs and beliefs and wishes to see them preserved; he is still more unlike them in being (as his friend Ward puts it) "so regardless of personal advancement." It's all of a piece, Ward reckons, with Roger's "high-minded, courteous, singular charm"; his disposition, Ward attests, is "the gentlest imaginable ... emotional, tender, always sweet-tempered, ready to help, condemning cruelty and injustice in any form."

Roger's temperament is not the kind that could have sat comfortably with the representatives of fourteen nations who gather around a horseshoe table in the large music room of Bismarck's house on the Wilhelmstrasse. European interest in the African continent has been rapidly intensifying of late, and the job of the assembled delegates is to sort through the unseemly chaos of overlapping claims and bring a proper sense of order to the "advance of civilization." Several of the nations represented have already secured considerable territory and are anxious to keep it intact. Britain has large holdings but fears most for the loss of the "informal" parts of her empire: the Niger region and East Africa (having already lost Togo and Cameroon to the aggressive Germans). France, too, is fearful, and in particular of Bismarck's announced intention to secure the enforcement of free trade. Portugal, finally, is nearing bankruptcy and deeply uneasy about its ability to hold on to Angola and Mozambique in the face of King Leopold of Belgium's obvious ambitions.

The delegates sit from November 1884 to February 1885, and when the conference is finally adjourned, the adroit, self-assured King Leopold, with his flair for flattery and intrigue, has succeeded in playing the other nations against one another — in part by shrewdly (and falsely) stressing his own lofty "philanthropic" aims, including a promise to form through a series of treaties a confederation of Free Negro Republics. The General Act of Berlin that results from the conference places under Leopold's personal supervision some one million square miles of Congolese jungle and bush.

Almost simultaneous with the Conference's adjournment, Herbert Ward decides to leave Africa. Over the next few years he will marry and settle for a time in Paris; when his first son is born, Ward names Roger the godfather (he will name his third son Roger Casement Ward). Roger himself becomes for a time somewhat adrift, serving in a wide variety of short-term positions, ranging from work for the Sanford Exploring Expedition, to map-making treks into the little-known interior, to continued surveying for the pending railway from Matadi to Stanley Pool. When that last project comes under King Leopold's control in the late 1880s, Roger resigns rather that serve in his employ. He returns on leave to England and Ireland and then, for three months during 1890 and 1891, joins his old friend Herbert Ward on a lecture tour to the United States based on a book Ward has written about his experiences in Africa.

Finally back in Matadi Roger meets by chance the writer Joseph Conrad, seven years his senior and then serving as the captain of a Belgium company steamer in the Congo. "I've made the acquaintance of Mr. Roger Casement," Conrad writes in his diary, "which I should consider a great pleasure under any circumstances and now becomes a positive piece of luck. Thinks, speaks well, most intelligent and very sympathetic." The two share a room together for two weeks, and when Roger decides to leave Matadi for an overland trip to Leopoldville, they part (in Conrad's words) "in a very friendly manner." Arriving in Leopoldville, Roger continues to work on facilitating transport over the challenging cataractous region before again returning on leave to Ireland in the early summer of 1891.

By then Roger has become known as something of an anomaly. In the tangle of ambition and greed that characterizes the "scramble for Africa," he refuses to carry arms ("lest I be tempted to use them"), thinks nothing of walking twenty miles a day, refuses to wear the standard pith helmet (claiming he "doesn't feel the sun"), seems uninterested in gaining personal wealth, and treats all those, European and native alike, with a gentle gallantry perhaps intrinsic — so he himself would claim — to his Irish upbringing. Though part of the colonial mechanism, Roger is, as it were, a soulful conquistador, immune to the avarice that drives most of the white men who come to Africa and from the beginning of his service is wholly opposed to the brutality that accompanies their imperial progress.

Roger's excellent reputation for hard work — not his morality — finally produces in the summer of 1892 an appointment to the staff of West Africa's Niger Coast Protectorate, making him for the first time an official of the British foreign service. He serves directly under Sir Claude MacDonald, Britain's consul general in the Protectorate, and a relationship of mutual respect quickly develops. Sir Claude and his wife, Lady Ethel MacDonald, are much taken with the young Casement and invite him often to join them at tea on the rundown terrace of the local hotel. For Ethel MacDonald, Roger feels admiration bordering on awe. Her first husband, an officer in the Indian Civil Service, died of cholera, along with their children. She somehow survived her grief, married Sir Claude, and audaciously insisted, despite multiple warnings about alarming conditions — Sir Claude's predecessor had died of fever — on accompanying him on his new assignment to West Africa's Niger Coast.

Sir Claude's Sandhurst schooling and devotion to the army make him a bit brisk — especially when administering his formal duties — for Roger's taste. Yet he deeply admires Sir Claude's patient tact; his intricate knowledge of the trade in palm oil; his advocacy of peaceful penetration into the interior to cultivate cocoa, coffee, and rubber; and, above all, his uncommon regard for the native Africans he governs. Before assuming his post as consul in 1890, Sir Claude had toured the territories to ask the local peoples what form of government they preferred — excluding self-government of course. To the scoffing Foreign Office that had been considered tantamount to polling the mosquito population as to its preference among brands of netting.

Yet Roger is not an unqualified enthusiast of African folkways. He deplores any number of practices characteristic of certain areas in Africa — burying alive servants of a deceased king, female circumcision, cannibalism, trial by poison (survival equaling innocence) — and he endorses the standard notion of the day that assigns to the white man an obligation to wean the natives from their "superstitious" belief in a spirit world, as well as their "casual attitude towards labor." Yet the more time Roger spends in Africa, the more appreciative he becomes of the indigenous cultures that most European invaders are intent on destroying. Above all he values the intimate connection Africans have to the physical world and to their own bodies — the sanity of their easy acceptance of the body's needs and functions. He feels a strong kinship with the innocent ease of their sensual gratification.

He admires, too, the rapport Africans have with their immediate surroundings — their insistence on protecting, not ravaging, the land and on ceding consequential authority to a universe of mysterious creatures, uncontrollable seasons, and immortal stars. He's partial to the African acceptance of coexistence with nature, rather than the European "civilizers" insistence on mastery of it — on rerouting streams, burning forests, killing off wildlife, and hacking sap from rubber vines.

On this particular late afternoon June day, Roger has been stationed with the Niger Coast Protectorate for a bit more than two years, and as he makes his way to the hotel's terrace for tea with the MacDonalds, he smiles at the realization that they must have sipped together something like a thousand cups of tea since he first arrived. Approaching the terrace, Roger is surprised to spot the outline of another European seated at the MacDonalds' table. He'd assumed that the party would, as usual, consist of just the three of them. At Old Calabar the social pickings are slim and visitors few, which is fine with Roger. Given his easy charm, people tend to think him gregarious, but he prefers to limit socializing to the company of a few friends, where the premium is on connection rather than surface chatter. He counts Sir Claude and Ethel MacDonald among those few.

As Roger mounts the steps to the terrace, he's surprised to see that the unexpected guest is a white woman. That's a rarity. Oh dear, Roger thinks, she's doubtless from one of the missionary stations, probably that overenergetic Mrs. Kemp from the Methodist mission, making another plea for more European clothing to cover up the natives. Roger sighs, How foolish; how can the velvety softness of African skin and the graceful contours of their bodies be "offensive"? He has to remind himself that despite their restrictive morality, many of the missionaries are well-intentioned, decent people, kind to the local inhabitants and contagiously humble about their own unimportance — that is, except for the Americans, few in number but loudest in their self-admiration. Roger holds out hope that the natives will have more success in Africanizing the missionaries than the missionaries do in Christianizing the natives.

"Roger, this is Mary Kingsley," Sir Claude says, as Roger approaches the table. "This is her second trip to West Africa, and she's, she's terribly ... well, keen. Miss Kingsley, allow me to present Mr. Roger Casement. He's an old African hand, though still a mere teenager." Claude chuckles at his own drollery.

Roger finds himself staring down at a slender, angular woman, sharp-featured yet handsome, with a no-nonsense air, and dressed in an unfashionably floor-length cotton dress, with muttonchop sleeves buttoned at both wrists. Good grief, Roger thinks, Calabar is a relatively cool spot but she must be roasting alive in that get-up. She looks like the high priestess of prudery, despite that animated face — those eyes above all, her deep-set, restlessly mocking eyes exuding a vitality that contradicts her conventional dress and posture. Here is someone, Roger thinks, both unassuming and passionately alive.

"From a distance," Roger lightly offers, "I took you for a missionary. I must be going blind."

"I'll take that as a compliment, Mr. Casement. Some of my dearest friends are missionaries. Perhaps you know Mary Slessor here in Calabar."

"I do indeed. And admire her greatly." Roger seats himself at the table and nods yes when Ethel MacDonald mutely holds up the teapot.

"Slessor's one of my jujus!" Mary says. "Unlike her Scots-Presbyterian brethren, she cares not a fig about stamping out polygamy — or the liquor trade. I was with her just a few days ago at Ekenge. Do you know she's been living in that thatched mud encampment for nearly twenty years?"

"Gone for bush," Sir Claude vaguely says, addressing no one in particular. "Peculiar, don't you think?"

Mary's eyes sparkle with animation. "Not a bit. Her home is here, not England. She's put the mournful Presbyterians behind her, has relaxed into Africa's cheerful animism. I understand completely." Turning to Roger, she gratuitously adds (her tone a mix of pride and merriment), "I'm not really a Christian. I'm a high and dry Darwinist. I worship the great God of Science."

"Then, unlike Slessor, you do regard England as home," Roger says, with a mischievous smile.

"I hope to go back and forth. Prior to my first visit here two years ago, absolutely nothing had happened to me, nothing at all. I took care of my invalid mother. When she died, I kept house for my bachelor brother. Not even a proper education. But our house had a library, and, between chores, I read my way through it. My parents died within two months of each other. My brother began to travel. So I came to Africa. Simple as that! Never been healthier — or happier."

"Never had malaria?"

"Of course! It's the price of admission. But nothing else, give or take a few cuts and bruises. Nothing serious, no kraw kraw, guinea worm, yellow — no, not a one of them. ... Back in England I was always down with something. If it wasn't flu, it was migraines. If it wasn't migraines, it was rheumatism. If not rheumatism — well, you get the picture."

"I know it well," Roger says with a sympathetic twinkle, "England's climate of damp fog."

"Indeed!" Mary laughs appreciatively. Sir Claude frowns, mumbles something about Slessor romanticizing the natives, and Ethel MacDonald, who's been quietly disengaged, suddenly says, "That business with the twins was an awful mess."

"Slessor saved that poor woman!" Mary vehemently responds.

"What happened?" Roger asks. "I don't know anything about a 'mess' or twins."

Mary twists in her chair impatiently but, sensing that Roger is a potential friend, decides to explain. "You know, the Cross River people believe that the birth of twins signifies an evil spirit has slept with the mother, and the only way to get rid of it is to kill both mother and offspring. Africans are as frightened as Europeans at deviations from the norm — and almost as quick to condemn them. Slessor intervened and the villagers gave in. They call her 'Mother of All the Peoples.'"

The MacDonalds rise from their chairs, Sir Claude mumbling something about the need to check on repairs for the water tank, and he and Ethel quickly take their leave. "I like them both," Ethel whispers to Sir Claude after they've reached the bottom of the terrace steps. "As do I," he replies, "though Miss Kingsley is a bit too outspoken. I value candor, but it can be unseemly in a woman."

Back on the terrace, as if on cue, Mary is telling Roger that she fears MacDonald isn't handling the Nembe uprising as well as he might.

"But he's negotiated in good faith," Roger replies, "of that I'm sure. King Koko isn't responsive, and his raid on the company's headquarters at Akassa certainly didn't help — the wide destruction and loss of life. Her Majesty's government, I would say, has been rather lenient, if not indulgent."

Mary flares up. "Indulgent?!' They've kicked Koko off his throne, razed Nembe, and killed three hundred of his people! If that's indulgence I'd hate to see what harshness looks like!"

Roger is surprised at her intensity. "Koko did kill his hostages," Roger tentatively offers.

"Of course he did!" Mary indignantly replies. "He warned the British he would, unless concessions were made. The Nembe didn't ask to be included in the Oil Rivers Protectorate, nor to have the Royal Niger Company take over all trade along the kingdom's rivers into its own hands. It was the Nembe who'd been masters of the palm oil and liquor trades. Now the Nembe are starving, literally starving."


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Table of Contents

Part 1 • The Years of Innocence
Part 2 • The Congo
Part 3 • The Putumayo
Part 4 • Ireland
Part 5 • The Trial and Its Aftermath
Author’s Note

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