Book review: The hanged archangel

Roger Casement's Diaries: 1910: The Black and the White ed Roger Sawyer, Pimlico pounds 10

Roger Casement was hanged for treason at Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916. Following a distinguished consular career, during which he was knighted, and exposed the atrocities among Congolese and Putumayo rubber workers, Casement had become embroiled in the struggle for Irish independence, spending the early months of the First World War in Germany trying to induce Irish prisoners-of-war to join the German forces to fight for Ireland.

His plans, however, miscarried. Only a handful of Irish prisoners were persuaded to join him, and Casement became convinced that Germany had no intention of risking an expedition to Ireland, without which the imminent Dublin Rising would be hopeless. In April 1916 Casement was arrested on the west coast of Ireland, where he had come ashore from a German submarine, and taken to London to stand trial. At the Old Bailey he was convicted and sentenced to hang. A campaign for his reprieve received distinguished support: Shaw, Chesterton, Yeats, Masefield and Arnold Bennett were among those who put their names to it, and petitions flowed in from around the world, emphasising Casement's exemplary humanitarianism. In his appeal for clemency for his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote that Casement's treasonable acts were brought on by his sufferings in the tropics: "it appears that some allowance may be made ... for his abnormal physical and mental state."

But behind the scenes, another campaign, intended to discredit Casement and ensure that he went to the gallows, was taking place. Among Casement's papers, seized at the time of his arrest, were four diaries recording countless casual homosexual encounters and revealing, in the words of one Home Office official, that Casement had "for years been addicted to the grossest sodomitical practices". F E Smith, for the prosecution, handed the diaries to Casement's defence team, suggesting that they could be used for a plea of insanity. It was a clever ploy. Their publication in open court would have had a sensational effect, alienating sympathy from Casement at home and in America, and preventing him from becoming a martyr for the Irish nationalist cause.

But the defence would not use them. Whitehall then embarked on a well- orchestrated campaign to blacken Case- ment's reputation. Typed extracts from the diaries were circulated to journalists, politicians and the American Ambassador in London. Attempts for a reprieve were halted. Casement went to the scaffold, said the attending priest, "with the dignity of a prince".

Mystery, like some dense fog, swirled around these diaries for too long. Successive governments refused to allow inspection of the originals, and leaders of the new Irish Free state colluded in their suppression, concerned to protect Casement's place in their pantheon of national heroes. Meanwhile, predictably in the absence of any original documents to authenticate, a counter-attack developed. This argued that the diaries were forgeries, concocted by Whitehall propagandists who interpolated salacious passages into the account of Casement's day-to-day activities. The diaries were finally made available to historians in 1959, and to the general public in 1995.

It is a fascinating story, and Roger Sawyer is to be applauded for having presented, for the first time, an accurate text and detailed commentary for just one of the so-called "Black" Diaries, the volume for 1910, the year in which Casement was investigating the ill-treatment of natives in the rubber-producing regions of the Putumayo river. Sawyer is an avowed believer in the authenticity of the diaries, and for comparative purposes he has included an abridged version for the same year of Casement's "White" diary, his public account of events which he used in the writing of his official reports.

The weight of evidence now supports the arguments that the Black Diaries are genuine. They have been examined twice by forensic scientists, in 1959 and in 1993, and on both occasions the conclusions were that they were Casement's work. The 1910 diary provides a representative sample of the descriptions of sexual encounters which have been the source of such contention. There are mostly terse, occasionally more fulsome, accounts of Casement's meetings with rent boys in London or Peru, sometimes with an "X" to indicate that sex had taken place, and including impressions of fancied men, with a compulsive desire to record the size and shape of their genitals. "Saw from my window a splendid type," he writes, "one of my lovely Indians, thick limbs, sturdy with a big one."

There is nothing here that will shock any observer of modern sexual mores, though Sawyer himself, commendably anxious to stress Casement's contribution to the stamping out of slavery, sometimes strikes a nannying note, as when he states that the "disillusioning" sexual material of the diaries has to be "faced up to" if an informed judgement about Casement is to be made. What continues to be interesting about Casement is the way in which he managed so effectively to compartmentalise his life, as brave humanitarian, loyal public servant, as hero of Irish nationalism, and as sexual outlaw.

He may not live up to T E Lawrence's description of him as "a broken archangel", but on the evidence of these diaries the last word on Roger Casement is very far from having been written.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor