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.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
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.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering