Roger Casement is an intriguing figure. A diplomat in the British Foreign Office, he was knighted for his humanitarian work in 1911, but then stripped of his honours and hanged for treason just five years later, after becoming involved in the movement for Irish independence.
Subtitled "One Man's Struggle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness", Jordan Goodman's book documents a lesser-known episode in Casement's career: his role in bringing to light the horrors of the rubber industry in South America. In 1909, reports surfaced of human-rights abuses committed by the Peruvian Amazon Company, a rubber firm consolidated in London. Renowned for his earlier work in the Congo, where he exposed the brutality of King Leopold II's colonial regime, Casement was sent to Peru's Putumayo region to investigate.
He was appalled at what he discovered. The company's traders used indigenous Indians of all ages as slave labour, sending them into the jungle to collect wild rubber and torturing or murdering those who failed to meet their quotas. An astonishing 30,000 had died as a result.
The devil of the title – the rubber baron Julio César Arana – emerges as a rather one-dimensional villain, but Goodman offers a fuller, more nuanced portrait of Casement. We discover how his grim work began to take its toll ("I am full up with atrocities and horrors," he wrote in his diary) and how his anger at the treatment of the Peruvian Indians fostered a growing political militancy, driving him to support the anti-imperialist cause closer to home.
Goodman's account of Casement's expedition, and the outcry his findings prompted, is meticulously researched. The author marshals a wealth of material into a riveting, if harrowing, narrative which, in its treatment of corporate greed and exploitation, is full of contemporary resonance. A rich, moving, important book.
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