Saturday, March 25, 2006

BOOK: Roger Casement's "Black Diaries" [1/5]

Peter Singleton-Gates and Maurice Girodias: The Black Diaries: An account of Roger Casement's life and times with a collection of his diaries and public writings. Paris: The Olympia Press, 1959. 626 pp.


Some years ago I came across, an excellent web site with lots of material about the history of imperialism. Among other things, it has quite an extensive section about the Congo; this large country in Central Africa was practically the personal colony of the Belgian king Leopold II for several decades, and he exploited its population mercilessly to gather rubber in the Congolese forests. The atrocities committed by Leopold's soldiers and administrators, and by the companies to whom he awarded concessions to exploit large tracts of the colony's territory, eventually became known to the public and gave rise to a massive movement, with many supporters in various Western countries, that demanded reforms and an end to Leopold's autocratic rule over the Congo. The movement had many notable supporters, e.g. E. D. Morel, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad (his famous story Heart of Darkness is set in the Congo), and Arthur Conan Doyle (see his book, The Crime of the Congo, on the boondocksnet web site). This, I think, is where I first heard of Roger Casement. He worked in the British diplomacy for many years, and among other things he was sent to the Congo in 1903 and published a report about Leopold's system there and its effects on the native population. Doyle mentions him in ch. 7 of his book, for instance.

Some time later, I read another book on the Congo, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. I heartily recommend this splendid book to everyone interested in learning more about the history of Leopold's Congo, which is undoubtedly one of the ugliest episodes of European imperialism in Africa. Anyway, this book also mentions Casement's work in the Congo (see esp. ch. 13), as well as, briefly, his later investigation of the Putumayo atrocities, and his support of the Irish struggle for independence.

Then, last November, I accidentally noticed an eBay auction for a 1997 book called The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, edited by Angus Mitchell. I remembered that I had heard of Casement before, in connection with the Congo, and the book's description sounded sufficiently interesting that I decided to buy it. It contains the text of an extensive diary that Casement kept during his 1910 mission to the Putumayo region in South America. The Putumayo is a tributary of the Amazon; at the turn of the century, the area around it was a kind of no-man's-land claimed both by Peru and Colombia but effectively controlled by neither. In the late 19th century, various Peruvian businessmen/adventurers started moving into that area and forcing its Indian inhabitants to gather rubber for them on terms that were little better than slavery. A stock company was eventually formed to control most of the rubber business in the area; it was traded on the London stock exchange and attracted the attention of British investors (p. 206 in the 1959 Black Diaries). Thus, when reports began to emerge of atrocities in the company-controlled territory, the British government eventually sent Casement (who had been British consul in Rio de Janeiro at the time) to investigate. Another reason was that the company had employed several black Barbadoans; Barbados being a British colony at the time, they were British subjects, and when allegations appeared that some of them had been mistreated by the company, this gave the British government a good excuse to send a diplomat to investigate the situation (ibid., pp. 201–2).

In addition to Casement's journal, Mitchell's book contains a discussion of the other Casement diaries. Casement was a supporter of the Irish struggle for independence, and during the WW1 became involved in the efforts to obtain German support for an Irish uprising against the British (the Easter Rising). He was eventually arrested by the British, found guilty of high treason, and hanged. Around that time, several diaries emerged, supposedly written by Casement during various periods of his life and then found by the police when they arrested him. These “Black Diaries” contained many mentions of Casement's homosexual activities; this, together with various other circumstances, gave rise to a suspicion that they were really forgeries prepared by the British in order to destroy Casement's reputation and prevent him from being seen as a martyr. In those times, many people would have been willing to sympathize with Casement the Irish patriot and would have felt it was wrong to execute him, but for Casement the homosexual they would have felt only disgust and abhorrence.

I haven't read much of Mitchell's book yet; he seems to incline towards the opinion that the diaries were indeed forgeries. But anyway, in the first few pages that I did read, he mentions some interesting details about the publication of the diaries up to that time. At the time of Casement's trial, the British permitted the diaries to circulate just enough to harm Casement's reputation, but otherwise they generally restricted access to them; they likewise prevented the journalist Peter Singleton-Gates from publishing them when he tried to do so in 1925 (Mitchell p. 22; Black Diaries pp. 9–13). “In 1959 the long spell of secrecy over the contents of the Black Diaries was finally lifted with their lavish publication in Paris, outside the jurisdiction of the British Crown, by the Fleet Street newspaperman, Peter Singleton-Gates, and the publisher of censored material, Maurice Girodias.” (Mitchell pp. 21–22.)

The Olympia Press

It was this mention of Girodias that really caught my attention. He was the publisher behind the famous Olympia Press. Based in Paris, he published mostly English-language books which it would have been difficult to publish in Britain or the U.S. without running afoul of their stricter anti-obscenity laws at the time (in the 1950s and early 60s). Many of these publications were simply pornography, but there were also some famous works of literature, e.g. Nabokov's Lolita, Burroughs's Naked Lunch, and several works by Beckett. He also reissued some books by Miller and Durrell; as well as many translations from the French, e.g. works of Jean Genet; the S/M classic, The Story of O; and all the major writings of de Sade.

Two years ago, I read a book about Girodias and the Olympia Press: The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyages of the Olympia Press, by John de St Jorre (1994). As it turns out, it also mentions the publication of The Black Diaries (ch. 10, pp. 269–72), though I had quite forgotten about this fact. Anyway, I strongly recommend The Good Ship Venus to anyone interested in the history of the Olympia Press.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Olympia press books are now valuable collector's items and are considerably beyond my budget. Right now, several copies of the Olympia Black Diaries are for sale on ABE; the cheapest costs $60, but lacks a dust jacket; the others, having jackets, are much more expensive: several in very good condition around $300, and one that's near fine for $750. The book was published simultaneously in Paris by the Olympia Press, in New York by the Grove Press, and in London by Sidgwick and Jackson. The latter two are more affordable, especially the Grove Press one which seems to have been the only one not subject to limitations on the printing run (the London edition was limited to 2000 copies, and the Olympia edition to 1500). However, of the three diaries included in the Olympia edition, the other two editions lack the 1911 diary, which is perhaps the coarsest and most explicit.

Obviously, then, I wanted to get a copy of the Olympia edition; but not if I had to pay $300 for it. But then I looked at eBay and fortuitiously noticed that an auction for a copy of the Olympia edition was just then in progress, and I managed to win it for £50, which is still expensive but manageable, and it looks like a positive bargain compared to the prices asked by the sellers on ABE. Incidentally, I also tried searching for the book on Bookfinder; it's the first time I've used that website, I think, as I usually find ABE quite sufficient for my purposes. It turned out a few more copies of all three editions for prices similar to those on ABE; but it also found something which purported to be a copy of the Olympia Press edition, offered by some German bookseller for €25 or so, which sounds like an amazing bargain. Perhaps there was some mistake, maybe it was a different edition, maybe it lacked a jacket; anyway, I decided I'd try bidding on the eBay auction first. A day or two later, the eBay auction was over, and as I'd won it, I didn't look any further into that Bookfinder hit; a few days later I noticed that it was gone, so I guess somebody else must have noticed that it was a great deal as well.

For a good overview and description of the diaries, see Mitchell's Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, pp. 25–26. Apparently, apart from the three diaries published in the Olympia edition of the Black Diaries, there's another one, also from 1911: “the document that has never been published and is the most explicit and pornographic in its content” (Mitchell p. 26); “A typescript of this diary was not handed over to Singleton-Gates along with the other papers he received from Sir David Thomson. Nothing was known about this document until the first published description including brief excerpts appeared in 1960 in H. Montgomery Hyde's The Trial of Roger Casement. But the published extracts only hinted at the true nature of this document.” (Mitchell p. 35.) It seems to have been published in Jeffrey Dudgeon's 2002 edition of The Black Diaries (according to its amazon page: “For the first time, all Roger Casement's Black Diaries are here published together, including the erotically-charged 1911 Diary”). So I guess that eventually I'll want to read Dudgeon's book as well, and maybe I could have saved some money by not buying the Olympia edition. But then I don't regret having bought it; it's an interesting book, and it's nice to own a book from this famous and fascinating publisher.

[To be continued in a few days.]


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