Saturday, April 29, 2006

BOOK: "D. H. Lawrence and Italy"

D. H. Lawrence: D. H. Lawrence and Italy: Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia, Etruscan Places. Penguin Books, 1997. 0141180307. xii + 168 + 205 + 115 pp.


Before reading this book, my only encounter with D. H. Lawrence was reading a translation of Lady Chatterley's Lover some years ago. I don't remember very much of it, except that I read it fairly quickly over the course of some three or so days (this probably explains why I remember almost nothing about it), and that one of the leading characters was a forester that usually spoke in some curious rustic dialect. If I remember correctly, the book had been considered somewhat prurient at the time when it was written; but when reading it, I didn't notice much that would really justify such accusations. The book must have been pleasant enough to read — otherwise I wouldn't have been able to read it so quickly.

Thus, when I later noticed this Penguin compilation of Lawrence's travel writing about Italy, I was keen to read it; partly because of this previous enjoyable experience with Lawrence's work, and partly because I wouldn't mind reading somewhat more about Italy. Since Italy is a neighbouring country to us, I think we often tend to see it in a less favourable light than observers from more distant countries; an Anglo-Saxon's first thought when seeing the word Italy might well be its culture or history, perhaps its landscape or food, rather than its indolent, vain population with a regrettable fondness for oppressing our minority there. Thus I wouldn't mind reading an English book about Italy every now and then, as a counterbalance to my otherwise needlessly negative opinion of that country. Another thing that encouraged me to read the book is the fact that it mentions the Etruscans, of whom I am fond for several reasons. Firstly, since they are less well known than e.g. the Romans or the Greeks, they are more exotic; secondly, I soundly hate the Romans and their imperialism, and therefore sympathize with the Etruscans as victims of Roman expansion.

Etruscan Places

Of the three collections of Lawrence's travel essays collected here, only Etruscan Places was enjoyable reading. Lawrence visits many Etruscan tombs and comments with great enthusiasm on their works of art, and indeed on their attitude towards life in general. “The things they did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and as easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fulness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction. And death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance.” (EP p. 12. See also pp. 26, 49–50.)

I guess that not terribly much was known about the Etruscans at that time (after all, much remains unknown even now), so that Lawrence often has to resort to a bit of speculation, peppering the text with ‘perhaps’es and ‘seems’es (see e.g. pp. 19–20, where he speculates on the origins of the Etruscans; pp. 37–8 on their dialects; p. 111 on the urns of Volterra). But anyway, Etruscan Places was pleasant to read, and almost made me wish to buy some big coffee-table book about Etruscan art (I don't doubt that Thames & Hudson must have published something suitable at some point :-)).

In Etruscan Places, there are many excellent barbs against the ancient Romans; I enjoyed them greatly, as I dislike the Romans very much. “However, those pure, clean-living, sweet-souled Romans, who smashed nation after nation and crushed the free soul in people after people, and were ruled by Messalina and Heliogabalus and such-like snowdrops, they said the Etruscans were vicious. So basta! [. . .] The Etruscans were vicious! The only vicious people on the face of the Earth presumably.” (EP p. 2.) “Even in their palmy days the Romans were not exactly saints. But they thought they ought to be. [. . .] they wanted empire and dominion and, above all, riches: social gain. You cannot dance gaily to the double flute and at the same time conquer nations or rake in large sums of money.” (EP p. 14.) At some point, “the Etruscans [. . .] became ruthless pirates [. . .] This was part of their viciousness, a great annoyance to their loving and harmless neighbours, the law-abiding Romans—who believed in the supreme law of conquest.” (EP p. 21.)

“Most people despise everything B.C. that isn't Greek, for the good reason that it ought to be Greek if it isn't.” (EP p. 1.) “To the Puritan all things are impure, as somebody says.” (EP p. 2.)

At some point the ancient Romans developed a passion for collecting Etruscan antiques, and therefore all the tombs are devoid of objects; only the paintings on the walls remain (EP p. 15). And even the paintings have begun to fade after the tombs were opened in the 19th century (EP p. 43) Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, owned some land in Etruria in the 19th century, and started excavations, but chiefly with the intention of selling the vases; he had the less interesting ones destroyed to prevent the market prices from falling (EP p. 88).

“Brute force and overbearing may make a terrific effect. But in the end, that which lives lives by delicate sensitiveness.” (EP p. 29.) “It is useless to look in Etruscan things for ‘uplift’. If you want uplift, go to the Greek and the Gothic. If you want mass, go to the Roman. But if you love the odd spontaneous forms that are never to be standardised, go to the Etruscans.” (EP p. 32.)

I can't help wondering, of course, to what extent the Etruscans really were such as Lawrence here paints them; and to what extent he is merely projecting onto the Etruscan-vs-Roman dichotomy his own preoccupations with instinct-vs-reason, phallic-vs-rational, etc., etc. I often wonder if we aren't somewhat inclined to idealize the early Mediterranean cultures simply because we don't know them well enough. Minoan Crete is the most famous example, but as seen here in Lawrence's book, Etruscans can come in for a bit of lionizing too.

Apparently gentlemen preferred blondes since time pretermemorial: “The two end women are called hetaerae, courtesans; chiefly because they have yellow hair, which seems to have been a favourite feature in a woman of pleasure.” (EP p. 39.)

The cover of this Penguin edition shows a dancer from the painting in an Etruscan tomb; Lawrence also visited that tomb, and comments on that very dancer on p. 41.

Funnily, one of the tombs is called the ‘Tomb of the Dead Man’ (EP p. 44) — as if a dead man being in the tomb was somehow unusual...

Lawrence's ‘philosophy’

The other two parts of this book, however, were terribly boring. Twilight in Italy is mostly about northern Italy, particularly the area around Lago di Garda; Sea and Sardinia, as the title implies, is about a short trip to Sardinia, with the voyage to Sardinia and back also taking a fairly prominent role in the book. Not much ever happens in these books; Lawrence wanders about, often on foot, sometimes riding a bus or a train; this was the 1920s or thereabouts, and the remote parts of Italy that he travelled through were mostly quite poor and sordid. We are treated to long descriptions of everyday events of the sort that you could just as well experience at home, without having to travel abroad. Sure, there is an interesting anecdote or observation every now and then, but most of the time I was quite bored and reading these two parts of the book was a major effort.

And, worst of all, there are countless philosophising passages out of which I was mostly unable to make any sense whatosever. It's a curious feeling: the text still consists of sentences, and each sentence consists of words, and each word by itself is easy enough to understand; but when you have read a few sentences of that twaddle, you realise that the meaning of the individual words has not coagulated in your mind into any coherent meaning of the whole passage. You can try rereading it a few times, with no better results. (I guess my lack of sophistication shows itself once again; it is after all well known that any odd boor can read and reasonably enjoy most 19th-century works, while it takes a genuine sophisticate to understand the modernists.) And sometimes this goes on for pages and pages (see e.g. Twilight in Italy, pp. 35–41).

Nor do these philosophical ramblings of Lawrence's have got much to do with the ostensible subject of his writing, i.e. with Italy. In fact some people seem to consider this a feature rather than a bug. “This book should not be packed by intending tourists to the Mediterranean as a convenient guide to Italy [. . .] But it is an indispensable guide to the sensibility of one of the most astonishing writers of our century. It is for visitors to Lawrence, a pretty large country, not for rubberneckers in mere southern Europe.” (Anthony Burgess in his introduction, p. vii.) I can't help feeling that this attitude is somehow terribly arrogant; but never mind that; let those who are very keen on Lawrence enjoy this book; if, however, you are (like me) more interested in Italy than in Lawrence, you might end up being disappointed, just as I was.

Here is a valuable passage from Burgess' introduction (pp. viii–xi): “He has what he calls a philosophy, meaning a highly emotional conviction about the location of human values [. . .] Instinct is more important than reason; the loins, not the brain, are the center of life; a mechanized civilization is evil.” This agrees rather well with Bertrand Russell's comments in his autobiography: “He had a mystical philosophy of ‘blood’ which I disliked. [. . .] This seemed to me frankly rubbish, and I rejected it vehemently”.

My rant about Lawrence's ‘philosophy’: I am torn between sympathy, exasperation, and boredom

Of course, it is not difficult to sympathize with Lawrence's position; after all, having to follow one's reason rather than one's instincts is immensely boring and generally quite unsatisfying; a life guided by reason and set in the context of a mechanized civilization is fit for a cogwheel, not a human being. Reason will oblige you to look at both sides of a problem; to try to imagine what might go wrong in a certain situation; to seek compromises; to worry about the consequences of a course of action; to think and plan calmly and carefully; etc., etc.: in short, it won't let you forget even for a moment what a dull, sordid, miserable life we live, and in what a dull, sordid, miserable world. Surely the only way to be happy at least for a moment is to have a torrent of raging psychotropic substances coursing through your veins — whether your own hormones or artificial stimulants like drugs and alcohol is really just a minor technicality. Or, as Khayyam writes in one of my favourite rubaiyat (Whinfield's translation, #196):

To drain a gallon beaker I design,
Yea, two great beakers, brimmed with richest wine;
     Old faith and reason thrice will I divorce,
Then take to wife the daughter of the vine.

But surely, at the same time, one cannot avoid being aware what complete and utter rubbish all of this reason-vs-instinct dilemma really is. We have the choice of either following our reason, and being bored out of our minds for the rest of our (dull but reasonably comfortable) lives; or following our instincts, and having exciting Hobbesian lives — nasty, brutish and short — full of wonderfully vivid sensations, mostly, alas, of the painful kind, ending most likely in a premature and violent death. It's a sad fact of life that most of us prefer to be bored but alive and well rather than excited but crippled or dead, and so we follow our reason rather than our instincts. Thus, merely eulogizing instincts and rambling against reason isn't going to accomplish much. Somebody ought to investigate why we make the choices we make — why we prefer the comfort and safety, and the myriad other things that only reason can give us, to the happiness and excitement that only the instincts can provide us with — which is the reason that we invariably choose reason and end up comfortable but unhappy. If we could somehow wean ourselves off our desire for the fruits of reason, we could finally enjoy wild blind (and horrible) lives of pure instinct; but that's probably impossible without shutting reason down altogether.

Anyway, I guess that what I'm trying to say with all of this is that I am in many ways sympathetic to Lawrence's position; if he extols instincts above reason, why so do I; a person who hates and despises reason more than I do is not frequently encountered; I resent it, always present there in the background, ready to pull one back every time one has even the slightest prospect of doing something enjoyable. But all of this, all this broad agreement of mine with some of Lawrence's ideas, doesn't change the fact that they make for very dull writing — dull and pointless. It's clear to everyone that we don't really want to go back to a harsh and violent life led by instincts, and therefore we'll keep leaning on our reason, even though it will lead us to dull and pointless lives. And thus there's no use droning on and on about it, particularly not in a travel book. Lawrence's fondness for using the word ‘phallic’ and its relatives to refer to the instinct side of the instinct-vs-reason dichotomy is even sillier and exacerbates the dulness, especially when he goes on about it for a whole paragraph.

Phallic, shmallic

As a characteristic example, consider this (Twilight in Italy, p. 44): “This, then, is the secret of Italy's attraction for us, this phallic worship. To the Italian the phallus is the symbol of individual creative immortality, to each man his own Godhead. The child is but the evidence of the Godhead.” Whatever on earth is this supposed to mean? Supposing that some sort of meaningful observation is hidden within this tripe, couldn't he express it in terms that a reasonable person could actually understand? I guess he could, but didn't wish to bother with it. Typical artistic arrogance, no doubt.

“It is the natural beauty of proportion of the phallic consciousness, contrasted with the more studied or ecstatic proportion of the mental and spiritual Consciousness we are accustomed to.” (Etruscan Places, p. 10.) See also EP p. 13 on the phallic stones of Etruria and of ancient India.

Honi soit qui mal y pense: “Burdens on the face of the earth are man's ponderous erections.” (EP p. 25.)


Here are a few quotations that I found interesting.

“It is better to go forward into error than to stay fixed inextricably in the past.” (Twilight in Italy p. 53.)

“[T]hat triumph of the deaf and dumb, the cinematograph” (TiI p. 55.)

“[T]he cypress trees poise like flames of forgotten darkness, that should have been blown out at the end of the summer. For as we have candles to light the darkness of night, so the cypresses are candles to keep the darkness aflame in the full sunshine.” (TiI p. 81.)

“Death has no beauty in Italy, unless it be violent.” (TiI p. 113.)

“[T]he long, howling, hiccupping, melancholy bray of an ass. ‘All females are dead, all females-och! och! och!—hoooo! Ahaa!—there's one left.’ So he ends on a moaning grunt of consolation. This is what the Arabs tell us an ass is howling when he brays.” (Sea and Sardinia, p. 5.)

“It is much nicest, on the whole, to travel third-class on the railway. There is space, there is air, and it is like being in a lively inn, everybody in good spirits.” (SaS pp. 69–70.)

“[B]eefsteaks of pork” (SaS p. 78; I don't know what he means but I'm sure that genetic engineering will soon make it a possibility :-).)

“There is nothing to see in Nuoro: which, to tell the truth, is always a relief. Sights are an irritating bore.” (SaS p. 150.)

Some other interesting passages: a comparison of Hamlet and Orestes (TiI pp. 68–9); on the Infinite or Absolute (TiI pp. 72–3); the modernization of Italy (disappearance of the peasants, TiI p. 94; progress of roads, railroads, and the industry, not very much to Lawrence's liking, TiI pp. 164–5); its depressed post-war economy and atmosphere (SaS pp. 28–9); the tiny Sardinian donkeys (SaS pp. 62–3); a group of people sucking their soup (SaS pp. 78–9); Sardinian language (SaS p. 80); he hates limestone and marble, but is fond of granite (aren't you glad to know that? SaS p. 83); his hatred of modernity, with its tendency to blur individual differences, make people wear the same clothes, everywhere, etc. (thank goodness he isn't around to see the present-day globalization), SaS pp. 91–2 (on clothes see also pp. 61, 71); impressed by Italian roads (SaS p. 121); “how old the real Italy is, how man-gripped and how withered. England is far more wild and savage and lonely, in her country parts” (SaS pp. 122–3); a procession in Sardinia (SaS pp. 125–7); economics of bus routes (SaS p. 130); meeting D'Annunzio's soldiers returning from Rijeka (SaS p. 184); the Etruscan language (EP pp. 11, 20), origins (EP pp. 19–20), burial customs (EP p. 28), vases (EP p. 32), religion (EP pp. 49–50, 66), decline (EP pp. 74–5); museums are wrong (EP pp. 27, 114); the Etruscan ruling class, the Lucumones (EP pp. 31, 52); eyes painted on the prows of boats (EP p. 35); hippocampus, the mythical seahorse (EP p. 46); the symbolism of the sea (EP p. 53); the augurs (EP pp. 54–6); the prison in Volterra (EP pp. 115).

His thoughts on seeing two prisoners (he doesn't seem to know what they have done, and is motivated chiefly by their appearance): “It is a great mistake to abolish the death penalty. If I were dictator, I should order the old one [of the two convicts] to be hung at once. I should have judges with sensitive, living hearts: not abstract intellects. And because the instinctive heart recognised a man as evil, I would have that man destroyed. Quickly. Because good warm life is now in danger.” (SaS pp. 10–11.) Yuck. The filthy fascist bastard. My opinion on the death penalty is that everybody who favours it should certainly be given the opportunity to enjoy it to the full. And after all supporters of the death penalty have been executed, the rest of us can live decent, calm lives free of the fear that we may get murdered by the state at any moment.

On observing two babies making a mess at the table, while their parents look on calmly: “This inordinate Italian amiable patience with their young monkeys is astonishing. It makes the monkeys more monkey-like, and self-conscious incredibly [. . .] Till at last one sees the southern Holy Family as an unholy triad of imbecility.” (SaS p. 41.)

“I like Italian newspapers because they say what they mean, and not merely what is most convenient to say. We call it naïveté—I call it manliness. Italian newspapers read as if they were written by men, and not by calculating eunuchs.” (SaS p. 181.)

More of his anti-modern sentiments: “Give me the old, salty way of love. How I am nauseated with sentiment and nobility, the macaroni slithery-slobbery mess of modern adorations.” (SaS p. 67.) “Oh, the good old energy of the bygone days, before men became so self-conscious.” (SaS p. 144.)

Sea and Sardinia ends on a note of his familiar blood-philosophy: “I loved them all in the theatre: the generous, hot southern blood, so subtle and spontaneous, that asks for blood contact, not for mental communion or spirit sympathy. I was sorry to leave them.” (P. 205.)


A curious stylistic feature, occuring particularly often in Sea and Sardinia: Lawrence takes a sentence that would otherwise be perfectly ordinary and moves the verb to the beginning! He is particularly fond of doing this with verbs that express motion. I'm not quite sure what he means to achieve by this, but the more I read it, the more affected (and annoying) it sounds to me. “Enter more passengers.” (SaS p. 14.) “Arrives an individual at our side.” (SaS p. 24.) “Arrives the milk” (SaS p. 41); “Arrived the inevitable meat [. . .] Arrived the wash-leather pears [. . .] Arrived coffee” (SaS p. 44). “Comes a carriage [. . .] Arrived a primrose-brocade beau” (SaS p. 56); “Came two little children [. . .] Appeared Dante and Beatrice” (SaS p. 60; all this during a procession of masks in Cagliari). “Remained also the schoolmistress” (SaS p. 186).

He doesn't in the least mind using the word ‘nigger’ — I guess it wasn't thought of as offensive at that time (1920s). “A mountain of black-purple cauliflowers, like niggers' heads, and amountain of snow-white ones next to them.” (SaS p. 18.) “[N]igger-coloured silk stockings” (SaS p. 31, and similarly on p. 34); “nigger-stripped cork-trees’ (SaS p. 94).


Apparently the Italian economy was still recovering from the war and was in a generally poor condition. The exchange rate was not in Italy's favour either, and Lawrence often describes how the Italians, upon hearing that he is English, would complain about the Englishmen and Americans who are coming to Italy with their pounds and dollars and buying up everything for a pittance thanks to the exchange rate (SaS pp. 48–9, 169, 187–8, 192–3, 195, 198–9). He is rightfully annoyed by this, as he himself has done nothing to provoke it: he is not some wealthy, arrogant, ignorant tourist; he speaks Italian well enough, and travels on foot and by public transport. Besides, England wasn't doing all that well at the time, either (SaS p. 193). Interestingly, and in stark contrast to the structure of WW1 alliances, many Italians were complaining against England and America, but expressed sympathy with Germany, who seemed to the Italians as poor and downtrodden as Italy.

Some prices (in liras per kilogram; SaS p. 64): cheese, 18–25; ham, 30–35; butter, 30–32; chickens, 11–14; mortadella, 16; potatoes, 1.40–1.50. One egg, 0.60–0.65 in Sardinia, 1.50 in Sicily. Two train tickets, 60 miles, third class: 30 liras (SaS p. 69). The exchange rate: £1 = 103 lira (SaS p. 182). He says that many things were more expensive than in England: “I could live in England just as well, on the same money—perhaps better.” (SaS p. 187).

Apparently trade within Italy was not entirely free at the time; individual cities had customs-houses (‘Dazio’) where anyone bringing food or certain other articles into the city would have to pay a tax (SaS pp. 53, 139; EP pp. 24, 58)


I recommend Etruscan Places but not the other two collections included in this book, especially if you are more interested in Italy than in Lawrence. This recommendation, of course, only makes sense if you are a person like me. If, on the other hand, you are e.g. sophisticated and fond of modernist literature, it may well turn out that you'll enjoy Lawrence's meanderings greatly. But then, if you really were sophisticated, you probably wouldn't be reading this blog :-)


  • Lawrence's 1926 novel, The Plumed Serpent, inspired by his travels in Mexico, sounds potentially interesting.

  • Jacques Heurgon, Daily Life of the Etruscans, is great if you are looking for a more down-to-earth introduction to the Etruscans. It's a nice counterbalance to Lawrence's approach, which is inevitably focused mostly on their tombs and the paintings therein. Heurgon will tell you that the Etruscans were also masters of water engineering, constructing ditches and drainage canals, regulating rivers, drying out marshes, etc., and their city-founding rituals were admired even by the Romans. (Actually, Lawrence briefly mentions drainage as well, EP p. 83, including the fact that malaria returned to Etruria after the Romans occupied it and failed to maintain the network of canals used to drain the marshy areas.)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

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

[Continued from parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.]

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.

Casement's homosexuality

As I mentioned above, expressions of Casement's homosexuality in his diaries are relatively few and quite brief. They may have seemed shocking at the time of Casement's trial, or even in the 1950s when this book was published, but a reader expecting something lurid by present-day standards would be quite disappointed. There are many good reasons to read this book (reasons having to do with the history of imperialism in the Congo and Putumayo regions, with the Irish struggle for independence, with Casement's trial, etc., etc.), but reading it in the hope of finding shocking things in Casement's diaries isn't one of them.

Most of these entries are just a few words long, perhaps a sentence or two. He never misses a chance to watch (and there seem to have been far more chances than a naive person such as me might expect), and to record what he has seen. He tends to be rather technical, and is particularly keen to note the size [he most evidently wasn't one of those who say that size doesn't matter :-)]. One thing that struck me as perhaps a little sad is that the encounters he describes seem to be more or less purely about sex; hardly any emotions appear to have been involved, and he by and large doesn't seem to have had any long-term partners.

“Dusky depredator huge, saw 7 in. in all.” (Dec 6, 1903, p. 183.) “Before leaving the beautiful muchacho shewed it, a big stiff one, and another muchacho grasped it like a truncheon. Black and thick and stiff as poker.” (October 28, 1910, p. 269.) “Stiff asleep ones. [. . .] Saw big ones on Indians at dinner and before.” (November 1, 1910, p. ,273.) “[O]ne boy with erection, fingering it longingly and pulling it stiff, could see all from verandah.” (Ibid., November 2.) “Steward showed enormous exposure after dinner—stiff down left thigh. Then he went below and came up at St. Thereza where ‘Eliza’ launch was and leant on gunwale with huge erection about 8". Guerrido watching. I wanted awfully.” (November 24, 1910, p. 291.) “Saw Indian cook boy on ‘Inca’ enormous, lying down and pulled often. Huge and thick, lad 17.” (November 27, 1910, p. 293.) “Enormous limbs and it stiff on right side feeling it and holding it down in his pocket.” (December 2, 1910, p. 295.)

“Ernest 6/-. Cab 2/-. Ernest 10/-. [And then summed up in the margin:] 18. 0. Enormous.” (January 4, 1911, p. 538.) “Enormous and liked greatly.” (January 30, 1911, p. 544.) “Splendid in Park 3 times and also outside several and to Buckingham Palace at 11.45.” (February 7, 1911, p. 547.) “Enormous 19 about 7" and 4 thick.” (March 5, 1911, p. 555.) “[May 12, 1911.] Letter from Millar agreeing to Newcastle. [May 13.] Arr. Newcastle. Huge! In Bath. Splendid. Millar into me. [May 14.] At Newcastle with M. Into Millar! and then he came too.” (Pp. 575–6.) “Cyril Corbally and his motor bike for Millar.” “Huge Irish. [. . .] Huge thick as wrist.” (Ibid., August 6.) “I to meet enormous at 9. Will suck and take too./ He was not there! I waited till 9.30.” (Ibid., August 7.) In Manaos. 1. Raymundo Aprendiz Marintetro. 2. Sailor. Negro. 3. Agostinho de Souza. [. . .] 3 lovers had and two others wanted.” (October 1, 1911, p. 621.)

As can be seen from the examples above, most of these entries are from the 1910 and 1911 diaries; there are very few in the 1903 diary. And in 1910, most are from the time before and after his actual journey to the Putumayo; during the journey itself he seems to have limited himself to watching rather than doing.


On p. 368 there's a photo of Kaiser Wilhelm II with a huge death's-head symbol on his cap. Not a word of explanation is offered—either the editors don't mind the fact that the readers will probably find this quite bizarre, or they expect that they will be aware of the fact that the origins of the symbol are innocuous enough, and that it has been used in parts of the Prussian army since the time of Frederick the Great.

The back flap of the dustjacket states the list price as 5000 francs. According to this table (I found the link in the Wikipedia), the 1959 exchange rate was $1 = 4.9371 francs, which would make the book's price 1012.74 in 1959 dollars, or $6896 in present-day dollars (inflation calculator). But this is ridiculous. I guess the exchange rate refers to the new francs introduced in 1960, worth 100 old ones. This brings down the price of the book to $69 present-day dollars, which is still an unimaginably high price for a trade hardcover, at least in the U.S.; in Britain, $69 is currently approx. £40, which would be a stiff price but probably soon won't be unheard of — trade hardcovers priced at £35 are more and more common nowadays, so surely they will creep up to £40 in just a few years.

One of my few complaints about this book is that it lacks an index. Many people and places are mentioned in this book, it's also fairly long, so an index would really be helpful.

To conclude, this is a big and interesting book. Don't read it if you are merely expecting something shocking because of the notoriety that used to surround the Black Diaries, as you are likely to be disappointed. However, if you are interested in Casement's life, in his work in the Congo and the Putumayo, and his role in the Easter rising, this is the right book for you. Nevertheless it might be good to also consider some of the more recent books (see the list below); I haven't yet read any of them but certainly intend to do so eventually.


  • Angus Mitchell (ed.): The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement. London: Anaconda Editions, 1997. Contains the diary kept by Casement during his 1910 mission to the Putumayo region. The diary is now preserved in the National Library of Ireland. It is much longer and more extensive than the Black Diary covering the same period, and probably formed the basis for Casement's official report to the Foreign Office. See also p. 38 of this book. Singleton-Gates and Girodias mention this journal e.g. on pp. 203 of their book, but they didn't publish it (their edition only includes Casement's official report and the Black Diary).

  • Angus Mitchell (ed.): Sir Roger Casement's Heart of Darkness: the 1911 Documents. Dublin: The Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1998. The Commission's web site states the ISBN as 1874280983, but there seems to be some confusion about this in the databases of most other online booksellers, as e.g. Amazon returns another of the Commission's publications when queried for this ISBN. This book is about Casement's second voyage to the Amazon, which took place in 1911.

  • Jeffrey Dudgeon: Roger Casement: The Black Diaries: with a study of his background, sexuality, and Irish political life. Belfast Press, 2002.

  • W. J. McCormack: Roger Casement in Death: Or Haunting the Free State. University College Dublin Press, 2002. See the review here. The author established the authenticity of the diaries by forensic methods; this book focuses on Casement's reputation in the inter-war period.

  • A nice web page with an overview of recent publications on Casement and his diaries.

  • W. E. Hardenburg: The Putumayo: The Devil's Paradise. See pp. 210, 214. Hardenburg, an American engineer, was one of the first to draw attention of the English public to the Putumayo atrocities. He published several articles about it in 1909 after returning from his travels in that area.

  • Guy Burrows: The Curse of Central Africa, and the Belgian Administration (1903). “A rather sensational book” by a former British army officer who worked for some years in Leopold's Force Publique in the Congo (p. 161).

  • Evelyn Blücher: An English Wife in Berlin. London, 1920. Memoirs of the WW1 and the revolutionary period immediately after the war. Her husband, Count Blücher, was an old acquaintance of Casement's (pp. 371–2).

  • Admiral Sir William James: The Eyes of the Navy. Mentioned on p. 363 in relation to Britain's breaking of the German naval cyphers.

  • Carl Spindler: The Mystery of the Casement Ship. Berlin, 1931. Mentioned on p. 406. Spindler was the captain of the German ship that was bringing arms to Ireland, to help with the Easter rising.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

BOOK: Roger Casement's "Black Diaries" [4/5]

[Continued from parts 1, 2, and 3.]

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.

The Irish struggle for independence

For me, this was perhaps a less interesting part of the book. The editors describe the Irish efforts to win autonomy or independence from Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century. I know almost nothing about this, and it was sometimes a little difficult to keep track of all the names of the numerous people involved (on both sides of the conflict). Casement's active support of the Irish mostly began after he retired from the diplomatic service in 1913 (pp. 317, 327). (Incidentally, there's a nice paragraph on p. 317 where he complains about the never-ending stream of difficulties that a consul like he had to put up with from the numerous British subjects calling on his help.)

During the first world war, many soldiers from the UK became prisoners of war in Germany; among them there was naturally also a certain proportion of Irishmen. Casement persuaded the Germans to publish a statement of good intentions towards Ireland (p. 371) and to try establishing an ‘Irish brigade’ (p. 381): he went round the POW camps and tried to convince the Irish prisoners to join this brigade, with the understanding that they would be sent to Ireland to fight against the British (pp. 374–6). Germans would provide some equipment, weapons, and a few troops of their own. The resulting uprising in Ireland would weaken Britain and force it to withdraw some of its soldiers from the Western Front (pp. 404–7).

However, these plans were not particularly successful. Most of the Irishmen approached by Casement regarded his proposal as treasonous and refused to join (pp. 374–5). Casement came to be regarded more and more as an ineffective dreamer (p. 383), and was not taken seriously either by the Germans or by the Irish nationalist leaders in Ireland itself (p. 402). He did in fact come up with some quite bizarre proposals, e.g. that the Irish brigade should be sent to fight the British in Egypt (p. 381), or to help the Turks in Syria (p. 402), even though it was clear that the effects of this tiny number of soldiers would be negligible and that most of them didn't want to go anywhere except to Ireland anyway.

The Germans began to feel that the whole enterprise is sufficiently unreliable that they decided to send no soldiers or officers of their own; they'd send only a small quantity of arms (p. 407). Without enough arms an Irish uprising would be impossible, as the British had forbidden the import of arms into Ireland some time before (pp. 331, 337–8). What is worse, “there is no serious doubt that the Germans had been deliberately deceiving the Irish leaders as to their support, and the only man who had seen through their game was Roger Casement.” (Pp. 407–8.) The purpose of this German duplicity was to prevent the Irish from abandoning the armed uprising altogether; a failed uprising might be a disaster for the Irish but would still be good for Germany insofar as it would keep the British busy for a while.

[Interestingly, before the war, some of the Unionists (who opposed the idea of Home Rule for Ireland) also looked to Germany for assistance. Edward Carson wrote in 1913: “ ‘We have the offer of aid from a powerful Continental monarch, who, if Home Rule is forced on the Protestants of Ireland, is prepared to send an army sufficient to release England of any further trouble in Ireland by attaching to his dominion.’ ” (P. 330.)]

The date of the uprising had been set at Easter Sunday, 1916. Casement realized that given the meagre support by the Germans, a rebellion in Ireland is too risky, and he hoped he'd be able to warn the Irish leaders in time to call the whole thing off. But the Germans delayed his letter to Ireland, and also made sure that the submarine they provided to transport him to Ireland would not land there early enough (pp. 410–1). The Irish plans for the uprising are described on p. 412; it is clear to what a considerable extent they depended on German support. (Incidentally, the plans to send weapons from Germany to Ireland were doomed to fail anyway: the British had acquired German naval codes early in the war (p. 363), and were thus able to read German cables and wireless messages, so that such a shipment could not be concealed from them; p. 419.)

The Irish leaders decided to start the rising anyway, even after they realized that no German support would be forthcoming and that Casement had been arrested soon after he landed in Ireland. Even though there was no hope of military success, the rising would at least prove that Ireland seriously wanted independence. “England pretended that her aim in the war was to champion the rights of the small nations to independence and freedom and she was desperately trying to draw the United States into the conflict by appealing to the American ideal of democracy and freedom. With Ireland risen in rebellion, that pretence would lose all consistency, and England would be obliged by her German enemies as well as by her American allies to grant Ireland independence.” (P. 425) Besides, another good reason to proceed with the rebellion was that the British were planning to disarm the Irish Volunteers, the main nationalist organization, and introduce conscription to obtain new recruits for the British army (p. 423). Thus it might be difficult or impossible to carry out a rebellion later.

Anyway, the rising ended up a failure (pp. 419–21), despite much courageous fighting and even heroism on the part of the rebels (pp. 431–2). It seems that this rebellion had some elements of a class-based conflict in addition to a nationalist one; hilariously, “It was James Connolly's Marxist conviction that capitalists will always abstain from destroying the majestic buildings which symbolise their power. He thus chose the General Post Office as headquarters for the rebel leaders, firmly believing that such a fine piece of architecture was the safest place in Dublin.” (P. 432).

The rebellion being suppressed, many of the rebels were executed or imprisoned, and the ruling circles in England were in no mood to negotiate or be lenient. But this provoked a reaction in Ireland: “the Nationalist movement, which had lived in the hearts of but a few patriots until the Easter rising, embraced suddenly all of the Irish nation./ What had appeared to be the idle dream of a few misled poets, became overnight an immediate reality. What had started as a rebellion proved to be in fact a revolution.” (P. 454.)

Casement's trial has a certain bizarre aspect. He was accused of violating an act of king Edward III, published in Norman French in 1351, “which provides a uniform death penalty for treason and such offences as to imagine the King's death; violate the King's wife, or his eldest unmarried daughter, or the wife of the King's eldest son” (p. 467). The same act had been used in 1902 to sentence to death a certain Col. Lynch, for supporting the Boers; but his sentence was changed into imprisonment and he was released soon afterwards (p. 466).

“The charge was one of intention, not of deed. [. . .] Thus a sentence of death could only be obtained from a misinformed jury which would [. . .] draw the conclusion that Casement himself was the responsible agent for the attempted landing of the arms.” (P. 467.) The fact that Casement had actually tried to prevent the rising was ignored. Even Casement himself “refused to fight his adversaries on their ground, choosing to elevate the debate to the sphere of principle. He thus relinquished his only chance to save his life.” (P. 467.) At the end of the trial, he made a speech (pp. 486–98) containing some of the finest sentences ever spoken in praise of national independence. “Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from us by another people than the right to life itself—than the right to feel the sun or smell the flowers, or to love our kind.” (P. 498.)

From a legal point of view, much of the defense was based on bickering about the wording and even the punctuation of the 1351 act. The pedantry reached truly absurd heights; one of the judges personally examined the 600-year-old parchments on which the act was originally published: “ ‘My brother Atkin and I took the trouble to look at the Parliamentary Roll and the Statute Roll.’ ” (P. 500.) See pp. 503–7 for a discussion and even facsimiles of the manuscripts. Among other things, the law forbids one to “be adherent to the enemies of our Lord the King in the realm, bringing to them aid and comfort in his realm, or elsewhere” (p. 504). Casement was charged with treason for his activities in Germany; the prosecution claimed that the phrase ‘bringing to them aid and comfort in his realm’ must be understood as if it were in brackets, and the main clause is therefore ‘be adherent to the enemies in the realm or elsewhere’ — thus, treason abroad is forbidden by this act and Casement had broken it. The defence, on the other hand, argued that the concept of brackets or equivalent things was not present in such medieval texts; and besides, the interpretation with brackets would mean that the phrase ‘in his realm’ is unnecessarily (and unexpectedly) duplicated; thus, the act does not really talk about treason committed abroad (pp. 477, 506). I must admit that I don't quite understand the defence's arguments here, and the prosecution's argument certainly appears more credible to me. If the bracket-based interpretation is not accepted, then what does ‘or elsewhere’ refer to? If it refers directly to ‘bringing to them aid and comfort’, then the defence would have to argue that the people to whom Casement had been bringing aid and comfort ‘elsewhere’ (i.e. in Germany) were not ‘enemies of the King in the realm’ (i.e. the Irish) but the Germans, who were enemies outside the realm. It isn't obvious to me from the book that this is what the defence was trying to say. Anyway, it all seems rather convoluted. The editors of the book suggest another interpretation, which sounds much more persuasive, but it seems that it has not occurred to the defence: namely that the French word that is here translated ‘elsewhere’ can also mean ‘otherwise’, and under this interpretation the question of treason abroad would not come under the purview of this act at all. (Some other weaknesses of the defence are discussed on p. 502.)

But anyway, from a common-sense point of view, it's probably difficult to defend Casement's act — surely it doesn't matter whether the enemies that you are supporting are located within the country or elsewhere, or if you are located within the country or elsewhere — it's treason all the same. I personally am very uncomfortable with this whole concept of treason anyway. What right does the government have to compel its citizens to support it rather than the enemy? It doesn't have that right any more than a political party could have the right to compel the people to vote for it rather than for a rival. Imagine that 51% of the country voted for party A, the remaining 49% for party B, and the day after party A forms a government, it declares war on a neighbouring country C. Are the 49% of the people who most emphatically wanted neither party A nor war against C now to be considered traitors unless they blindly support these things, both of which are odious to them?

Thus, the British government should not, in my opinion, have the power to compel even the Britons to support it, much less an Irishman such as Casement. As I see it, he could not commit treason against it because he never owed it his support anyway. As he rightly pointed out, the decent thing for him to do was to support his country, Ireland, and not some foreign occupier such as Britain.

Incidentally, I suggest that the proper thing to do in a situation like this is the following: if an activity is not forbidden by anything more recent than a 600-year-old piece of sheepskin inscribed in Norman French, then it should damned well be considered perfectly legal. And all lawyers who seriously think that the proper way to decide the outcome of a 20th-century trial (and a man's life depending on it, too!) is to wrangle about the phrasing and punctuation of a 600-year-old Norman-French sentence (quite possibly written by some semi-illiterate drunken scribe anyway) should be placed in front of the nearest wall and shot.

Also incidentally, that act of 1351 was not the only Norman-French thing about the trial. “An usher shouting ‘Oyez,’ the Norman-French word for ‘Hear Ye,’ opened the proceedings’ (p. 465). See also p. 499 for a bunch of other ridiculous medieval court rituals.

After Casement had been sentenced, various petitions were sent to the government to pardon him, but were rejected. Many argued that hanging him would just turn him into a martyr: “ ‘Casement had not, up to the time of his trial, any serious hold on the Irish people. His nationalist writings were circulated in America, not in Ireland. [...] if during your recent visit to Ireland you enquired what Casement was driving at you did not receive a single well-informed reply. You certainly did not find him a national hero; [...] It is quite true that if he is spared, the fact that he is not executed will be used against us. But if he is executed, his execution would be an even more formidable weapon.’ ” (G. B. Shaw's petition, pp. 510–1.)

[To be continued in a few days.]

Saturday, April 08, 2006

BOOK: Roger Casement's "Black Diaries" [3/5]

[Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.]

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.

The Putumayo report

I found this part of the book even more interesting than the one about the Congo, probably chiefly because I had read one or two books about the Congo before, but nothing about the Putumayo. Casement's report is an excellent introduction to this subject, thorough and well organized. The first few pages contain a nice overview of the history of Peruvian and Colombian exploitation of the region (pp. 226–236). It started in the 1880s. “Generally, a leading man fitted out an expedition with a few companions [. . .] and a gang of hired ‘peones’ [. . .] in search of tribes of wild Indians [. . .] who could be easily subdued and reduced to work the wild rubber trees in the territory they inhabited.” (P. 230.) The Indians were often initially induced to work voluntarily, in exchange for trade goods; but “once in the conquistadores' books they had lost all liberty, and were reduced to unending demands for more rubber and more varied tasks.” (P. 232.) The idea that the Indians had no rights and were simply the property of their conquistador, although it had no basis in law, was supported even by some magistrates (p. 234).

The British had considerable influence in Peru at the time. The Peruvian Corporation, which owned the nation's railroads, was a company registered in London (p. 212). The British consul in Iquitos had been aware of the situation in the Putumayo region since at least 1903 (as had been the Peruvian government; p. 212).

It's possible that the text of the Putumayo report has been somewhat abridged in this edition, but it's hard to tell how much. The note on p. 216 says: “The substance of this report is reproduced below” on pp. 220–308. But I didn't find any places where it would be obvious that something has been omitted, except for an ellipsis “[...]” on p. 244.

His impression of the Indians offers a curious mixture of the cannibal and the noble savage: “The wars of those clans with one another were never bloodthirsty, for I believe it is a fact that the Amazon Indian is averse to bloodshed, and is thoughtless rather than cruel. Prisoners taken in these wars may have been, and no doubt were, eaten, or in part eaten, for the Amazon cannibals do not seem to have killed to eat, as is the case with many primitive races, but to have sometimes, possibly frequently, in part eaten those they killed. More than one traveller in tropical South America records his impression that the victims were not terrified at the prospect of being eaten, and in some cases regarded it as an honourable end.” (Pp. 224–6.) But according to a Peruvian informant, the Indians developed “ ‘a repugnance to eating white men, whom they hated too much’ ” (p. 236).

A sad but true observation from his diary, September 17, 1910: “The young Quichua pilot on ‘Liberal’ is named Simon Pisango—a pure pure Indian name—but calls himself Simon Pizarro—because he wants to be ‘civilised’. Just like the Irish O's and [undeciph.] dropping first their names or prefixes to shew their respectability and then their ancient tongue itself to be completely Anglicized. Simon Pisango still talks Quichua, but another [undeciph.] of Pizarros will speak only Spanish! Men are conquered not by invasion but by themselves and their own turpitude.” (Pp. 241–3.)

A certain Dyall admitted “five murders of Indians by his own hand, two he shot, two he beat to death by smashing their testicles under Normand's order, with Normand helping, and one he flogged to death.” (P. 247.)

The crimes of Armando Normand, another agent of the Peruvian Amazon Company, included “pouring kerosene oil on men an women and then setting fire to them; burning men at the stake; dashing the brains out of children, and again and again cutting off the arms and legs of Indians and leaving them to speedy death in this agony.” (P. 256).

The Indians were often forced to carry huge loads of rubber, and the Company didn't bother to provide them with enough food: “his load of rubber was by no means one of the largest I had seen actually being carried. [. . .] its weight was just 50 kilog./ This man had not a scrap of food with him.” (P. 260.)

“Men and women would be suspended by the arms, often twisted behind their backs [. . .] their feet hanging high above the ground, they were scourged on the nether limbs and lower back. The implement used for flogging was invariably a twisted strip, or several strips plaited together, of dried tapir hide”. Later, some steps were taken to prohibit flogging, and the agents took to beating the Indians with a machete, which hurt just as much but didn't leave permanent scars (p. 262). A certain Fidel Velarde came up with another ingenious idea: Indians were “forcibly held under water until they became insensible and half-drowned” (p. 262). Or they would be “suspended by a chain fastened round the neck to one of the beams of the house or store. Sometimes with the feet scarcely touching the ground [. . .] in this half-strangled position until life was almost extinct.” (P. 268.) “Men and women were kept prisoners in the station stocks until they died of hunger.” (P. 268.)

As mentioned above, the Putumayo was claimed by both Peru and Colombia but not really controlled by either of them. “From first to last I met no authority of the Peruvian Government, and could appeal for no assistance in my mission save to the agents of the Peruvian Amazon Company, who were in absolute control, not only of the persons and lives of the surrounding Indians, but of all means of transport” (p. 272). Fortunately he was accompanied by a representative of the company, señor Tizon (pp. 254, 272), who was quite cooperative; otherwise it would have been impossible for Casement to make such a thorough investigation.

A footnote on p. 279 quotes a passage from his other diary, where he describes a lunar rainbow he saw on November 7th. “I looked up from the verandah to the eastern sky and saw to my amazement an arc of light across the dark starless heaven—a lunar rainbow—a perfect arch of light in the night.” This is the first time I've heard of lunar rainbows.

As the companies controlled all means of transport, they were able to sell their goods to their Barbadoan employees at vastly overinflated prices. Casement “compared the prices charged them with those charged to me at Iquitos by the Iquitos Trading Co., and I find in some cases nearly 400% on top; [. . .] nothing less than a 150% to 200% and a great many over. And then the Iquitos price represents itself fully 150% on European price.” (Diary for November 7, 1910, p. 277.) Other cases of fraud against the Barbados men are described on p. 281 (Diary, November 11th).

There are some very good observations on p. 290: some critics wonder how such “continuous criminality” towards the Indians was possible, as “no man will deliberately kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. This argument would have force if applied to a settled country or an estate it was designed to profitably develop. None of the freebooters on the Putumayo had any such limitations in his view, or care for the hereafter to restrain him. His first object was to get rubber, and the Indians would always last his time.” (P. 290.) And in many cases: “Such men had lost all sight or sense of rubber-gathering—they were simply beasts of prey who lived upon the Indians and delighted in shedding their blood.” (Pp. 290–2.) I think these are very important points. People will not, as some of the more shallow economists sometimes aver, tend to maximize profits, or anything of that sort; they will tend to maximize some combination of things in which profits play a role but pleasure usually ranks even higher.

How come that the Indians, despite being relatively numerous, were not able to organize some more effective resistance? Firstly, the various Indian communities were often divided amongst themselves and hostile to each other. Secondly, they had no weapons comparable to those of the whites, and the latter even deprived them of their natural weapons (blow-pipes and spears). And they took care to destroy their experienced older people as soon as possible: “Their old people, both women and men, respected for character and ability to wisely advise, had been marked from the first as dangerous, and in the early stages of the occupation were done to death. [. . .] The Barbados men assured me that when they first came to the region in the beginning of 1905, old people were still to be found, vigorous and highly respected, but these had all disappeared, so far as I could gather, before my coming.” (Pp. 292–4.)

Casement describes the marriage customs of the Indians on p. 300. “The very conditions of Indian life, open and above board, and every act of every day known to well-nigh every neighbour, precluded, I should say, vey widespread sexual immorality before the coming of the white man.” The whites also soon found that if they take away an Indian's wife, he refuses to work: “ ‘the Indians loves their wives, and if she is taken they won't work rubber. They can kill them, do anything tehy like to them, but the Indians won't work rubber.’ [. . .] This obstinate prejudice of the Indian preserved a native marriage from nvasion more surely than any respect the ‘cauchero’ has for its sanctity.” Thus when the oppressors wanted concubines, they usually took single girls, preferrably orphans (p. 300).

[To be continued in a few days.]

Saturday, April 01, 2006

BOOK: Roger Casement's "Black Diaries" [2/5]

[Continued from last week's Part 1.]

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.

About this book

The contents of this book are as follows. First there's an introduction by the two editors. The next part of the book is about Casement's 1903 Congo mission, containing the text of his official report to the Foreign Office as well as the Black Diary from the same period; it ends with a short conclusion by the editors. Then there's a part about Casement's 1910 mission to the Putumayo, again containing his official report and the Black Diary from the same period, and the editors' conclusion. Then follow two fairly long chapters, one about Casement's involvement in the Irish struggle for independence, and one about his subsequent trial and execution. Finally there's the appendix containing his 1911 diary.

It's quite an extensive book, carefully and handsomely produced. It's fairly large and thick, profusely illustrated with many photographs; and there are maps of the Congo and of Dublin on the endpapers, and of the Putumayo region on p. 218.

In the Congo and the Putumayo parts of the book, Casement's report and diary are always printed on facing pages: the report on the even pages and the diary on the odd ones. With a clever arrangement of illustrations, the publishers made sure that both texts run to approximately the same number of pages. I think it's quite a neat idea. Admittedly, the reports and the diaries don't really correspond so closely that having them on facing pages is particularly helpful. It was, however, useful for the following reason: for me at least, the diaries were often quite boring, much more so than the official reports. Therefore, the opportunity to read the diaries one page at a time, with one page of the more interesting report in between, helped alleviate the boredom of it for me.

Interestingly, the Congo report is heavily anonymized, the names of people and places usually replaced by initials. The initials themselves are not really derived from the names but were mostly chosen from adjacent positions of the alphabet: “We took rubber to D.E...'s station, E.E... and to F.F...” (p. 116). There's “Q.Q.'s statement” on p. 144, followed by “R.R.'s statement” on p. 146;. “I was born at K.K... [. . .] I went to L.L... [. . .] the M.M... people” (p. 144). The Putumayo report, on the other hand, uses full names throughout.

The Black Diaries themselves make for fairly dull reading. Someone buying this book chiefly because of the prospect of reading something lurid and notorious would certainly be disappointed. The diaries may have seemed shocking to an earlier age when homosexuality was considered an abomination, but to a present-day reader there is nothing terribly interesting about them. The style is very terse, and most of the contents are unimportant everyday observations. Mentions of his homosexual encounters and fantasies are not really terribly common (in the 1903 diary there are almost none), and they are just as brief and laconic as the rest of the diary material; often a mere word or two.

The diaries often show a curious pedantic streak, with Casement obsessively recording irrelevant minor details. During his voyage to Africa, he records the number of miles sailed by the ship each day (pp. 117, 119), and later reports the exact hour and minute every time the ship started or stopped (p. 151). And the 1911 diary (pp. 537–626) is nothing but a long day-by-day list of expenditures, even the most minute ones: cigarettes, tips given to waiters, alms given to beggars, bus and taxi fares, etc., etc. There are daily and monthly totals, with separate totals for expenses related to his Foreign Office work, and for sex-related expenses.

The Congo report

The Congo and the Putumayo reports are quite interesting, in their own terrible, sobering, sometimes hair-raising way. Of course one is rationally aware of the fact that colonialism was a nasty, terrible thing; but nevertheless, when you read about the history of imperialism, it's usually seen in a relatively detached, anodyne way; yes, you see that large territories were annexed, wars sometimes fought over them, railways constructed, the natives undoubtedly oppressed and exploited in various ways — but you don't really see all these horrible things up close, in all their ugly detail. But in Casement's reports, you get just that. He was there while these things were taking place; he took a lot of trouble to gather information, find and interview witnesses and victims of the atrocities; at first he found it hard to believe the shocking reports, but gradually came to realize they must be largely true (pp. 116–118).

In the Congo, for instance, the main economic activity was gathering rubber in the forests. Much of the territory was directly under Leopold's control, and much of the rest was divided among concessionary companies. They in turn employed a hierarchy of agents whose salaries largely depended on the amount of rubber exported from the areas under their control (pp. 87–9). At the lowest rung of this hierarchy of oppressors were the numerous and ferocious native soldiers, who were the ones to actually implement most of the oppressing. The Congolese were required to gather such quantities of rubber that they had no time left for their agriculture; many therefore succumbed to malnourishment and disease. Many were shot for failing to meet the rubber quotas, or simply to frighten others into submission.

Casement also mentions the widespread practice whereby soldiers would cut off the hands of the people they had killed. I don't remember seeing him explain the origins of this practice, however. If I understand correctly (I read this in some other Congo-related book), the agents, being white, distrusted their black soldiers and were concerned that they might hoard ammunition to be used later during a mutiny or some similar purpose. Therefore they doled out ammunition to the soldiers only in small amounts, and the soldiers had to prove that they had actually used the bullets by bringing one hand for each bullet they had received.

The following passage from p. 118 may serve as a suitable epitome for the whole sordid Congo story:

“Oh, sometimes we were ordered to go and the sentry would find us preparing food to eat while in the forest, and he would shoot two or three to hurry us along. Sometimes we would try and do a little work on our plantations, so that when the harvest time came we should have something to eat, and the sentry would shoot some of us to teach us that our business was not to plant but to get rubber. Sometimes we were driven off to live for a fortnight in the forest without any food and without anything to make a fire with, and many died of cold and hunger. Sometimes the quantity brought was not sufficient, and then several would be killed to frighten us to bring more. Some tried to run away, and died of hunger and privation in the forest in trying to avoid the State posts.”

“But,” said I, “if the sentries killed you like that, what was the use? You could not bring more rubber when there were fewer people.”

“Oh, as to that, we do not understand it. These are the facts.”

Alas! I don't think there's much to understand here. I think it's simply a part of human nature that power is dearer to people than wealth. And therefore they were more than willing to sacrifice a little rubber (and their commission thereon) in exchange for the pleasure of murdering their helpless victims. (See also the quotations from p. 290 in the Putumayo section.)

The following episode from 1900 shows the value placed by the Congo authorities on the lives of Congo's native inhabitants. The companies established various stations and fortifications to house their agents and soldiers, and to store the rubber. The local population was required to provide food for these people. In one case where the people did not comply with this, a punitive expedition was organized, which got out of control, the soldiers killing several villagers and taking their livestock. The compensation awarded to the survivors by the state was the equivalent of 50 Fr for each person, and 20 Fr for each goat (p. 106). Actually the ‘currency’ used in the Congo were a kind of brass rods, nominally worth “½d, twenty of them being reckoned to the franc” (p. 104). Since £1 = 240d, it follows that £1 = 24 Fr. Thus we see that Leopold's regime valued a native's life at approx. £2. Under the gold standard of the time (1 oz gold = £4.24), this is equivalent to approx. 0.47 ounces of gold, or approx. $263 in present-day gold prices.

Chief Lisanginya was taken prisoner for several days while his villagers brought the extra rubber required by the local agent. “Three mornings he was compelled to carry the receptacle from the white man's latrine and empty it in the river. On the third day (sickening to relate) he was made to drink therefrom by a soldier named Lisasi. [. . .] When the three extra baskets were produced he was set at liberty. He was ill for several days after his return. [. . .] I blush again and again as I hear the fame of the State wherever I go, that when they chain a man now at the post they may make the chained unfortunate drink the white man's defecations.” (P. 132.) Well, this certainly throws some cold water on all those cheerful tales of coprophagia that are so frequent in de Sade's writings...

There are a few mentions of cannibalism. “Both Batwas and Ntombas are still cannibals and cannibalism, although repressed and not so openly indulged in as formerly, is still prevalent in the district.” (P. 138.) “[T]he cannibal soldiers asked C.D. [a white man] to give them the old woman to eat and C.D. told them to take her. Those soldiers took the woman and cut her throat, and they divided her and ate her.” (P. 152.)

In one passage, the villagers mistake his party for government soldiers: “ ‘We thought you were Bula Matadi’ (i.e., ‘Men of the Government’).” (P. 158.) I had previously heard of this nickname (‘Breaker of Rocks’) applied to Stanley (it seems to fit his personality rather well), but apparently the inhabitants of the Congo later extended this nickname to the whole of Leopold's regime (of which Stanley had indeed been a kind of forerunner — at some point Leopold had hired him to conclude treaties with the chiefs in the Congo area, treaties on which Leopold later based his claims to the country).

From his diary, August 29th, 1903: “saw rubber ‘Market’, nothing but guns—about 20 armed men [. . .] The popln. 242 men with rubber all guarded like convicts. To call this ‘trade’ is the height of lying.” (P. 163.)

On p. 183 he refers to a typist as a ‘typer’ several times. I've never heard this word before; I wonder if it was actually in serious use at the time, or is it just his personal idiosyncracy; or perhaps an odd mistake?

After he'd heard Casement's report, the foreign secretary Lord Lansdowne commented: “ ‘Proof of the most painfully convincing kind Mr. Casement.’ ” (Casement's diary, December 3rd, 1903, p. 183.)

According to the diary entry on p. 183, he first met E. D. Morel on December 10, 1903.

Incidentally, Casement had worked in the Congo for various companies for almost ten years before entering the diplomatic service. Thus, during his travels in 1903, he was able to compare the state of the country with what he had seen during his first visits sixteen years previously (p. 96). He notes in several places how entire towns and villages have been depopulated (pp. 98, 108, 118–20, 138). The system of exploitation set up by Leopold was clearly unsustainable.

[To be continued in a few days.]