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.]


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