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.]


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