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10 August 2006 Edition

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Remembering the past

Roger Casement

Of Ulster Protestant stock, Roger Casement was and was born in Sandycove, County Dublin in 1864 to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother and educated at Ballymena Academy, County Antrim.

In 1884, he travelled to Africa as an employee of the International Association, an enterprise sponsored by King Leopold II of Belgium to develop his country's colony.

He left the company in 1892 to work for the British Consular Service. He was posted to Nigeria, then called the Oil Rivers Protectorate, undertaking several map-making expeditions. After three years, Casement's performance had so impressed his superiors that he was advanced from an employee to a member of the consular service, without needing to take the Civil Service exam. He was stationed at various posts in southern Africa.

In 1903, Casement was ordered to report on allegations of atrocities against indigenous people in the Belgian Congo. His report has been credited as the single most important element in the campaign against the monstrous colonial regime of LĂ©opold II, King of the Belgians, ultimately forcing the king to renounce what had become his own private African empire.

Casement's report confirmed that rubber production there was organised on the basis of forced labour, accompanied by horrendous punishments and mutilations of the population.

Casement gained an international reputation for his humanitarian efforts in the Congo, and in 1910 he investigated charges of ill-treatment of indigenous people in the Putumayo region of Peru, another area of rubber production. The report's publication in 1912 created an international sensation. Casement was knighted for his services in 1911 and retired from the consular service in 1912.

Despite his years of service to the British Empire, Casement had for many years held strong views in favor of Irish independence. He joined the Irish Volunteers, who he drilled on their foundation in 1913.

Casement, under orders from the Irish Republican Brotherhood, travelled to Germany in 1914 seeking significant military aid and attempting to persuade Irish prisoners of war to join an Irish Brigade. In 1915, Casement published The Cause of War and the Foundations of Peace.

An IRB negotiated, German ship, the Aud, sailed for Ireland in April 1916, with several machine-guns, 20,000 rifles and a million rounds of ammunition for the Volunteers. However the British had gained information about the consignment and were in a state of alert when the Aud arrived off the Irish coast. The German captain scuttled the ship rather than allow it to fall into British hands.

Casement himself returned from Germany by U-boat. Having landed at Banna Strand, near Tralee, County Kerry, he was arrested by the RIC.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London, Casement was tried for high treason, convicted and sentenced to death. He delivered a memorable speech from the dock, in which he declared: "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."

Prominent figures, including George Bernard Shaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the US Government issued appeals for clemency, given Casement's standing as an international humanitarian figure.

In an attempt to discredit Casement, British Government agents circulated alleged copies of Casement's personal diaries, which were full of graphic details of sexual encounters with other men. The public-spirited campaign for leniency lost all momentum after the so-called "Black Diaries" were made public.

Although the authenticity of the Diaries has still not been proven, the debate around Casement in recent years has focused on whether or not the Diaries were forged and whether or not Casement was homosexual, rather than on his undisputed contribution to the cause of universal human rights and Irish freedom.

Following an unsuccessful appeal, Roger Casement was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916.

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