Reviewed by Dr Kath Huxley
This informative novel is penned by Martin Duberman; a recognised, well-accomplished writer and Professor of History at the City University of New York where he founded and directed the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. He has written several biographies, memoirs and other works and is the recipient of numerous awards for his literary contributions including being finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In this book he writes a fictional account of the public and private life of the Irish explorer and revolutionary Sir Roger Casement. The protagonist is known for his work in exposing the brutal regimes of the Belgian Congo to the wider world and maybe more notoriously for being apprehended and convicted of high treason for his activities and role in the Irish uprisings of the early part of the twentieth century.
The author draws on multiple historical documents and primary sources to inform his novel with Casement’s own diaries and trial transcripts providing a significant contribution. The author acknowledges that as historical evidence can never be complete any narrative ‘is a somewhat skewed, subjective product that at best approximates objectivity but can never achieve it’.
The account is conveniently divided into five parts which cover the multifaceted life of Casement, from the autumn of 1884 when he is 20 years old to his trial and its aftermath in 1916. As a biographical novel the book is successful in fleshing out the troubled character and disposition of the hero using detailed descriptions of conversations, behaviours, thoughts and frustrations that populate his life. In this comprehensive tale we approach an appreciation of the ordeals, pains, pleasures, difficulties and struggles Roger encounters in both his personal and public persona. Throughout the book we realise and are reminded that Roger has an evolving interest in the Irish issue which will eventually lead to his hanging.
Part 1 is called the ‘The Years of Innocence’ and covers Roger’s early life as a railway surveyor for commercial enterprises engaged in development and exploitation in the Upper Congo. Initially, Roger sees European expansion in Africa as a ‘civilising’ mission which spreads blessings of Christianity and (in his words) ‘useful and diligent’ labour to a native population that is ‘disinclined’. Yet, unlike many of his contemporaries ‘has from the first seen much to admire in native customs and beliefs and wishes to see them preserved’. It seems as even in these early years he ‘has become something of an anomaly. In the tangle of ambition and greed that characterises the ‘scramble for Africa’. He refuses to carry arms, thinks nothing of walking twenty miles a day, refuses to wear the standard pith helmet, seems uninterested in gaining personal wealth. He treats all those, European and native alike, with a gentle gallantry perhaps intrinsic – so he himself would claim – to his ‘Irish upbringing’. During this time, along with his close acquaintances and friends he develops a ‘heightened disgust with the disreputable stir underway to exploit the African continent and its people’. It is in this chapter we learn that running parallel to his public life he has a secret and clandestine sex life that is ‘a thing apart, an activity, not a topic of conversation. It’s unconnected to love or friendship … and centres on anonymity and adventure, not cuddling and sweet talk …it happens along the way, usually with pickups, sometimes involving money, always and only with other men’.
The second and third acts of the book are called ‘The Congo’ and ‘The Putomayo’ and they reveal how Roger’s work ethic has enabled him to become an official of the British Foreign Service in West Africa and subsequently in South America. His frequent journeys and involvement on both continents and the exploitation of local indigenous populations increasingly frustrate him. In the Congo he befriends local tribes and begins to investigate and write a report about the atrocities in the interior of the country ‘while still in the field gathering evidence, Roger discovers that even when punishment takes less barbaric forms, due process is entirely lacking … the Congo free state is a criminal enterprise quite willing, for profit, to destroy a now helpless race’. Whilst serving as consul general in Rio in Brazil he becomes part of a commission which will investigate alleged atrocities perpetrated by the Peruvian Amazon Company. Concurrently Roger is closely following the development of political events in Ireland. During his time on both continents his position regarding Irish independence has been in a state of transition ‘though brought up a Protestant, Roger has scant sympathy for the insistence of Ireland’s Protestant -dominated county of Ulster on continued union with Great Britain .. neither is he a Fenian demanding total independence and an armed uprising’
Part 4 is the lengthiest chapter of the book and is titled ‘Ireland’. In 1912 the British politician Asquith introduces the new Home Rule bill and ‘they do not offer Ireland anything like the full independence that nationalists like Roger have long dreamed of’. Casement’s priorities are more about ‘class than divisions based on religion’ and once again he decides to try and better understand the plight of the Irish people by going to meet them. He describes the scenes he witnesses as an ‘Irish Putomayo’ and as a result in October 1913 he moves out from the side-lines to play a public role in Ireland’s future. Considering his adversaries knowledge of his complicated private life this is an audacious and risky move but he ‘continues to hold out for the dream of a united Ireland entirely free from British control’. In 1914 and 1915, when hostilities between European nations are at an all-time high, Casement visits Germany to ask for their help with Irish independence and secures a pledge from them ‘of the goodwill towards Ireland’. A complex chain of events follows and Roger eventually ends up back in Ireland, is arrested, his diaries seized and a charge of high treason is levied against him and he is remanded to the Tower of London. He now has no say in the making of the decision to initiate the Irish Easter Rising in April 1916.
‘The Trial and Its Aftermath’ is the closing chapter of the book and takes us into the four-day civil trial which is set to begin in the Old Bailey on 26th June 1916. A detailed account of Roger’s imprisonment in various penitentiaries, the legal process and his reaction to these are presented in the form of detailed conversations. The symbolic potential of the trial for the British government does not escape Roger and his preference is that he is represented as the Irish rebel. Advised by George Bernard Shaw to declare openly ‘I am neither an Englishman nor a traitor; I am an Irishman, captured in a fair attempt to achieve the independence of my country’. The damning evidence presented by the prosecution together with distribution of the personal diaries which detail his homosexual activities do not bode well for him. A conviction that he is blinded by a hatred for Britain contribute to the case against Casement. Within an hour of retiring the jury find him guilty of high treason and he is hanged on 3rd August 1916. As a final insult on the same, the British despite requests for the return of his body by Roger’s family, throw him into quicklime in the yard of Pentonville Prison. After fifty years of consistent petitioning in 1965 his bones are returned to Ireland where he is buried with full honours in the Republican section of Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery.
This rich and remarkable account of a man who led an amazing but tragic life that sadly ended in such an awful and violent way is yet highly readable and extremely thought-provoking. The detailed conversations, historical detail and stylish prose paint a vivid, fascinating picture of the private and public life of Sir Roger Casement, an internationally renowned figure of the early twentieth century. Highly recommended if you love Irish History and its’ heroes and heroines or if you enjoy a well-written biographical novel that is reliably based in historical scholarship.
by Martin Duberman
University of California Press
To order a copy of Luminous Traitor: The Just and Daring Life of Roger Casement, a Biographical Novel at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au
Please use discount voucher code BCLUB18 at the checkout to apply the discount.