“The Trial of Sir Roger Casement”
When Is a Man a Traitor?
Sir Roger Casement was once a national hero in Britain, Sir Roger Casement. He was an Irishman, is tried for treason during the First World War.
To this day the name of Roger Casement is a sore spot between England and the republic of Eire. He was executed by hanging for high treason in 1917 for his part in the events leading to the Easter Rebellion of the preceding year. The leaders of that Rebellion knew that they had a good chance being killed by Casement’s story has a different aspect to it. He was (up to 1914) a national hero to the British public because of activities in Africa and South America that made him an international figure. Casement became a member of the British Diplomatic Corps. In the early 1900s he was assigned to the then Belgium Congo, and with Edmund Morel had exposed the cruelty and atrocities practiced on the population there by King Leopold II of Belgium in exploiting the fabulous mineral wealth of that colony for that monarch’s personal profit. This resulting scandal led to the King to surrender possession of it to his nation. After Casement left the Congo, he was sent to South America, and found similar atrocities to report from his new station. As a result of this fine work of bringing this material to the world’s attention, Casement was knighted.
Keeping this in mind, you can understand the degree of anger felt in England towards Sir Roger to this day. Casement identified himself with Ireland, not England. When World War I broke out, Casement headed for Wilhelmine Germany and offered his services there to the Germans in return for their assistance in freeing Ireland. They agreed. Casement was supposed to play a key role in the Easter Rebellion, when he was to deliver a large shipload (the first of many promised) to the rebels. But the delivery was botched up, and Casement captured.
What happened afterward remains a subject of controversy and anger. The British Government was determined to punish Casement (who lost his knighthood) In preparing their case against him, the Government was aware of his popularity due to his humanitarian work. Casement was an international figure. So many began to argue for his being given special treatment. People like George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edmund Morel, Gilbert Chesterton, were insisting that Casement was not a simple rebel but a man who may have done his “evil” actions due to mental problems. The new Lloyd George government had replaced the less able Asquith regime in a real palace coup in November 1916. David Lloyd George did not believe in half-way measures, and wanted to set up Casement as an example.
A weapon turned up – one that still leaves an unpleasant taste to this day. Casement, like us all, had his secret side. In his case he was a homosexual. His diary fell into the hands of Scotland Yard chief Sir Basil Thompson and it showed the he was “a pervert”. Soon copies of the more salacious sections of the diary were being read all over London. Popular support for Casement collapsed and the result was a conviction for treason and he hanged at Pentonville Prison in 1917.
In the 1960s, at the demands of the government of Ireland, Casement’s body was dug out of the prison graveyard and returned to his nation. It is in a more fitting memorial there today as a national hero.