Foreward: Decoding False History

Perhaps the first lesson any Irish history student should be taught is that the political value of a document often takes precedence over its ‘truth’ value. Put another way: the politics of Anglo-Irish history habitually overrides the history of Anglo-Irish politics. Whenever Roger Casement is concerned such an equation is only magnified. For a recent example of this you might refer to the entry on Casement in Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin’s The Dead of the Irish Revolution (Yale, 2020).

Professor O’Halpin has engaged with the Casement story for the last two decades. He appeared as one of the voices in Alan Gilsenan’s documentary The Ghost of Roger Casement (2002) where he dismissed those who argued that the Black Diaries are forgeries as akin to those who believed in the Roswell conspiracy. In a book review in the Irish Times of 12 October 2002 he said that the forgery theory was ‘essentially an article of belief, not susceptible to conventional historical analysis.’ One assumes that what he means by ‘conventional historical analysis’ is the examination of the source evidence in order to come to a balanced interpretation of the past.

When Professor O’Halpin made this comment, I was in the process of formulating what historians who have examined my methodology agree is an approach that is a classic piece of ‘conventional historical analysis’, placing the diaries in alternative contexts and setting out legitimate concerns to do with motive and probability as to why the Black Diaries should be deemed forgeries.

Back in 2002, I found Professor O’Halpin’s comment peculiarly intolerant, offensive and censoring. In the intervening twenty years he has made no effort whatsoever to understand or engage with my argument, which makes me wonder whose views are based upon an article of belief.

My interest in Casement extended out of my engagement with the Amazon and its environmental tragedy and the genocide of the pre-Colombian people of South America. It intrigued me that two of the three Black Diaries are concerned with Casement’s voyages up the Amazon, during 1910 and 1911, to investigate abuses at a particularly intense moment of that on-going genocide. The other diary deals with his investigation of atrocities in the Congo Free State in 1903. For South Americans, Casement’s investigation is an important moment in their history. This is the reason why The Amazon Journal has now been translated into a feature-length documentary – Secrets of Putumayo – directed by the Brazilian / Amazon filmmaker, Aurélio Michiles. As I sorted through the documentation to do with this part of Casement’s life, I was persuaded by the evidence that the Black Diaries were forged in order to destabilise Casement’s investigation of atrocities and deny him the moral high ground on his road to the gallows.  

The key reason for the forgery is to control understanding of what Casement revealed and to deny him his rightful place in both British imperial history and in contemporary Irish history. The Black Diaries disrupt the logic of his evolution from decorated servant of empire into an enemy of empire. The Black Diaries are still used to discredit Casement’s evidence and silence the voices of the victims whose world was ravaged by the rubber resource wars. The testimony of the victim is replaced by the saga of a man on a sexual odyssey and the Indians become ‘extras’ in that narrative.

It is significant that Trinity College has a department of history that has been closely involved in the analysis of historical atrocities. Professors John Horne and Alan Kramer collaborated in the writing of German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial (Yale, 2001). This cultural study proved influential in dispelling lingering concerns about the long-made claims that accusations of German atrocities in Belgium were exaggerated. TCD’s showcase digitisation project on the 1641 Depositions should have made every student of Irish history alert to the political nature of atrocity claims. How come therefore that the atrocities investigated by Casement have received such short shrift? Why has there been so little curiosity shown by TCD’s Department of History into what was in its day the most high-profile and notorious atrocity investigation of the early twentieth century and one inextricably connected to Ireland?

What is revealing about Professor O’Halpin’s entry on Casement is that it captures the inertia and the bitterness that prevents the Casement story from moving anywhere. He adopts the devices that for years have kept Casement suspended in solitary confinement outside the boundaries of acceptable historical discourse.  His main authority on Casement is Brian Inglis whose involvement in the Casement cover up is once again brought under the microscope of Paul Hyde’s analysis in this new collection. O’Halpin has written an entry that allows his own historical belief system to stay intact. There is nothing about the Casement who helped to inspire and sustain one of the great humanitarian campaigns of the pre-war period; who supported the Irish language movement and organised the funding of schools in the Gaeltacht; whose courage and example led intellectuals around the world to question the morals of imperial governance. That Casement is shut out. Erased.

Instead, Professor O’Halpin describes a Casement who was inconsequential to his time, who received honours for apparently no clear reason. His entry implies that Casement got what he deserved for his nationalist fantasy of wanting an independent and peaceful Ireland unshackled from the oppressive structures of elite class politics and global systems built on injustice and violence.  Embedded in this narrow interpretation of Casement’s contribution to Irish and world history is a form of cognitive dissonance.

Four of the eight paragraphs in Professor O’Halpin’s entry reference either Casement’s sexuality, his ‘moral’ reputation or the Black Diaries. In other words, the entire biographical entry is framed around the diaries’ questions and Casement’s suitability to interrogate the moral foundations of empire. In the final paragraph, reference is made to the ‘convoluted forgery theories’.

The longest paragraph in the entry is devoted to a defence of Cardinal Bourne’s efforts to prevent Casement from reconciling to the Catholic Faith in the days before his execution. Bourne tried to force Casement to sign a recantation of his belief in Irish independence, and a confession of abhorrence of his own actions. The priests who attended Casement at the end used their special powers to override Bourne’s unholy demand and the condemned man was accepted into the Catholic Church in articulo mortis on the night before his execution. As a reward, those priests who supported Casement were banished to the most deprived parishes in Catholic England to live out their days serving the poor and destitute (mainly Irish).

Although Professor O’Halpin is one of the authorities on British Intelligence in Ireland, there is not a single mention of Casement’s long and entangled intelligence connections. Casement’s involvement with different branches of Britain’s secret state might be traced through his time surveying the delta of the river Niger maps for the War Office, as one of Lord Salisbury’s men-on-the-spot, to his derring-do during the Anglo-Boer War, and, to his covert return up the Amazon in 1911 to prepare British trading interests for the collapse of the Amazon rubber boom. From the autumn of 1913, Casement was closely watched by different intelligence agencies as he began to conspire against the Empire which had ennobled him. Even after his death the spooks stayed on his case; most obviously, the MI6 historian, H.H. Montgomery Hyde, who did a good deal of patching up to make sure Casement’s trial appeared ‘fair’.

There has been much talk in recent months of decolonising the curriculum. Universities around the world are recognising that they hang onto the epistemological structures and mentalities of empire that promote race hatred and gender divisions without recognising it. And even if they do see it, they don’t do much about it. Public intellectuals and some media outlets continue to perpetuate the symbolic and epistemic violence which supports the prejudices that keep us locked into a world of race and sectarian division and social inequality. Prejudice, especially race prejudice, is so engrained we just can’t see it even when it’s in plain view.

Anyone who doubts this should read Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto, 2020). The Black Diaries are an offensive residue from a time when the exploitation and murder of forest communities across the Amazon was carried out with impunity. That genocide is still happening. However, this is a story that we do not wish to hear either from Casement or from the Environmental and Human Rights Defenders who are killed each month protecting the forest. Commercial control is maintained through denying the telling of stories that might help us to see it differently.

Paul Hyde’s Anatomy of a Lie, for which I was also happy to write a foreword, was in many ways unanswerable in how it interrogated the carefully constructed archive and the suspect intellectual traditions supporting this remarkably toxic intersection of British and Irish history. Hyde’s argument in that book should have put this whole matter to rest. Instead, the publisher was intimidated and withdrew the book. What Hyde revealed was clearly highly discomforting in some quarters. Though the book is still withdrawn, Hyde’s argument endures … unanswered.

In this latest collection of essays, Hyde has excavated once more the murky depths of the Black Diaries’ history and provided additional evidence of the interpretative violence and articles of faith that have kept Casement’s legacy locked in a barren focus on his sexuality, as if nothing else matters. And once more, Hyde’s analysis presents questions that demand answers from the stout exponents and defenders of ‘conventional historical analysis’.

Angus Mitchell, 2021.