Roger Casement was born in Sandycove, County Dublin in September 1864 and raised in Ballycastle County Antrim following the death of his parents.
Casement joined the British Colonial Service in his early twenties and traveled to Africa. He began to investigate the treatment of native workers and in 1904 published a notable report on their inhuman treatment in the Belgian Congo. While in South Africa he met the writer Joseph Conrad and it is believed that the character of Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is loosely based on Casement.
In 1906 he was sent to Brazil and was promoted to Consul-General in Rio de Janeiro. While there he investigated conditions in the Peruvian rubber plantations and the treatment of the indigenous Amazonian Indians by the Peruvian Amazon Company. In a report to the British foreign secretary, dated 17 March, 1911, Casement detailed the rubber company's use of stocks to punish the Indians:
Men, women, and children were confined in them for days, weeks, and often months. ... Whole families ... were imprisoned -fathers, mothers, and children, and many cases were reported of parents dying thus, either from starvation or from wounds caused by flogging, while their offspring were attached alongside of them to watch in misery themselves the dying agonies of their parents.
In 1911, Casement was knighted by King George V as Knight Bachelor for his efforts on behalf of the Amazonian Indians, before he retired from the service in 1912.
Having always been interested in Irish Nationalism, Casement helped found the Irish Volunteers with Eoin MacNeill in 1913. In July 1914, as World War 1 was beginning, Casement traveled to the USA to promote and raise money for the Volunteers. While there he established connections with exiled Irish nationalists, particularly Clan na nGael and counted John Devoy amongst his supporters. In September of 1914, in the light of the difficulties Britain was now facing in the war against Germany, Casement set out to gain support from Germany in the fight for Ireland’s independence. A paper, written by Casement, was transmitted from the German Embassy to Berlin arguing that the British could be undermined in vulnerable positions such as Egypt, India and Ireland. Casement urged the Germans to make a declaration in favour of Irish independence. He persuaded the leaders of Clan na nGael to support a mission to Germany, both politically and financially and he set sail in October 1914.
A great deal of Casement’s time in Germany was spent attempting to establish an Irish Brigade, consisting of Irish prisoners-of-war from the various prison camps, however his efforts proved unsuccessful. Irishmen who were fighting in the British Army during World War 1 tended to be there voluntarily, while recruits to Casement’s brigade faced the possibility of the death penalty if Britain won. He described the Irish prisoners-of-war as “recreant Irishmen . . . cads and cowards”
Initially Casement had some success on his trip to Germany and in November 1914 the Germans announced their support for Irish independence. But the initial enthusiasm soon waned. General Stumm of the German General Staff told him that in light of the strength of the British Navy, it would be pointless to send soldiers or arms to Ireland.
Despite these setbacks, Casement was determined to take advantage of the Germany support for the efforts to gain Irish Independence. The Germans themselves, were well aware of the military advantage they could gain over the British should they be distracted by an uprising on their doorstep in Ireland. In April 1916, as the Easter Rising was being planned, the Germans offered the Irish 20,000 rifles, 10 machine guns and accompanying ammunition, a fraction of the quantity of weaponry Casement had hoped for, and no German officers.
The arms were to be transported to Ireland in a German cargo ship disguised as a Norwegian vessel called the Aud, and landed in the South West of Ireland in County Kerry. But the British had intercepted German communications and aware of the plan, intercepted the ship on Good Friday, April 1916. As the Aud was being escorted into Queenstown (Cobh), in County Cork her crew scuttled it with pre-set explosive charges.
Meanwhile, Roger Casement had followed the ship in a German submarine, and planned to meet it in Kerry. On the 21st April, he was put ashore at Banna Strand in Tralee Bay and was quickly captured and arrested by British troops. He was taken to England where he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and Brixton as he awaited trial.
Casement was found guilty of high treason under a law dating back to Norman times and was sentenced to death by hanging. Many high profile individuals, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw appealed for a reprieve, especially in light of his human rights work during his time with the British Colonial Service. But before public sympathy could gain any momentum, copies of diaries, purported to be his were circulated, recording his alleged homosexual activities. Opinion swayed against him, although some believed that these “black diaries” were forgeries. In a time of strong social conservatism, not least among Irish Catholics, the Black Diaries undermined or at least stifled support for Casement. Fakes or not, Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison, London on the 3rd August 1916, he was 51. Before his death his knighthood had been stripped from him and he converted to Catholicism while awaiting his execution.
Although Casement had always expressed a desire to be buried in Murloch Bay, County Antrim in 1965 his remains were exhumed from Pentonville, where they had originally been buried and returned to Ireland. They were re-interred in Glasnevin Cemetery on the 1st March after a State Funeral with full military honours. Approximately 30,000 people attended the ceremony and The President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera gave the graveside oration.