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The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: A Critical Review in Three Parts: Part One

December 2, 2014
Enslaved Amazonian Rubber Workers, Putumayo District of Peru - early 1900s. W. Hardenburg, who snapped this photo, was one of the American journalists who uncovered the inhumane conditions of Amazonian rubber collectors. It nearly cost him his life

Enslaved Amazonian Rubber Workers, Putumayo District of Peru – early 1900s. W. Hardenburg, who snapped this photo, was one of the American journalists who uncovered the inhumane conditions of Amazonian rubber collectors. It nearly cost him his life

Mario Vargas Llosa – Dream of the Celt

Rummaging through a pile of books at home I came across one I had not read, the title of which meant as little to me as did the author – The Dream of the Celt – by Nobel Prize winning Peruvian author, Mario Vargas Llosa.  While I have learned some about Vargas Llosa since, at the time I rediscovered the book, I knew little about him other than he had won “the prize.” Wondering why it was I had bought it in the first place I was about to put it in my “give away” pile when I noticed the portrait on the dust jacket which caused me to pause. Wasn’t that Roger Casement’s photo, which by now I have become familiar with? Yes it was! If I couldn’t remember where or when I had purchased the book, I certainly knew why. Casement is the author of the 1904 Report on the Congo, which played large, along with the work of E. D. Morel in the discrediting and ultimate downfall of Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Free State a few years afterwards.

Neither free nor a state, the Congo Free State was little more than a horrific economic system of slave labor organized for the collection and extraction of Congolese rubber and ivory. It made Leopold II, a cunning bastard, one of the wealthiest men in Europe and probably the world at the time. It reduced the population of the Congo from an estimated twenty million in the early 1880s, when the help of Henry Morton Stanley he was able to gain control of the region, to less than ten million people a quarter of century later. Driven by unabashed greed hiding for a short time behind a veil of humanitarian interventionalism, the white man’s burden to help the people of the Third World Leopold’s Congo organization committed unspeakable crimes against humanity, in an unending orgy of economic exploitation, rape, and murder.

I had read about Casement in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost and David Renton’s (et al) The Congo: Plunder and Resistance, both of which are worth reading. I have repeated used in my teaching (The Political Economy of the Congo) as well as in Neal Ascherson’s The King Incorporated which dedicates a fair amount of attention to Casement’s work, but I had yet to read any biographical material on Casement’s life. Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt comes close to filling the gap, admittedly with some caveats as will be discussed below. Although it contains a wealth of biographical material and is meticulously researched, The Dream of the Celt is a historical novel that traces the highlights of Casement’s life drawing on many its more historically important episodes. From what I know of Casement’s life, virtually all of the descriptions ring true, ie, the factual essence of Casement’s life and contribution are there and honestly presented, be it his human rights work or his homosexuality. That is not to say that it is an objective biography; Vargas Llosa has his axe to grind and grind it he does; but then that is literary “right” of anyone writing fiction. A point of view, a “moral” to the story, a reason to write the book in the first place that goes beyond the facts lies hidden, and sometimes not so hidden in the text. More on that later.

Casement and the Congo

If not an expert on Roger Casement before reading Vargas Llosa, still, I have a general knowledge of the man’s life, his contribution to what can be considered the modern human rights movement and his death by hanging in Pentonville Prison, north of London on August 3, 1916. Born on September 1, 1864 in a Dublin, Ireland the son of Captain Roger Casement “who served with distinction for eight years in the Third Regiment of Light Dragoons in India.” Early in his career Casement worked for four years for the Elder Demster Line, a British shipping company that was hired by Leopold II to transport Congolese ivory and rubber to Antwerp and weapons and colonial administrators to the Congo. Interestingly enough, E. D. Morel, author of the Black Man’s Burden, also found employment at the same company although there is no indication that the two knew each other in those early years.

At Elder Demster Casement developed his genuine interest in Africa; early in his career he genuinely believed in “the White Man’s burden” of “lifting up Africans (and other Third World peoples) to “higher levels” of civilization. Both the explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, and King Leopold II of Belgium were among the heroes of his youth, so much so that he volunteered to work for them in the Congo Free State for more than twenty years. As Javier Farje notes in an excellent blog entry:

“Casement was not a friend of the Africans when he first arrived in the continent. He accepted the Victorian idea of the good savage and the need to ‘civilise’ him. Furthermore, he was a convinced imperialist. He helped the British government to spy on shipments for the Afrikaner side during the South African Wars and even offered to form a brigade to fight the Boers. His evolution into an anti-imperialist came partly from the fact that he was an ardent Irish nationalist who started to compare the fate of his fellow Irishmen with that of the Africans of the Congo: a people oppressed by an imperial power.”

He traveled extensively in the 1880s into the more inner reaches of the Congo River system and as he did, his perceptions of the White Man’s Burden began to change as did his awareness of his own Irish background. As a result of his extensive, encyclopedic knowledge of the Congo, he was appointed British Consul there. As such in 1903, he explored the regions he had traveled through in his youth to investigate what were becoming commonplace accusations of human rights abuses against the Congolese people. The result was The Report on the Congo, considered a pioneering work in human rights investigation; it contributed in a significant way to the sinking of Leopold II’s Congo project.

Julio César Arana and the Peruvian Amazon Company

From there Casement went on to be the British consul in Brazil. In 1910, as a result of his previous investigation of abuses in rubber collecting in the Congo, Casement was asked to lead an official parliamentary investigation team of a similar nature to northern Peru. News articles, testimonials were starting to appear in England and the United States of human rights abuses of the Peruvian Amazon Company, or Casa Arana, as it was called, in the Putumayo region of northern Peru. A company on the London Stock Exchange, it was headed up by its founder and director, Julio César Arana, another clever, greedy bastard. After a three-month stay in the region, Casement’s investigation of Arana and the Peruvian Amazon produced a report similar to the one he had written for the Congo: a pattern of forced labor, horrendous human rights abuses in an obscure, difficult to reach region of the Amazon Basin that resulted in great profits for the company. It is estimated that more than 100,000 native Amazonians died.

While this time Casement’s report did lead to the dissolution of the company, the pattern of forced Indian labor in the region continued for decades. Whereas before they were forced to collect rubber, now it turned to wood and oil. At the same time, in recognition for his outstanding investigations and human rights work in the service of a British government for which he was feeling a growing contempt, His Majesty King George V knighted Roger Casement. Later, a brief three years later, the British government would withdraw the title of knighthood and hang Casement for treason, leaving Casement (probably) the only figure in British history to both knighted and hung by the British government, and that in a three-year period.

If Casement was hailed as a British colonial hero his personal political views were moving in a decidedly more anti-colonial direction as he found himself moving closer to the Irish nationalist movement. It is not entirely clear when it was that Casement rediscovered his Irish roots and became an advocate of Irish nationalism and a supporter of Sinn Féin. Like Javier Farje, Vargas Llosa places his conversion to the Irish nationalist cause to his work in the Congo during the period that Casement was investigating and writing his report. Casement saw parallels between Belgium’s colonial treatment of the Congolese and the long and painful Irish experience at the hands of the British. His lifelong connection to Alice Stopford Green, herself an Irish historian and the wife of John Richard Green (Green’s History of the English People), helped nurture his Irish cultural and political roots.

Painting of the treason trial of Roger Casement. Downloaded from the blog

Painting of the treason trial of Roger Casement. 

The Dream of the Celt: Ireland Emancipated

Casement became increasingly involved in and devoted to the cause of Irish nationalism. By the time that World War One broke out, he was convinced that only by allying itself with Germany, could Ireland win its independence from Great Britain in some kind of armed uprising. He saw Germany (remember this pre-World War One, not World War Two) as a rising global hegemonic power whose general socio-economic system he supported. He somewhat naively contrasted British global colonial domination with Germany’s sparse colonial history but seems to overlook the German genocide committed in the early years of the 20th century against the Herero peoples of what would later become Namibia.

By the way, not all his musings on pre-WW1 Germany were baseless by the way, but no doubt he idealized the place in a way that soon later others would idealize the Soviet Union. Mostly he believed that – and here he was probably correct – that no armed uprising in Ireland against Great Britain could be successful without German support. He hoped for a major German offensive in Northern France during the war which would divert British attention away from Ireland and give the rebels an opportunity to conduct a successful uprising.

Being a man of action during the war, when Great Britain and Germany were locked in the gargantuan mutual slaughter that would become World War One on Flanders’ fields, Roger Casement traveled to Germany and tried to get Irish prisoners of war to form an Irish Brigade that would fight against Great Britain at Germany’s side. He also enlisted German military support for an armed uprising by getting a German commitment to send rifles, machine guns and ammunition by sea to the Irish rebels. There was little interest and much contempt for his project to organize an Irish brigade; a German ship did try to deliver weapons to the Irish coast but failed. It tuns out that one of his closest confidantes was a British agent reporting his every move in Germany to British intelligence.

Casement’s own efforts ended after a German submarine left him off the coast o of Ireland and into the hands of the British military. Ironically, he was on his way to try to dissuade the Irish rebels from launching what would become known as the Easter Rising whose timing Casement thought was poorly conceived. He might have been considered a hero for Ireland – a half century later his remains were buried in Ireland – but in Britain he was tried and condemned for wartime treason, stripped of his knighthood and hung to death at Pentonville Prison. An effort to grant him clemency just before his execution was denied after his personal diaries, confiscated by the British authorities were leaked to the British press showing a private life of homosexual encounters (some genuine, many imagined) in Africa and Latin America.

End of Part One.

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Part Two

Part Three

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