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It’s fair to say that the name Roger Casement means very little, if nothing at all, for the vast majority of Colombians. There’s no surprise in that really, especially considering that in his native Ireland, despite Casement being one of the most written about figures from the 1916 Rising period, his life isn’t the best known among the masses.
For those completely in the dark, before his more controversial involvement in the Irish republican movement which ended in his execution by the British in 1916, the Dublin-born diplomat carried out what could be described as pioneering work in the field of human rights, both in the Congo and South America.
This is where the Colombian connection comes into play. It was during his time as a British consul in Rio de Janeiro that he undertook an investigation into reports of maltreatment of indigenous tribes by a British-registered Peruvian rubber enterprise, Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC), deep in the Amazon jungle.
In 1910 Casement made the first of two lengthy visits to the Putumayo region on the Colombian-Peruvian border where the abuses were taking place. What he found happening there was truly shocking. Not only were indigenous forced into unpaid labour by PAC employees, but they were also subjected to severe physical abuse such as the use of pillories, branding and whipping. Thousands were murdered, many at the hands of PAC station chiefs, while indigenous women and girls were victims of rape.
Casement’s report of these horrific crimes caused outrage in Britain when the details were made public. It also signalled, in some ways, the beginning of the end for the Peruvian Amazon Company (other, external factors in rubber production also played their part in PAC’s eventual collapse). Such was the extent and significance of Casement’s investigation, he received a knighthood from the king in 1911. Alas, it wasn’t enough to save him from the hangman’s noose five years later, when he was convicted of treason, sabotage and espionage against the same British Crown for his involvement in the Irish independence struggle.
That tragic end notwithstanding, Casement’s heroic work on behalf of the Putumayo Indians is something that has been and continues to be celebrated and remembered. For example, in 2012 hundreds of indigenous peoples from the region attended a celebration for the 100th anniversary of Casement’s report.
What’s more, Ruth Chaparro, director of Fundación Caminos de Identidad (Fucai), a Colombian NGO working with and for the country’s indigenous, continues to see the importance of Casement’s contribution to highlighting human rights violations. She believes the meticulous and dedicated nature of Casement’s investigations and reports are a great example to all human rights activists in how to carry out analysis of such abuses and how to ensure reports are rigorous enough to help bring about change.
With that in mind, as this coming August 3rd marks the centenary of Casement’s execution, a commemorative event is being held in the village of La Chorrera, deep in the Colombian Amazon. It’s being organised by indigenous peoples there in collaboration with the Irish-born barrister, academic and indigenous activist, Brendan Tobin, who for the past ten years has been planning to visit the region.
For Tobin, it’s a case of following in Casement’s footsteps as he hopes to visit a number of the communities that suffered at the hands of PAC. Tobin sees the trip not just as an opportunity to celebrate Casement’s legacy but more importantly as a chance to highlight the continuing threat to the natives posed by trade and advancement towards ‘modernity’. The abuses of the rubber industry may be a thing of the past, but the Amazon’s indigenous continue to face exploitation in other ways. (Quite pertinent at a time when Colombian officialdom finalises terms to sign a peace deal with the Farc leftist guerrillas.)
To mark the event, Republic of Ireland president, Michael D Higgins, has been invited to send a letter to the indigenous to be read out at the August 3rd ceremony, which takes place in the environs of La Chorrera’s Casa de Conocimiento, the indigenous school on the grounds of what was once the headquarters of the infamous PAC in the region.
Tobin himself hopes in the future to raise enough funds to have a bust erected in honour of Casement in the secluded Amazon outpost. For the moment, as part of the ceremony, he is going to present the locals with a personal copy of The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, edited by Angus Mitchell, for inclusion in the local library.
Casement may be long gone, with his name tarnished for some due to subsequent actions after his human rights work, yet the good he did for the Amazon’s indigenous cannot be merely swept aside. As Tobin puts it, Casement serves as something of a focal point around which the people of Putumayo can gather to discuss, share and collectively seek a way to heal from a horrid past that still resonates. The La Chorrera memorial on August 3rd allows another opportunity to do just that.
For a previous piece on Irish-Colombian links, see With O’Leary in Bogotá.