Book of the week – The Devil and Mr Casement

The devil and mr casement
Jordan Goldman
Verso books

casement

Previously i reviewed King Leopold’s ghost, a book loaned to me by a union activist. On return of that I was given a different but similar missive, the devil and mr casement. While King Leopold’s was about the Congo and the suffering imposed on its population the devil moves continent. To South America and Peru.

With one thread between the two, Roger casement. After all it is the centenary of the Easter Rising so why not celebrate one of Ireland’s heroic gun runners by reading of his exploits prior to dealing with the Germans during the First World War in an effort to get arms from them for this countries own war effort.

Casement is a colourful character, one out of kilter in an Ireland of stereotypes. Christened twice under two different religions and gay made him NOT the poster boy for the rebellion, that’s for sure, but through all the torment growing up he knew knew the difference between what he felt was right and wrong.

The devil in this book is the Peruvian Amazon company, listed in the British Stock Exchange, through it’s owner – Julio Cesar Arana, dealing with rubber and about to exploit anyone it can. Geography helped it get a stronghold in an area where few people travelled. An emerging market looking for rubber as car tires, bike tires and many other uses for rubber was being found. There are stories of brutality and torture as the British empire became aware of the plight of people in Peru.

We get used to the language of today and phrases like living wage as being of their time. I have been at many conferences when forced labour and it’s horrendous effects on human beings, prisoners in their own skin, have lights shine on them. It’s certainly not a 21st century phenomena and since slavery has been abolished in some areas over one and a half centuries ago it is something that has continually been part of the global radar. We like to think that the settled western world has no place for such things but we do. As my “no to human trafficking bookmark” constantly reminds me. However it was very much prevalent amongst “respectable” rubber producing companies, most notably the previously mentioned Peruvian Amazon company.

It’s also easy to forget that different times to today were lived under extremely different circumstances. Now I have the potential to communicate with over 50% of the worlds population instantaneously. I can pretty much see where any island is in the world. Many countries secret services can try and get cameras into any of the worlds nooks and crannies. They aren’t quite there yet but it’s getting closer. Whereas a century ago maps were being drawn and vast areas of countries were either unexplored or untraversable. Except for indigenous people and local gangs. Which is where much of the worlds rubber stock came from but always with some man (pretty much always a man) ready to exploit it for profit. And ready to do whatever it takes to hang on and increase it.

So it took a while for word to get around the world on events good or bad. The Peruvian Amazon Company were getting away with indiscretions in the name of business as their product was very much in demand and that demand was being met. However they had some forced labour issues and due to the expansion of the British empire it became the business of the British state when stories of its citizens (from Barbados) being tortured came to light. They set up a committee to investigate. And who better to lead the investigation? Future traitor and leading humanitarian Roger Casement.

Casements work in compiling his report for the foreign office made him almost like an investigative journalist. He hunted people down? Sourced interpreters and spoke to as many as he could whilst hearing tales of decapitation. Casement disgust was mixed with amazement when a domestic murder held so much more credence that this tales of inhumanity it helped shape his belief in justice for downtrodden and lp doubt played a part in his wish to assist Irish Rebels in their future fight against the British empire.

He published a paper on the situation that garnered huge press coverage. How could it not when it stated that the native Indian population nosedived from 50,000 to 11,000 in the years between 1908 and 1911.

This book tells the story in chronological order through extensive research of letter, newspaper article and published journals. I was struck when reading the details of a select committee set up by the House of Commons to investigate the company as it had British directors. Some of the transcripts are mind boggling in their evasiveness but that brought me a century ahead and this small island, formerly fully part of the British empire. We have had our share of select committees and tribunals investigating wrongdoing and corruption. Many answers to these were misleading and quite frankly bizarre. So what has really changed?

Slavery is abolished but we still have forced labour.
Labour laws are in place but we still have people being paid below minimum wage
Health and safety standards are published but we still have negligent workplaces.

We are forever evolving and still have a way to go but thanks to people like Roger Casement change came quicker to some countries.

niallhope

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