A hundred years ago on August 3, 1916, the ex-British diplomat Roger Casement was hanged as a traitor in London. In the midst of the First World War, he had attempted to recruit Irish prisoners-of-war in Germany in an effort to free Ireland from British control.
To the British government, which had once knighted him, Casement’s treason was abject. To the Irish nationalists whose cause he served, he was a hero. For the anti-imperialist and human rights movements, he was a founding father, the man responsible for revealing the genocide committed in King Leopold II of Belgium’s personal colony of the Congo Free State. And for many homosexuals, particularly in Ireland, he stands akin to a saint, like Oscar Wilde, viciously persecuted for his sexuality.
For Casement’s covert homosexuality was amply documented in his explicit diaries. Portions of these so-called “Black Diaries” were privately circulated by the British government to undermine support for clemency after Casement’s conviction. For years, Irish nationalists disputed the authenticity of the diaries as a vicious smear to destroy Casement’s reputation as humanitarian and Irish patriot—patriotism and homosexuality could not be compatible as long as homosexuality was “perverted” and “degenerate.”
General acceptance of Casement’s homosexuality had to wait until the “widespread discrediting of the moral authority of the Catholic Church” in the 1990s, as Brian Lewis describes it in his review of the shifting historical verdicts on Casement. Today virtually everybody now believes the diaries were Casement’s own and those who don’t, Lewis suggests, make plain their homophobia: “It has become ever more difficult to deny him his queerness.”
Lewis suggests that we have come far enough in Casement studies for Casement to be called a “sexual imperialist” as a white man cruising for young males of color in South America and Africa. But Lewis’s point is that any one-dimensional reading of Casement’s life is profoundly hobbled by that one-dimensionality. He argues that Casement should no more be canonized now then he was once vilified for his sexuality. Rather, the man was “an ordinary human being with ordinary human needs, desires, emotions, and failings, albeit living an extraordinary life.”
How do we remember any human life? Lewis highlights the complexity of humanity: “Ironically enough, the posthumous Roger Casement has perhaps done more than anyone in Ireland to force people to confront their own prejudices. This is his latest, unwitting contribution to the humanitarian cause.”