Turtle Bunbury

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SIR ROGER CASEMENT’S AMAZONIAN REPORT 1910-1912

On a hot afternoon in June 1911, Sir Roger Casement made his way to Southampton Docks to greet the new arrivals. It had been a busy week. Six days earlier the Irishman had received a knighthood from George V in recognition of his humanitarian work in Africa.

Sir Roger watched the two Amazonians disembark from the steamship uncertainly. They were clad in winter wear, custom-made in Barbados by a tailor who underestimated how hot a British summer could be.

He had not seen them for six months but appreciated that London would come as something of a shock. It was certainly far removed from the South American rainforest where they were born and raised.

The Amazonians were Ricudo and Omarino, two young rubber workers from the remote Putumayo region on the Colombia-Peru border. Sir Roger had brought them to Britain as part of his campaign to expose the ghastly state of affairs in the Putumayo where exploitation, torture and murder were commonplace.

Sir Roger Casement became a national hero in Ireland following his arrest during the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent execution.

However, one hundred years ago he was much better known as Britain’s foremost human rights activist. The Amazonian chapter of his life forms the subject of Jordan Goodman’s acclaimed 2010 book ‘The Devil and Mr. Casement’, and also features in ‘The Dream of the Celt’, a fictional take on Sir Roger's life by 2010 Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

These Amazonian exploits received a further boost in 2007 when Dr. Lesley Wylie, a lecturer in Latin American Studies then working at the University of Essex, discovered two long-lost portrait photographs of Ricudo and Omarino in a photographic archive.[i] An article with these photographs was published in the Irish Studies Review in 2010.

Ricudo and Omarino were ex-employees of the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC), a rubber firm consolidated in London, backed by British shareholders and utterly dominant in the remote Putumayo.

In 1909, the British Foreign Office received a report from American explorer Walter Hardenburg claiming that the PAC were orchestrating a brutal regime in which the indigenous tribes of the Amazon were being systematically ‘driven into slavery, ravished, tortured and destroyed’.

The Foreign Office duly assigned the investigation to one of the most respected human rights campaigners in the diplomatic service.

Casement was already an icon of liberal society. His 1904 report on the Congo Free State in Africa had exposed appalling atrocities on the rubber plantations, in which hundreds of thousands of people had died in order to provide rubber for the Belgian-owned companies that were supplying the rapidly expanding automobile industry with tyres.

Born in Dublin to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, Casement journeyed to the Congo as a young man. He stayed there for twenty years, rising to become British consul. For a short period he shared a room with Joseph Conrad whose experiences of the Congo inspired him to write the novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ upon which the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ is based.

Casement laid the blame for the Congolese horror squarely at the feet of Leopold, King of the Belgians, a first cousin of Queen Victoria, who ruled the country as a personal domain with his own private army. Such was the outrage which followed Casement’s report that Leopold was forced to relinquish control over this mini-kingdom.

And now the Congo was happening all over again in the Amazon. Only this time the company involved had British rather than Belgian backers.

In September 1910, Casement set forth to investigate the allegations against the PAC.

The Putumayo, where the PAC was headquartered, was a no-man’s land on the border between Colombia and Peru. This land was full of wild rubber trees, as well as more than 50,000 Bora, Andoke, Huitoto, and Ocaina Indians.

In about 1900, the Peruvian rubber baron Julio César Arana, head of the PAC, purchased this 11,500 square mile region. As Casement soon discovered, Arana had recruited and equipped a private army of Barbados Africans to round up these tribesmen and put them to work as slave labour.

Those who resisted were tortured or killed. Those who failed to deliver the right quota also faced murder and torture. Age was irrelevant; children were murdered alongside adults.

Casement estimated that, during the first decade of the century, an astonishing 30,000 people had been either murdered or otherwise killed on account of crop destruction. For this toll, the PAC – or the automobile industry at large - received 4,000 tons of rubber.

Sir Roger was sickened by what he discovered. ‘I am full up with atrocities and horrors’, he wrote in his diary. When he fed the starving from his own supplies, they ‘clicked their tongues and lips with joy, poor souls’. As Dr. Wylie noted, he bathed the wounds of injured rubber workers. He dressed a sick woman in his own pajamas and gave her his bed for the night.

And then he decided to bring two of these ‘poor souls’ to London. ‘My hope’, he wrote in his diary, ‘ is that by getting some of these unknown Indians to Europe I may get powerful people interested in them and so in the fate of the whole race out here in the toils’.[ii]

First he selected Omarino, an orphan whose parents were ‘both killed by this rubber curse’. The manager of the station where Omarino worked insisted Casement gave him a shirt and a pair of trousers in payment for the boy.

Then came Ricudo, a ‘strong and shapely’ 19 year old whom Casement ‘won’ in a game of cards. No mention was made of Ricudo’s wife.

In order to prepare them for London, Casement dispatched the pair to Barbados for six months where the Rev. Frederick Smith tried, in vain, to teach them English and commissioned ‘European’ clothes from a tailor. Ricudo seemingly preferred rum to school.

Once in London, the Amazonians spent two months as guests of Sir Roger. He paraded them before the London elite as prime exhibits of imperialism gone rotten, introducing them to Duchesses, Archbishops and cabinet ministers. The story made the front page of The Daily News, a liberal newspaper founded by Charles Dickens, under the headline ‘Inferno in a Paradise’. In the story, Casement acted as spokesman for the duo and revealed all the horrors of the PAC-run Putumayo to a shocked British public.

Sir Roger also wondered about educating Omarino properly. He wrote to Patrick Pearse about the possibility of enrolling the boy at St Enda’s College, Pearse’s progressive, Irish-speaking college in Rathfarnham. Pearse earnestly replied he would certainly do his best to ‘make a success of the young barbarian’.

However, when asked about London, the Amazonians reputedly remarked that it was ‘very beautiful … but the great river and the forest where the birds fly is more beautiful … one day we shall go back.”

Casement returned to the Putumayo with both Amazonians later that same year. The pair vanished into the rainforest and Sir Roger never saw either of them again. Their impact on London society certainly helped end the Putumayo atrocity, although Arana himself escaped charge.

Casement’s experiences in the Congo and the Amazon convinced him that colonialism was intrinsically evil. In 1913 he co-founded the Irish Volunteers and began raising money for the cause in the USA. He subsequently arranged for a major cargo of guns to be sent to Ireland from Germany ahead of the Easter Rising in 1916. The British intercepted the shipment and Casement himself was arrested at Banna Strand on the north coast of Kerry three days before the rising began.

His trial was one of the most controversial of its time. Private journals describing homosexual encounters were leaked by the British authorities during the trial and turned public sentiment against him. He was duly stripped of his title and hanged for treason and so His Majesty’s servant became an Irish patriot.

The Putumayo region is now part of war-torn south Colombia. The indigenous communities continue to be exploited although the product of choice today is not rubber but cocaine.

FOOTNOTES

[i] These long lost photographs depicted a man and a boy, both naked to the waist, and were taken by John Thomson, a pioneering Scottish travel photographer.
Dr Wylie, who was educated at a Trinity College Dublin, quickly deduced that the subjects were Ricudo and Omarino which was, as she put it, ‘very exciting’.
‘I came across the two photographs among a photographic collection held by the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Although the catalogue card identified the sitters simply as “Two slaves from Putomayo (sic) river, Up. Amazon, Colombia”, I suspected immediately that they were the two Amazonians that Casement had brought to London in 1911. I had previously seen a copy of William Rothenstein’s painting of the subjects, and there was a strong resemblance between it and the photographs. Although Casement mentions the existence of these photographs in his personal correspondence, scholars had assumed up to now that these images had been lost.’


[ii] 'Is it too late’, asked Sir Roger Casement, ‘to hope that by means of humane and brotherly agency something of the good-will and kindliness of Christian life may be imparted to the remote, friendless, and lost children of the forest still waiting the true white man’s coming into the region of the Putumayo?'


FURTHER READING

Goodman, Jordan, 'The Devil and Mr Casement: One Man's Struggle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness' (Verso, 2010).

Wylie, Lesley (2010) 'Rare models: Roger Casement, the Amazon, and the ethnographic picturesque', Irish Studies Review, 18: 3, 315-330.

With thanks to Ros Dee, Jordan Goodman and Lesley Wylie.


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