I first mentioned Roger Casement here in relation to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (see entry for 12-XII) and, later, in my review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s El sueño del Celta (2-I), a novel based on his tragic life. In the meantime, I have spent 60 euros of public money to purchase for the UAB library a copy of The Eyes of Another Race: Roger Casement’s Congo Report and 1903 Diary (edited by S.Ó. Síocháin and Michael O’Sullivan, University College Dublin Press, 2003). Amazingly, nobody has uploaded the report onto the net, I can’t explain why as copyright laws no longer apply, although, tellingly, the available edition of this official British report is Irish (remember? Casement, himself Irish, was executed for helping the Irish to rebel). Anyway, I have finally read the report and I worry now that Heart of Darkness is for ever spoiled for me.
The report is a straightforward narrative of Casement’s own journey into the heart of darkness that King Leopold’s personal Congo was in 1903. Basically, Casement repeated the journey he’d already taken in 1887 (Conrad was in Congo in 1890) in order to better appreciate the contrast between Congo as it was before the arrival of the white man and Congo under the impact of his depredations. The results of this comparison are devastating, basically due to the imposition by private companies of harsh food and rubber quotas (for the budding bicycle and car tyre industries) on villages punished with unbelievable violence, and with the Government’s full consent, if these were not met. Ivory, which is central to Conrad’s story as we know, is hardly ever mentioned whereas, unlike what happens in Conrad’s text, the natives are indeed mentioned by name and so are the places they inhabit. We know through Casement of the atrocities they report to him and I remain personally haunted by the chief who breaks down and cries, as he tells Casement life is no longer worth living for him and his people.
I am well aware that Casement reports what he’s told and we don’t hear the actual voices of the terrorised native population for they are completely disempowered, having to resource to this committed, disgusted white man to vent their grievances. Yet, reading the report, one is also fully aware that the stance Casement took was a matter of human rights, as he, like many contemporary NGOs attacked, mainly, the illegality of what was being perpetrated in Congo as a way to free the native population from terror. At one point he recalls how in his first visit the Congolese natives would flock to meet any white person who happened to pass their village when in 1903 they often fled in terror at his own approach.
Suddenly, after reading the report, Conrad’s tale appears to be not only very silly (more in the line of King Solomon’s Mines than of anything else) but also irresponsible. No wonder Chinua Achebe was angry. Now I understand. I have always thought that, given the all-pervading racism of his time, Conrad’s Congo needed be the primitive, exotic place it is while his own racism appeared to be quite moderate. Reading now Casement I stand corrected, as his report shows that many white persons were then already capable of a degree of human sympathy that we are still struggling to achieve (think Iraq and Afghanistan). And it shows, above all, how easy it is to build empathy for the suffering of those who cannot speak for themselves if this is what the writer intends.
We get nothing at all like this from Conrad and I can only say that Literature, or at least Conrad, fails in this miserably. Next time I teach Heart of Darkness, I’ll make sure students also read Casement. If I ever teach it again…