By Roger Cox
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The Devil and Mr Casement

This article is over 12 years, 9 months old
Jordan Goodman, Verso; £17.99
Issue 341

If money grew on trees, the tree would be called Hevea brasiliensis – the wild Amazon rubber tree. With the discovery of the vulcanisation of latex to make rubber and the invention of the pneumatic tyre, demand for latex from the Amazon regions became voracious. This created a savage exploitation of the Indian peoples that lived in the forest. It also produced a group of very rich “rubber barons”.

One was Julio César Arana, a Peruvian who controlled the forest of the River Putumayo. He launched the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company on the London Stock Exchange – while the Huitoto people suffered the horrors of a reduction in their population from 30,000 to 10,000.

Soon these outrages circulated in the press, anti-slave societies campaigned and questions were asked in parliament. The government was forced to deal with the British company and the scandal of its operations. The outcome was the setting up of a commission of inquiry consisting of the directors and Roger Casement.

Casement’s fame rested on his work in exposing the abuses of Africans in King Leopold’s Congo empire. He was a British diplomat who exposed the wrongdoings of a more minor imperialism, something that made him famous. But he was never very comfortable about it. Being Irish he wanted independence for Ireland. What Casement found in the Amazon was worse than the Congo. His basic humanitarianism was outraged and the outcome was the publication of a report exposing the enslavement and destruction by Arana’s henchmen of the Indian peoples.

Jordan Goodman describes in the detail the struggles that Casement and others took part in to collect this information and how, despite the creation of a select committee, nothing happened on the ground.

Putumayo changed Casement. The competing states involved cared not for the Indians being murdered but only for profit. Casement saw how imperialism could not improve the conditions suffered by the people of the forest. He resigned from his government post to campaign for Irish independence, only to find the Connemara typhus outbreak which he called the “Irish Putumayo”. The dreadful death toll reinforced his convictions. He wrote that “only Irishmen and women can clear up the mess”. His struggle for Irish independence led to his hanging for treason by the British in 1916. He was stripped of all honours and isolated with the revelation that he was gay.

Goodman has written a wonderful book that is sympathetic to Casement. He has brought together a vast amount of information, revealing the roles played by the different governments involved in this process of exploitation. I cannot recommend this book enough and could not put it down once I started it. This is one book for every socialist Xmas stocking.

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