Casement’s Letters from America

On May 21st, 1916 The New York Times published an article by Poultney Bigelow, the notable American writer, containing the private letters sent to him by Roger Casement in 1914.

Poultney Bigelow is an interesting character. A New Yorker, schooled in Germany, he was a playmate of the Kaiser. His books up to 1898 are praising of the Kaiser but Germany’s attempted infringement of the Monroe Doctrine in the Spanish War seems to have taken him in an anti-German direction. He still made a point of visiting the Kaiser annually up to the 1930s after he had survived the British hangman. Bigelow later became an admirer of Hitler and Mussolini. He was the author of a number of books on German history including The Borderland (1894), History of the German Struggle for Liberty (1896), The German Emperor (1889), and Prussian Memories (1915). He wrote in praise of British colonialism in White Man’s Africa (1897) and in other publications.

At the time Bigelow penned his article for The New York Times Casement was awaiting trial for High Treason in Brixton Prison. Bigelow had known Casement for 20 years, meeting him first in Lourenco Marques,  East Africa in 1896:

“Casement was then British Consul in Delagoa Bay, enthusiastically labouring to thwart the effects of England’s enemies who were secretly using this part of East Africa in order to supply the rebellious Boers with munitions of war.” 

In 1881 the British, looking to fulfil the Cape to Cairo Imperial dream of Cecil Rhodes, had been unexpectedly defeated by the Boers at Majuba Hill. A Truce had then ensued but it was clear that the matter was not over for England. In December 1895 Dr. Jameson made his ill-fated raid/attempted coup in the Transvaal. After this humiliation it was only a matter of time for a final reckoning with the Boers to take place. The reckoning came at the turn of the century with an invasion, blockhouses, crop-burning and concentration camps.

Casement’s appointment to Delagoa Bay showed how trusted he was by the Foreign Office. With war on the Boers inevitable Lourenco Marques became a place of great significance, one of the few ports outside of British territory through which arms and ammunition could be supplied for the Boer defence. Casement’s job was to keep an eye on what was moving from whom to whom and where to where for Britain. Casement remained there until July 1898 before being transferred to West Africa, and then the Congo, where he made his fame.

Bigelow was delivering a letter from the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, to Casement.

The American notes of Casement: “his devotion to British interests was so strong that an official report was to him not complete until he had personally verified all possible details.”

Bigelow also says of Casement that he had a “hatred of injustice and fearlessness in seeking redress.”

Casement was not merely an Imperial functionary – he put his heart and soul into his work:

“For seventeen years Casement enjoyed the confidence of his country and served British interests, not merely to the extent of his salary, but with an energy and enthusiasm that would have killed an ordinary man.”

Bigelow, being a strong Anglophile, could not see the consistency in Casement’s principled behaviour that in the end forced him to take Germany’s side in Britain’s Great War.

In Die Wahlverwandtschaften/Elective Affinities Goethe described how the German landed gentry had to tend to their governmental or military duties to prevent their idleness becoming self-destructive. Goethe’s/Eduard’s mind and vital spirit becomes under-occupied leading to his infatuation with Ottilie/Minna.

The American argues that the British made the mistake of not keeping Casement’s activist spirit occupied by Imperial work. Instead, by retiring him, the Foreign Office encouraged Casement into “pacifism or Pro-Germanism.” Bigelow says that “Casement commenced his career of madness through a too strenuous study of Irish mythology masquerading under the name of history.”

The extent of Bigelow’s Anglocentrism can be gauged in the following passage:

“Casement’s latter-day dream was to… Hibernize the Emerald Isle as Prussia sought to Germanize her Polish provinces. Only a madman could go to Berlin for help in starting a republic and the fact that Casement trusted any Prussian promises in this matter is sufficient for an English court desirious of committing him to a Sanatorium rather than the scaffold.”

But the British Court that tried Casement could not convict him merely on the basis of madness. Casement had gone too far and his published writings, which had appeared across Europe and America, were obviously not those of a madman. His position was clearly reasoned and logical. Only the scaffold was appropriate for him, with the fouling of his name for good measure. The Irish supporters of the Imperial War could ponder his madness to their heart’s content. For them, as now, opposition to the British view of the world is insanity.

The letters Casement sent to Bigelow demonstrate the Irishman’s honesty and openness about what he was doing. They make it very clear why he was going to do what he was about to do. This was a man of the highest principle who concluded that it was for him not a case of “my country right or wrong” but who was right and who was wrong.

Extracts from Sir Roger Casements Letters:

“It is the Crime of all the Ages – and I blame not the Kaiser or Germany – but chiefly England who has plotted and planned it from the days of the first German battleship.” (10.8.14, New York)

“Her present campaign against Germany is hypocritical and mendacious – she aims at one thing only – to destroy German competition; to destroy German peaceful rivalry; to sweep from her path the only great commercial people in Europe whose integrity and capacity and efficiency she dreads.

“In order to achieve this she entered, (7 years ago it began) into an unholy alliance with two armed assassins. Unable herself, alone, to strike the blow at her great and tranquil adversary she bribes two braves, two military mercenaries to do the deed… Herself a non-European Power, only anxious for money & the trade of the world on her terms, she enters into a conspiracy to hand Europe over to Russian & French militarism in order that she may have all the trade dealings of the Sea outside of Europe. It is a vile deal.”

“Ireland has no sins on her conscience against weaker peoples – and when Ireland is Armed and drilled, please God we shall be masters in our own house and fight only one battle – that of self defense.

“Too long we have helped to plunder & pillage other peoples on behalf of the power that has held us in its grip and for its sole profit.

“I repeat I earnestly pray for Germany’s triumph over British greed, French revenge, Russian dominance, Servian assassination and Japanese ‘chivalry.’ England is in bed with fine bedfellows for the Land that claims its policy rests upon the Bible! Cromwell’s murders were also leaves out of that book – and I fancy it is the chief wadding for the British guns in every epoch – whether aimed at American Independence, Irish land, Hindu, Turk or Tartar – & now the Teuton.

“German Protestantism is no shield when John Bull sees a market.

“I hope he will get it in the neck & learn what it is to inflict war on others. He who not ever suffered war has been the one power to carry war abroad (as now) & to inflict its horrors on others.

“When England has experience in her own sacked & ravaged & bombarded cities, ruined industries & starving millions what it is to suffer war, we shall have peace in the world. All who desire peace should hope to see the one power always at war, at length brought to realise the meaning & horror of war.

“If the Almighty has a drop of Protestant blood in his veins he will be on the side of Germany in this war of the most peace-loving people of Europe fighting for their national life, their industry, their commerce – their existence as a great race.

“So now, my dear Bigelow, you know where I stand.” (15.8.14, New York)

“The only place I shall end in will be in jail! – a British jail for Irish “felony.” Of course, if I went out with murder in my heart against the Germans who have never wronged Ireland I’d be a splendid “patriot” but because I want my poor, brave, credulous countrymen to stay at home & if they fight at all, to fight then for Ireland, I am a traitor. Such is the irony of British “democracy”! God deliver from a democracy that feeds in peace itself & stirs up war and desolation wherever its greed, its lust, its appetite call for conflict. It fights always with other men’s lives – in other men’s lands – with ravaged & sacked cities of other countries. The day England herself suffers the horrors of invasion & feels war at home – we shall have peace abroad – but not till then. The task of civilization must be, surely will be – to destroy British immunity from invasion, so that the responsibility for her intrigues abroad & alliances with others to foment war elsewhere shall fall on the shoulders of the principal as well as of his “allies.” If London suffered what London has caused Brussels, Louvain, Liège to suffer, – there would be no war in Europe.

“It is because London & all it shelters of Imperial greed and cupidity is immune and feels it can never suffer, that England has begotten this war of horror against Germany.

“I have heard it plotted and planned for years. I saw it designed steadily in the F.O. (Foreign Office) & I have again & again warned them there of where they were driving. They meant to drive there. They knew it was a crime but – Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed)! Germany’s crime was German higher efficiency in the walks of international commerce & in sea affairs. The day she decided that she, too, had a future on the seas, that day her doom was decreed.

“England fights for one thing only – her interest as the world Emporium. She has two ends in view – 1st to destroy Germany as a rival. 2nd to rope the U.S.A. into an alliance of world partnership in the Emporium line.

“She will fail in No. 1 ultimately even if she wins to-day. Germany is too great and has too good blood in her veins. Even if England gets her down, with the aid of Russia, France, Japan & the “Silver Bullet” – Germany will rise again.

“But England may succeed in No. 2. I see the signs of surrender here on all sides. The virus of British Imperialism is being inculcated steadily – already the press is thoroughly poisoned & most of the politicians & so-called “public men” (you have at the outside perhaps 2 men in America who could be called statesmen).

“The attractions of a World Empire, to be called a “democracy” whereby wealth can be acquired by systematic pillage called “trade” of “finance” without the need of fighting – appeals greatly to the class of people who direct things here. German methods appall them. They wouldn’t fight any more than the English. They want to dine in peace & have the fine things of life through exploitation – not through embattled strength. The English way getting what you want appeals to them – it is discreet, “respectable,” and sanctimonious. I prefer the German – the “brutality” of men not afraid to die for their country or to pour out their blood in rivers for their faith in their fatherland.

“All that I ever did was unselfish or chivalrous in public life – and I have striven to be both in all my public service – has been done with the image of Ireland before me. I worked for Ireland always – for Ireland & the ideals of my own people when I went to find Leopold on the Congo and Julio Arana on the Putumayo.

“And please God before I die I’ll do something still for Ireland!

“And so my dear old far-off friend of other days – of Laurenco Marques! ah! so far-off now – all this means that I can’t go and bathe up the Hudson or meander thro’ its woods with you & drink your good coffee. I am, please God, going back to Ireland very soon now – to stand behind the Volunteers in keeping my country’s conscience clean if that can be, in this orgie of greed and plunder masquerading under the garb of a “holy war.” If I, and those who stand with me in Ireland, can ensure it John Bull shall do his own fighting to “dismantle the German Navy” and “sweep German commerce from the Seas.” Let Lord Curzon, instead of killing the Kaiser with his mouth (the contemptible cad!) go to the front & face the Kaiser’s sons. Let Lord Crewe instead of “venturing the opinion that now that Home Rule is on the Statute Book, Irishmen will rush to enlist,” go & enlist himself, as every German prince & peer has done. Let Lloyd George; instead of forging Silver Bullets & lies of base metal go out as Volunteer to guard the fields of Belgium & the vineyards of France. No- these preux chevaliers, instead of bearing the brunt of that war they have plotted & planned for years are calling for “more expensive food & drink” in the smart London restaurants “to celebrate the German defeats” – by the French! (See New York Times London cable of Sept. 15.)

“I knew Lord Curzon – once – & I’ve met Lloyd George & all the rest of them. I’d walk out of any room they were in today & prefer the company of the waiters.

“Unless this country makes up its mind to fight, if need be, for its neutrality, Great Britain will destroy its neutrality & compel it to take sides against the “enemy of civilisation.” I see the game being steadily played here – by the Kiplings, Conan Doyles, H. G. Wells, Winston Churchills & all the rest of the Westminster troupe of artists. They are only beginning to-day. Just breaking ground – but the trenches are being dug for an assault on American neutrality all along the line – to open fire with a universal howl whenever John Bull gets a serious reverse at sea. Let the German score, by chance, any decided naval victory and we shall find a concerted yell for help sent up throughout all the “American press.” “Common ideals,” “our Anglo-Saxon heritage of culture,” “the cause of human freedom” &c &c – all these will be at stake – and a deliberate effort will be made to stampede this people into the camp of the Allies.

“I am as certain of it as I was three years ago that this war against Germany would be brought off. The plans are already drawn up & everything prepared & laid. Two elements alone in this population – perhaps three – will prevent it being carried out – or will try to prevent it. They may succeed.

“In any case the thing will be much harder to accomplish than the British Government hoped – and if it succeeds it will end this republic. It will turn this country into a vassal State to that one holding the Empire of the Seas.

“Until there is freedom at sea: equality of sea rights for all; equal opportunity; & Navalism recognised as a greater foe to Humanity than Militarism there can be no peace to mankind; no security against war – but an eternal pledge that War to break that unjust monopoly must surely come, and come again, until the mastery of the Seas is dissolved in the neutrality of the Ocean.” (30.9.14, Philadelphia)

With these words and having decided where he stood in the great contest, Casement travelled on to Christiana and Berlin to his last great adventure.

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