READING ROGER CASEMENT AT LAST! (AND QUESTIONING LITERATURE)

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…

4 comentarios en “READING ROGER CASEMENT AT LAST! (AND QUESTIONING LITERATURE)

  1. I have just come across your comments above – 9 years after they were posted. At last, thoughts I can relate to after reading not only Casement’s report itself (it’s now online) but in further writings I perused – eg «King Leopold’s Ghost» , «Travel writing and Atrocities» by Robert M. Burroughs and more including the book you cite above!

    I also laboured through «Heart of Darkness»‘s overripe style and its (to me) disorienting story within a story within a story. I guess it reflected Conrad’s actual experience in Congo (in 1890 or so, before the rubber extraction truly began) and he didn’t entirely neglect the suffering of the native population, at least the relatively small number then working as carriers and/or on the railway. But I was too thick to relate to the mystique of Kurz and his milieu which seemed to present the native population as weird, incomprehensible exotics. What in hell was that about? well maybe we were supposed to get our heads around various subtleties?? But in this case who cares anyway? Whatever it was meant to mean, the obsession on the part of western literary critics etc with eg uncovering archetypal subconscious upheavals in the book is repulsively egocentric, given the actual truly shocking treatment being meted out on the actual native population (perhaps less widespread in 1890 than later but only because the spoils were more limited) & essentially narcissistic. Not finished but I’ve run out of space!. But thanks again!

  2. Thank you, Cynthia, for your comments. I have finally stopped teaching ‘Heart of Darkness’ and in its place I’m teaching ‘King Solomon’s Mines’. I find it much easier to use a text less loved by the critics to explain to my students how colonialist, imperialist ideology was disseminated through fiction. They understand that we are not admiring the text but reading it for its cultural impact and from a critical point of view. Conrad can be read in the same way but it is less accessible to students. I have indeed wondered whether Conrad himself knew what he actually meant and why he is never as transparent as Casement was (and thanks for the tip about his text being now online).
    Thanks again,
    Sara

  3. Thank you Sara for your timely response! I have no wish to detain you in a continuing discussion but it was lovely to have a response and so quickly.
    Yet it plunged me into further thoughts which I hope you won’t mind me sharing.
    I tracked down Achebe’s 1974 article online and have read or reread other material I flatter myself that some of my own words formed before reading Achebe’s express one of his principal ideas – I mean these words :
    «Whatever it was meant to mean, the obsession on the part of western literary critics etc with eg uncovering archetypal subconscious upheavals in the book is repulsively egocentric, given the actual truly shocking treatment being meted out on the actual native population … & essentially narcissistic.»
    But scholars or students of literature who haven’t read anything of Congo history (or read the “novel” you cite by Vargas Llosa which I have also read in English – actually it was the first thing I read) might well fail to appreciate this whereas I had the benefit of prior reading – not only Vargas Llosa but Adam Hochschild’s » King Leopold’s Ghost «, among other books & Casement’s report itself – which I hope you have found online but here is a link (there are others but this is the most readable one I could find): https://www.gutenberg.org/files/50573/50573-h/50573-h.htm .
    I’ve also wondered if in Casement’s time the meaning of the word “savage” in the initial paragraphs of the report was more like what the word “sauvage” mostly means in French – that is, more like “natural” or “naturally occurring” than “ferocious”, as in English today ; and also whether the opening paragraphs of Casement’s report – which seem to put most of the blame for the condition of the people on sleeping sickness and their “savagery” – are partly to keep his main powder dry until further on. Also, that perhaps Conrad in his novella was among other things trying to shield himself from the possibility of being sued by Leopold – apparently the latter was very litigious (come to think of it I think Hochschild suspects this although I don’t have his book at hand to check). But I DO have a copy of B. I. Reid’s biography of Casement which I suspect is unfair in many ways but leaving that aside, according to Reid, (on page 53 of the biography) by late 1903 Conrad was referring to Heart of Darkness” as “an awful fudge”! The source for this is given as some folio in the National Library of Ireland which I can’t check (I’m in the Antipodes) but I have no reason to doubt it. I suppose I could try online though?
    Anyway I’m continuing to read on the subject as there are many other matters I wonder about. But meanwhile will also try to get hold of a copy of King Solomon’s Mines for light relief – necessary for mental well-being!
    Best wishes

  4. I am convinced, Cynthia, that as a rather new British citizen Joseph Conrad was afraid of going further in his description of what was going on in Congo, hence the fuzziness of his tale. He may have been worried about attracting Leopold’s wrath or causing an international diplomatic incident, who knows. As I tell my students when in doubt that something is racist, misogynistic or homophobic, try to imagine matters the other way round. Conrad does that, a little, by referring to the Roman commander sent up the Thames to conquer the natives in Britannia, but what I really mean is try to imagine a group of Africans travelling into the heart of Europe with the contempt for the whites that Conrad/Marlow uses for the poor Africans and then you see how truly racist ‘Heart of Darkness’ is. Far less than King Leopold but still…
    Thanks!
    Sara
    PS I did find the link to Casement’s text!

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