From Knight to Noose: The Dream of the Celt
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
The Celt in question was Sir Roger Casement, an Irishman who was knighted by the King of Britain for his humanitarian exploits and who a few years later was hanged for treason.
Casement is the subject of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Dream of the Celt.. It follows Casement’s life from nursery to noose. Except for the way it jumps around in time and the obviously fictionalized patches, it reads like biography. Casement, a real person, not a fictional character, was an Anglo-Irish Protestant who was fascinated by exotic places ever since his father told him about battles he fought as a dragoon in India and Afghanistan. When Casement heard about Stanley and Livingston as a boy, he knew he wanted to go to Africa. And so he did, working with Stanley himself for a rubber company.
Even though he did not have a college education, Casement rose to the rank of His Majesty’s Consul to part of the Belgian Congo. He had seen some of the brutalities committed by Stanley (and some of the paradoxical kindnesses, too), but the stories that came down the Congo River were awe-inspiring in their cruelty. He obtained permission from the government to go upriver and observe with the purpose of writing an official report. What he saw was too terrible to repeat here. Whips made of hippopotamus hide were on every belt. The rubber from the trees was harvested with impressed labor and whole villages were destroyed.
Casement had believed that colonialism would bring trade, education, medicine–civilization in short–to Africa. Instead, it brought slavery and murder. (Casement was a friend of Joseph Conrad, who came to the same conclusions.) Casement wrote his report and it made him famous. A few years later he went to the Amazon and did the same thing again with respect to the doings of a British-owned rubber company. Some reforms came of these efforts, but the guilty largely went unpunished. Casement, on the other hand, was rewarded with a knighthood.
So Casement seemed like a decent, upstanding subject of His Majesty. But he wasn’t. All the time he was looking at what Europeans did to Africans and Indians, he was thinking of what England had done to Ireland. Wasn’t it basically the same thing? No, the English no longer routinely murdered the Irish, but they had wiped out almost all of Irish culture and did not allow the Irish to rule themselves.
Thus it was that Casement became an Irish Nationalist. When the Great War came, he concocted a plan to get the Germans to arm the Irish, who would rise up simultaneously with a German attack on British bases in Ireland, thus giving the tiny Irish forces a chance to achieve independence.
Things did not go as planned, and some of the more extreme nationalists staged a rebellion without any German assistance at all. They were promptly slaughtered. Casement was caught sneaking back into Ireland and tried for treason. Although Vargas Llosa tries to keep us in suspense about Casement’s fate, it is obvious what is going to happen to him from page 1.
What lessons are we to draw from all of this? I think the big one is that no government can truly be trusted unless it rules by consent of the governed. Belgium and England believed in individual rights, but when Belgians and Englishmen allowed themselves to be blinded by the glitter of gold, they would stop at nothing to get it, up to and including torture and mutilation of the innocent. The natives had no say, no effective weapons, no idea of the big picture of what was being done to them. It was worse than what the Anglo-Americans did to Indians in the U.S. It was even worse than what white America did to African slaves.
The tragedy of it all is that Indians and black Africans of the colonial period did not have the culture or technological skills to play a part in the civilizations they encountered. Their only hope was that public opinion and the consciences of the ruling classes would prevent the worst abuses. That’s a slender reed to lean on.
The Irish case was different. Thanks to some extent to the British, they did have the culture and technology necessary for self-government. They did not have to depend on the good will of their colonizers and they did not want to. A few years after Casement’s death, they won their independence.
There is a lot more to the novel than I have indicated. The sights and sounds and smells of Africa and Amazonia are vividly recreated. We get a lot of Casement’s inner life. The British tried to discredit Casement by releasing excerpts of his private diaries, which purportedly showed that he was a homosexual. Vargas Llosa accepts the authenticity of these claims, although he portrays some of what was in the diaries as fantasies and not real encounters. There’s an eerie parallel between the oppression of the Africans, that of the Indians, that of the Irish, and that of the gay. In no case is the oppressed allowed to be himself and love in an uncomplicated manner.
Some of my readers probably know that Vargas Llosa is more or less a libertarian who defends capitalism by citing Friedman and Hayek. I think colonialism might be one of the thorniest problems for those who like to extoll the virtues of nineteenth-century liberalism. Vargas Llosa meets that problem head on and never lets us get too comfortable with our nostalgia, while never suggesting that collectivism is the answer.
So what kept me engaged in this book? I really don’t like dreary settings and inevitable doom in my art. What kept me going is that through it all, Roger Casement was an idealist. He was an idealist even when he was wrong, as he was in his early thinking about the benefits of colonialism and in his later thinking about the virtue of reviving the Gaelic tongue. He was sometimes tired, sometimes sick, but he never gave up on trying to find the truth and do what was right, as best he saw it. Lesser men would have become cynical or defeated in the face of the things he witnessed, but he remained determined and even hopeful. To my mind that makes him a hero, even though he didn’t live to see the ultimate victory of the causes he fought for.
After all, what is more heroic than struggling to find the truth and bring it to the world?
If you enjoyed this essay you might also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American Life.