The prison courtyard of the Bow London Court during a recess in the Casement Trial. Roger Casement was with a leaf of paper in his hand on the extreme right.
(continuation from the Congo post)
When the news about atrocities in the Congo spread, the British government dispatched a junior civil servant in the Colonial Office named Roger Casement to investigate it. Casement, an Irishman who spent two decades as the British consul in various African colonies sent back a damning report, and became involved in the humanitarian efforts for the Congo. Knighted for his diplomatic services, Sir Roger Casement became deeply involved in Irish nationalism too. In 1914, he travelled to the United States to collect funds from Irish Americans for the purchase of black market firearms to be used in an anti-British insurrection.
Casement took a steamer from New York to Germany to make an offer to the Kaiser’s government: in exchange for support for Irish independence, Casement proposed forming a brigade of Irish freedom fighters from prisoners of war held in Germany, a unit that would battle on the German side during those tumultuous days of the Great War. Having landed in Ireland in 1916 from a German submarine, he was arrested and brought to London, where he was held in the Tower, no less.
His friends and supporters — including Arthur Conan Doyle and Geroge Bernard Shaw — organized a campaign for Casement’s defense. The trial was swift, if not tragicomic. Casement was charged under the Treason Act of 1351, which was written in Norman French, unpunctuated, and contained these words:
If a man be adherent to the king’s enemies in his realm giving to them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere …
Casement’s defence argued that Casement had not been adherent to the king’s enemies “in the realm” and therefore Casement was not guilty. Blithely ignoring the fact that Casement was clearly condemned by the phrase “or elsewhere”, regardless of how you punctuate it, the contentious sentence became the central point of the trial. Two judges were sent to the Public Record Office to examine the Act with a microscope. They discovered a faint virgule after the second “realm”, making the phrase “giving to them aid and comfort in the realm” appositionary. Casement was sentenced to death.
All efforts to commute his death sentence into life imprisonment were quickly and discreetly thwarted by the police, who showed influential figures in Parliament and London’s clubland incriminating entries in Casement’s diaries about his homosexual liaisons. Treason was a grave offense indeed, but to be a homosexual was virtually unforgivable back then. The appeals for clemency were promptly rejected.
Casement was hanged on the morning of 3rd August 1916. A few days before his execution, he wrote to a friend: “I have made awful mistakes, and did heaps of things wrong and failed at much — but … the best thing was the Congo.”