From the Putumayo to Connemara
Roger Casement’s Amazonian Voyage of Discovery *

Peter James Harris
University of São Paulo

Roger Casement in his Brazilian Period
(Pádraig Ó Cuanacháin Irish History)

This article examines the evidence provided by Roger Casement’s accounts of his voyage to the Putumayo in the Amazon rain forest in 1910 in order to reveal the Odyssean complexity of his personality, and to suggest that, in a metaphorical sense at least, this journey represented the beginnings of an Irish homecoming for Casement, just as the wanderings of Homer’s hero led him to the recovery of his house and kingdom in Ithaca.

The hanging of Roger Casement as a traitor at Pentonville prison, London, on 3 August 1916 placed him amongst the most prominent martyrs to the Irish nationalist cause. Yet just five years previously he had received a knighthood from the British government for his investigations into the methods of white rubber traders in the Peruvian jungle. The dichotomy in his character represented by these two moments has been charted as a life-long series of ambivalences and paradoxes in Roger Sawyer’s biography Casement: The Flawed Hero (1984), and was judged to be of paramount significance by the prosecution in his trial for treason. A compulsive journal-writer, Casement was to find his diaries used at the time of his trial to sully his reputation and to ensure that he was denied the chance of a reprieve.

To this day, opinion continues to be divided between those who believe that his ‘Black’ diaries are a genuine, albeit clandestine, account of his homosexual activities, written at a time when such activities were a prisonable offence, and those who claim that they were the calumnious work of the British Secret Service. [1] The controversy which began at time of the trial was not settled by the publication of extracts from the diaries in 1959, and it was shown to be still very much alive in 1997. In that year Angus Mitchell published The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, introducing the text of the ‘White’ diary for 1910 with a lengthy commentary in which he sets forth the arguments justifying his conviction that the ‘Black’ diary is a forgery.  In the very same year Roger Sawyer published Roger Casement’s Diaries – 1910: The Black and the White, referring to much the same evidence as that utilised by Angus Mitchell in order to draw the opposite conclusion and attest to his certainty that the diary is genuine.

On the basis that Roger Sawyer’s line of argument is the more convincing, this article works from the premise that the ‘Black’ diary is genuine and, as such, reflects aspects of Casement’s complex personality. It is my intention, therefore, to examine the text of both the diaries covering the period of Casement’s 1910 journey to the Putumayo in order to demonstrate that the months spent in the South American rain forest represent a crucial stage in the process of Casement’s recognition of his Irishness and may therefore be seen as a form of homecoming. Some 3,000 years previously, one of the very first works of European literature was also concerned with a homecoming. In The Odyssey, Homer depicts his eponymous hero as a man of exceptional courage, eloquence, endurance, resourcefulness and wisdom. Yet he also shows him to be a wily master of disguise and deceit, prepared to be lashed as a beggar in order to enter Troy unseen, [2] able, with Athena’s aid, to approach the palace of King Alcinoös unnoticed by the citizens of Scheria, [3] and, of course, capable of concealing his identity from his own wife Penelope and her suitors when he returns to Ithaca. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, it was Ulysses who gave the order for the Trojan Horse to be built, which has provided an abiding metaphor for undercover action, so much so that it has even been incorporated into the nomenclature of computing as a term for a programme designed to breach the security of a computer system while ostensibly performing an innocuous function. It therefore seems appropriate to describe Casement’s voyage to the Putumayo as an odyssey, for it combines the elements of the heroic, the homecoming and the duplicitous in equal measure.

Casa Arana on the Putumayo, founded 1903

There is much in Roger Casement’s background that serves to explain the ambivalence that characterised his life. Born on 1 September 1864 in Kingstown (present-day Dún Laoghaire), his parents embodied the schism that continues to bedevil Ireland in present times. His father was descended from an Ulster family of landed gentry of that particularly Puritanical strain known as ‘Black Protestants,’ while his mother’s maiden name was Jephson, from a well-established Roman Catholic family. In the course of genealogical research that he himself undertook, Casement was to discover that the Jephsons were, in fact, descended from a Protestant family, two of whose members had been charged with treason at the time of King James II’s Catholic parliament in 1688 and had lost their estates, although not their lives, for having joined forces with the Prince of Orange. Despite the fact that Casement’s mother died when he was only nine years old, and was therefore to affect his life more through her absence than her presence, she took one action which, by its very subterfuge, made a significant contribution to her son’s ambivalence. Whilst on holiday without her husband in Rhyl in North Wales, in a ceremony of the utmost secrecy, she had her three-year-old son baptised as a Catholic. Casement affirmed himself to be Protestant throughout his life but he was to return to the church of the majority of his countrymen shortly before his execution, being received into the Catholic church in articulo mortis and receiving his first Catholic Holy Communion shortly before he was hanged. As Roger Sawyer points out, ‘in a remarkable number of ways Casement was Ireland in microcosm.’ [4] He argues that, ‘particularly when seen in terms of familial, religious and political influences, and even, though less obviously, on a physical level, throughout much of his life there appears an interesting parallel between his own divided loyalties and those of his nation.’ [5] Indeed, Casement’s life can be interpreted as the progressive resolution of his divided loyalties, so that his last-minute ‘conversion’ to the Catholic church may be seen as all of a piece with the magnificent speech he had made on the final day of his trial just over a month previously, in which he had spoken eloquently of his loyalty to Ireland and of the ineligibility of the English court to try him.

Following in a family tradition Roger Casement was a compulsive traveller. In 1883 he became ship’s purser on the SS Bonny, which traded with West Africa and, by the time he was twenty, when he went out to work in the Congo, he had already made three trips to the African continent. Roger Sawyer suggests that his work ‘was to lead to a life-long belief in the virtue of travel as a means to improving relations between peoples.’ [6] After eight years of varied activities in Africa he obtained his first official British Government position, in the Survey Department in the Oil Rivers Protectorate, later to become Nigeria. Three years later, in 1895, he obtained his first consular posting, to Lorenzo Marques in Portuguese East Africa, and was to remain in Foreign Office service until his resignation at the end of June 1913. During his eighteen years of consular service, Roger Casement went on to serve the British Government in Portuguese West Africa, South Africa, the Congo State, Portugal and Brazil – where he occupied consular positions in Santos, Pará (present-day Belém), and finally rose to the post of Consul-General in the then capital, Rio de Janeiro. Although he was periodically frustrated by the limitations imposed by the Foreign Office upon the Consular Service, always seen as a poor relation of the Diplomatic Service, Casement suffered no conflict of loyalty provoked by his Irish nationality and his duty to his British employer. For the most part, his Irish identity manifested itself in such matters as adherence to an early form of ‘buy-Irish’ campaigns when equipping himself for his many expeditions, with the result that he was able to offer Irish whiskey to ailing indigenous people in the middle of the Amazon jungle, [7] as well as trying somewhat ineffectually to protect himself from a tropical storm with ‘a Dublin “brolley”’(umbrella). [8] It was as a result of his experience and competence, particularly as demonstrated in his investigation of the enslavement and torture of native rubber-gatherers in the Congo in 1903, that he was called upon, in 1910, to accompany the commission investigating the alleged atrocities of the British-owned Peruvian Amazon Company, which collected rubber in the region of the River Putumayo.


* This article was published in ABEI Journal – The Brazilian Journal of Irish Studies No. 4, June 2002: 131-138. It was first presented in the form of a paper, with some modifications, at "IASIL 2001 – Odysseys" at Dublin City University, under the title of The Wily Hero: Roger Casement’s Amazon Odyssey.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 July 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Harris, Peter J., 'From the Putumayo to Connemara: Roger Casement's Amazonian Voyage of Discovery
' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" Vol. 4 N° 3 (July 2006). Available online (, accessed .


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