From the Putumayo to Connemara

Peter James Harris



The territory in question is an area of some 12,000 square miles which is largely confined to a triangle of land formed by the Putumayo and two of its tributaries, the Cara-Paraná and the Caquetá (known in Brazil as the Japura). The easternmost point of this triangle lies some 400 miles up the Putumayo from that river’s confluence with the Amazon. It is the Putumayo which now delimits the frontier between Peru and Colombia. This region of tropical rain forest was inhabited by native peoples who were coerced into harvesting the local second-grade rubber known as ‘sernambi,’ whose commercial value depended on the virtually free labour of the gatherers. The system had been set up by Julio Cesar Arana at the turn of the century and in 1907 he took advantage of the rubber speculation on the London stock market to set up a limited company with a capital of £1,000,000.  (The 12,000 square miles of forest that he had acquired by 1906 had cost him a total of £116,700.) The first English-language news of the atrocities perpetrated by the Peruvian Amazon Company was published in the magazine Truth in September 1909 and it was these accounts by the American railway engineer Walter Hardenburg, who had been held prisoner by the company, that prompted the British Foreign Office to request that Casement accompany the investigating commission sent to Peru by the London board of directors the following year.

Thus it was, then, that Wednesday, 21 September 1910, found Roger Casement on board the Liberal, steaming rapidly up the River Igara-Paraná, one week after leaving Iquitos, and almost exactly two months after setting sail from Southampton on the Edinburgh Castle. The ‘White Diary,’ which records his findings in harrowing detail, covers the period from 23 September to 6 December, when he left Iquitos again, this time on his way downstream to Manaus and thence to Europe. The parallel ‘Black Diary,’ which includes details of Casement’s sexual encounters, covers almost the whole of 1910, from 13 January to 31 December. Those in search of prurient titillation will almost certainly be disappointed with the content of the ‘Black Diary,’ whose sexual information is largely limited to reports of penis sizes and shapes and accounts of associated financial transactions. Given that Casement’s homosexual preferences no longer arouse the horror expressed by his contemporaries, the diary is far more interesting for the light that it sheds upon the thought processes that are set down in its companion volume. According to Angus Mitchell, ‘Casement’s 1911 Amazon voyage has been rather briefly passed over by biographers as little more than a sexual odyssey – an officially sanctioned cruise along the harbour-fronts of Amazonia.’ [9] In fact, even the ‘Black Diary’ makes it clear that, during the period of the investigation itself, Casement not only refrained from sexual activity himself but urged his companions to do the same.

Putumayo people in chains
(Pádraig Ó Cuanacháin Irish History)

This is not to say that he did not conceive of his journey as an odyssey. On 6 October, just two weeks into the investigation, but at a time when Casement had had ample opportunity to observe the harems of indigenous women visited by the Peruvian Amazon Company’s slavemasters, Casement warned his three Barbadian witnesses that ‘there must be no tampering with the morals of the Indian girls,’ since this might subsequently invalidate their testimony. He goes on to say that he had been ‘talking of the dangers of sleeping en garçon in these halls of Circe!’ [10] It is not unreasonable, then, to argue that Casement cast himself in the role of Odysseus, protecting his men from the wiles of Circe and her four handmaidens. Since Circe refers to Odysseus as ‘the man who is never at a loss [...] never at fault [...] never baffled,’ [11] we may perhaps gain an impression of the way in which Casement saw himself on this journey, an impression which he himself confirms when, towards the end of the investigation, he writes that the employees of the Peruvian Amazon Company had come to look upon him as ‘a sort of Enquirer Extraordinary, who has got to the bottom of things.’ [12]

Within the period of the investigation itself both diaries give us some insight into the Puritan standpoint from which Casement viewed the decadence and horror in this heart of darkness. A much-quoted and indeed much-misinterpreted passage from both diaries is that for 4 October, when Casement observed three serving boys involved in a homosexual frolic in a hammock at nine o’clock in the morning. It has been argued that the comment in the ‘Black Diary’ for that day, ‘A fine beastly morality for a Christian Coy,’ [13] is evidence of the supposed forger of the diary making a mistake and forgetting the homosexual character that he was ‘creating’ for Casement. However, a reading of the ‘White Diary’ for the same day reveals that Casement was not shocked by what the three boys were doing in the hammock so much as by when they were doing it, at a time when they should have been working. This is consistent with his repeated observations of the hypocrisy of the slavemasters at the various rubber-collecting colonies that he visited, who did no work themselves, yet utilised the most barbaric forms of torture to extract superhuman effort from their indigenous slaves. In this sense, the Protestant work ethic that was instilled in him in his youth is clearly informing his revulsion, which is directed in equal measure at the Peruvian villains, whose barbarity he uncovers, and at the so-called civilisation of the English company and its shareholders, whose complacent complicity underpins and authorises the entire corrupt system.

As Casement’s journey progresses, we find him setting Ireland against England as a point of reference, its purity contrasted with the rotten workings of the Imperial system into which he is plunging, as can be seen in this central passage:

But this thing I find here is slavery without law, where the slavers are personally cowardly ruffians, jail-birds, and there is no Authority within 1200 miles . . . And, yet, here are two kindly Englishmen not defending it – that I will not say – but seeking to excuse it to some extent, and actually unable to see its full enormity or to understand its atrocious meaning. . . . The world I am beginning to think – that is the white man's world – is made up of two categories of men – compromisers and – Irishmen. I might add and Blackmen. Thank God that I am an Irishman ... [14]

Although he does not go as far as to equate the situation of his oppressed countrymen with that of the tortured indigenous people that he is investigating there are a number of indications that he perceives a parallel between the two. Thus, for example, when he visits the ‘Nation’ of the Meretas, whom he greets with his customary present of cigarettes, he is struck by the word that they use to express their gratitude, ‘Bigara.’ To his ear this is strongly reminiscent of the Irish ‘begorrah,’ so he writes that he christened his hosts ‘the Begorrahs.’ [15] A couple of weeks later, when he comes across a rubber-carrying party of  Andokes and Boras, all of whom have been badly flogged, he describes the wounds suffered by ‘one big splendid-looking Boras young man – with a broad good-humoured face like an Irishman.’ [16] His revulsion at what he sees is such that he states that he ‘would dearly love to arm [the indigenous people], to train them, and drill them to defend themselves against these ruffians,’ [17] going on to reiterate his readiness, which almost serves as a leitmotif in the diaries, to hang many of the Company’s staff, if necessary with his own hands.

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It is no surprise that Casement was to find that the nightmarish images of this expedition had been seared indelibly into his mind and, almost three years later, as Roger Sawyer records, ‘he witnessed physical resemblances to the Putumayo in Connemara, where starvation and squalor caused an outbreak of typhus.’ [18] The fate of the indigenous people that he had seen in Peru and that of the Irish peasants seemed to him to be so similar that he described the region as the ‘Irish Putumayo’ and wrote that ‘The “white Indians” of Ireland are heavier on my heart than all the Indians of the rest of the earth.’ [19] Seventy-five years later, in Roddy Doyle’s novel The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte was to echo this idea, with his affirmation that ‘The Irish are the niggers of Europe [...] An’ Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland [...] An’ the northside Dubliners are the niggers o’ Dublin.’ [20]

On 15 October 1914, just over a year after he had described the typhus-stricken Connemara peasants as ‘white Indians,’ Roger Casement and his treacherous manservant Adler Christensen set sail for Norway on the Oskar II, en route for Germany and the ill-conceived, ill-fated attempt to enlist support for the Irish independence struggle from amongst Irish prisoners-of-war who had been captured by the German army. In April 1916 he was to return to Ireland with a token member of his Irish Brigade and a donation from the Germans of 20,000 elderly Russian rifles [21] and 50 rounds of ammunition for each gun, all lost when the Aud was scuttled in Tralee Bay. [22] As his Amazon diaries suggest, Roger Casement’s German excursion was not the result of an inexplicable, schizophrenic personality shift – from loyal British diplomat to treacherous Irish rebel. It is better seen as the logical end-product of a long and gradual process in which his investigations of slavery in the African and South American jungles enabled him to understand the extent to which Irish enthralment to the English was actually not so different from that of peoples in the more distant parts of the Empire, and that armed rebellion might be the only path to freedom. Although his treachery, as defined by an Act drawn up in 1351, resulted in the death of no British subjects, he nonetheless paid for it with his own life.

At the time of Casement’s arrest in 1916, Julio Cesar Arana, the man whose greed had caused the suffering and death of thousands of indigenous people at the hands of the British-owned Peruvian Amazon Company, was living a life of luxurious impunity in Peru. To ensure that the irony of the situation was not lost on Casement, Arana sent him a long telegram in his prison cell, urging the erstwhile investigator of his company to recant. History does not record Casement’s reaction but, if there is any justice to be found in this story, it may derive from the fact that Casement’s name, like that of Odysseus, has acquired heroic status, whereas that of Arana has been committed to oblivion.


Peter James Harris
University of São Paulo

Peter James Harris lectures in English Literature and English Culture at the State University of São Paulo (UNESP). Born in London, he has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and was awarded a PhD in Irish Studies by the University of São Paulo (USP) for his thesis entitled 'Sean O’Casey’s Letters and Autobiographies: Reflections of a Radical Ambivalence'. He is currently researching the presence of Irish dramatists on the London stage in the period from Irish Independence (1921) to the present day.


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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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