PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F Kennedy, by William Doyle

Summary: A gripping war story that gets to the heart of important truths about both war and Jack Kennedy

In 1945 John Ford made a cracking war movie called “They Were Expendable” about the exploits of a motor torpedo (PT) boat unit, including, of course, John Wayne, defending the Philippines against the Japanese onslaught.

The thing about the movie though, was that the capabilities of the PT boat therein portrayed were horseshit. The PT boat was a lousy weapon. Its torpedoes were close to useless as, due to technical flaws in their design, they rarely hit their targets let alone detonated. Few of the PT boats were equipped with radar though they were expected to fight in the darkest of nights. And these mahogany constructions were sent into conflict against much more heavily armed and steel armoured destroyers. This was only slightly more hopeful, in military terms, than sending a mime troupe to attack a panzer division, to borrow from Milan Kundera. Indeed in this book William Doyle notes that of the three confirmed sinkings of major ships by PT boats during the Second World War, one of them was American.

This was the branch of the Navy that Jack Kennedy, millionaire son of the former US ambassador to the Court of St James’s and best selling author of Why England Slept, joined in the Solomon Islands in 1943. It made him president.

Dave Powers, a friend and aide to Jack, once commented that, “Without PT 109 there would never have been a President John F Kennedy.” The legend of Jack’s fortitude and leadership following the sinking of his boat during a small battle in which 15 ill-equipped PT boats were sent to ineffectually attack a convoy of Japanese destroyers, was the foundation upon which Jack’s political career was built. But the story of this relatively brief episode in Jack’s relatively brief life is more important for a number of reasons, not least, after over half a century of muck raking and character assassination, it has proven pretty close to impossible to tarnish this truth of his heroism during those days.

Certainly it has been tried. Doyle notes the simmering accusation that it was Jack’s incompetence as a boat skipper that led to his boat being sunk, the only PT boat to have been sunk by ramming during the course of the war. However Doyle’s account of the ill-conceived battle in which the sinking occurs offers evidence that this is an unfair charge and that it was ill-luck on Jack’s part exploited by an imaginatively aggressive Japanese commander, Kohei Hanami, that led to the sinking. Later Kennedy, in a comment that gains enormous retrospective poignancy, noted his thoughts just before the moment of impact: “This is how it feels to be killed.”

He didn’t die then and went on to play a decisive role in saving the lives of his surviving crew. Doyle notes: “The longest Olympic swimming event staged before then, the men’s 4,000 metre freestyle race, was held only once, in 1900. Fourteen of the twenty-eight competitors… “did not finish” and the distance was promptly retired. On the afternoon of August 2, 1943, John F. Kennedy covered the same distance, plus a mile more, over open water, behind enemy lines in broad daylight…All the while he bit on a strap and towed a badly burned sailor along with him. Simultaneously … leading nine other men.. towards safety… it was an astonishing feat his crewmen never forgot.”

Once rescued with the crucial help of courageous Solomon Island scouts and an Australian Coastwatcher, he refused the option to return to the States but remained in the combat zone for months more. During that time he helped save the lives of 10 more Americans before ill-health forced him home.

For all his other flaws, these events, and those of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, more starkly than any others, show the greatness at the heart of Jack Kennedy. Indeed, it was almost certainly his experience of the chaos of warfare in the Solomons that stiffened Kennedy’s moral courage to face down the hawks in his administration and save the world from nuclear annihilation during that Crisis.

PT 109 is a gripping book about war, endurance and a young man leading in the most horrendous of circumstances. Would that there was someone with the qualities that Jack Kennedy displayed then in the White House today.


Another fine mess: politics since the Brexit vote

Also published in Left Foot Forward 

When I worked in Angola in the late 1990s, towards the end of the Civil War, I discovered an important truth: just when you think things can’t get any worse, they can. So has it proven with British politics since the 23 June 2016 when the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union.

Before the 2017 UK General Election I had thought that a hung parliament was probably the best possible outcome, to force some sanity and compromise into the UK’s intent to exit the European Union. Instead, Theresa May has sought a de-facto coalition with the Irish Democratic Unionist Party, a group so extreme that for them the witch burning scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is not so much comedy, but a utopian ideal.

For many observers the UK’s attitude to the EU in general and to its putative departure from the Union seems profoundly irrational. The government’s stated intention to leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union, ignores the vast economic cost of such moves. Instead Brexiteers fall back on the slogan “take back control”, dreams of a British Empire 2.0, and cooked-up alternative numbers that have little basis in reality. This is a position that has gone broadly unchallenged by the opposition Labour Party who promise the fairytale of a “People’s Brexit” if the electorate were only to entrust them with the levers of government.

To “take back control” of what the government has never really been clear. Certainly immigration, in spite of the UK’s need for immigrants, in order to satisfy the xenophobic amongst the government and its voters.

The government is also intent to “take back control” from the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, in spite of the threat that this poses to security and justice cooperation in Europe at a time of rising tensions and increasing violence across the continent. This perhaps gets to the nub of the matter. Because it suggests that rather than the government’s approach to Brexit being only economically incompetent and politically delusional it rather suggests that the government’s intent is profoundly ideological.

Taken alongside the antipathy of Theresa May to the European Court of Human Rights, and the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to remove from the Ministerial Code an obligation for ministers to comply with international law, the UK’s intent to quit the European Union indicates an enduring colonialist instinct in the government that still bristles at the idea of international rule of law. They seem to regard it as an affront to the primacy of the UK parliament, which some seem to believe still should rule the waves.

But, of course, the supremacy of the UK parliament has already taken a kicking in the Brexit process as dozens of MPs, contrary to their judgment as to what is best for their country, voted to uphold the notional “will of the people” as expressed through a blood-stained and, it now increasingly appears, a corrupted referendum.

But this is as nothing to the intent of the Great Repeal Bill, to invest ministers with Henry VIII powers that will enable them to make vast swathes of law for years to come without reference to parliament. In other words the intent of the Great Repeal Bill appear less to do with withdrawal from the EU and more to do with a significant repeal of democracy itself.

The UK may appear to be blundering towards the exit of the EU like a drunk staggering towards the door of a bar. But all citizens must beware that the pantomime shenanigans of Davis, Johnson and Fox, the three Brexit Stooges, mask a much more sinister domestic agenda. And Labour needs to stop being the government’s poodle on Brexit.



Yeats’ question

For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said

– Easter 1916

With the triggering by the British Government in March 2017 of Article 50 to remove the UK from the European Union, Yeats’ question receives, perhaps, a rather definitive answer.

The foundations of Irish peace are European. Ireland’s and Britain’s common membership of the European Union allowed for some of the most corrosive aspects of the relationships between the two islands, and within the island of Ireland, to be finessed and for relationships to be recast in more constructive ways. Now that the Troubles are taking on the aspect of history it is too easy to forget how ghastly they truly were, and the sort of concerted, painful political effort that was necessary to bring them to some sort of conclusion.

But the careful progress that has been made towards a more enduring peace has been cast aside by the English political establishment as something of no account. So intent are English nationalists now on their dreams of reclaiming some long past imperial “glory” they plan to devastate the foundations of that peace with no thought of the consequences.

England won’t ever keep faith with Ireland, it seems. Ireland’s interests, Ireland’s peace, will always be subordinate to English prejudices and xenophobia.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics, by Tim Marshall

Summary: We’re all trapped, and since Trump inveigled his way into the Oval Office, probably going to die

Recently I was at a meeting with a pro-Brexit member of the British parliament who, six months after the referendum on Britain’s future in Europe, still did not understand the difference between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. Not everyone has to know that of course. But when the person in question is taking decisions that they promise will lead to a better tomorrow, one does expect them to have a firm grasp of the basic facts of today.

Prisoners of Geography is about some of those key and immutable facts. It is about the imperatives that are imposed upon political leaders by the geography within which they find their countries and how they feel compelled to respond.

For example Russia needs a warm water port for its navy. This allows it to project its military power across the oceans and be recognised as a world power. So, when Ukraine displayed a desire to move towards the European Union and Nato it did what it felt was necessary and reclaimed the Crimea and with that Sevastopol, the only warm water port available to it.

Similarly the historical Russian habit of extending its empire into Eastern Europe as far as the borders of Germany is explained by the vulnerability of Moscow to attack from the West across the Northern European Plain. Occupying Poland where the plain is at its narrowest, as it has frequently done, therefore increases Russia’s security from attack.

Another area of potential risk is the artic where Russia’s wish to control the energy sources there could put it on course for a clash with Nato.

Reading this book in the aftermath of 2016 US presidential election was a sobering experience. Marshall reminds us that the United States has a treaty with Taiwan which requires it to go to war if Taiwan is invaded. Something that would spark an invasion by China would be formal recognition by the US of Taiwan as an independent country. Fortunately “there is no sign of that”. Or at least there wasn’t until the US’s gerrymandered electoral system put a narcissist with a disinterest in facts and a xenophobia about China into the Oval Office.

Prisoners of Geography is illuminating not just on these contemporary geopolitical issues, but also on a range of developmental issues: why have Africa and South America developed, or failed to develop, as they have; how geography shaped European history and why the peace the continent has experienced over the past 70 years is not inevitable but the result of conscious political choice in the shape of the European Union. It also throws light on contemporary conflicts in the Middle East, between India and Pakistan, and in the Korean Peninsula.

I was mildly disappointed that there was no chapter on the geopolitics of Britain and Ireland, particularly as Brexit threatens to dangerously reshape the relations between the two islands once again. But, as Brexit also shows, as so much of the UK population and political class is utterly disinterested in reality at this moment in history perhaps there is no point.

Prisoners of Geography is a lucidly written and compelling book. It reminds us why the world is still a dangerous place. It is more dangerous still when power is put into the hands of the intellectually lazy, utterly disinterested in the facts.

Keeping the flame: the anti-slavery agenda in a bleak contemporary world

Speech to Annual General Meeting of Anti-Slavery International, 12 Nov 2016 

A few weeks ago I visited Côte d’Ivoire with the confectionary company Mondelez. We have been working with Mondelez for a number of years now, since they bought Cadbury’s and with that Cadbury’s nascent work on trying to tackle the issues of child labour and child slavery in their supply chains.

Both these sets of abuses are rife in agriculture in the global South, often concealed behind the operations of agricultural traders or wholesalers. The reality, however, was revealed at the start of the century with a documentary, Chocolate’s Secret Slaves. This caused a particular shock to both consumers and companies alike and drew attention to the issue, including from the US congress. This in turn forced a rethink by most of the chocolate retailers as to how they were going to manage their supply chains to sustain production and to eliminate the abuses within it.

The response by Mondelez bears Anti-Slavery’s distinct stamp: Anti-Slavery’s work with Mondelez led to their adoption and publication of a new child labour policy that puts transparency and pro-active efforts to identify risks and instances of abuse, at its heart. The effectiveness of this was demonstrated this year by the publication of two independent reports, which we were directly involved in commissioning, on child labour in Mondelez supply chains in Cote d’Ivorie and Ghana. This was the first time to our knowledge that a large company had the courage to publish a report that they commissioned on slavery in supply chains. The recommendations of these reports are now being translated into actions by the coalition of NGOs and businesses involved in the Mondelez “Cocoa Life” programme. A third investigation on Indonesia is underway.

I was able to see the direct impact of this work myself when I visited Ivorian communities where child labour has been reduced, girls’ education boosted, and women’s empowerment helped to establish new community governance structures to ensure that progress is sustained.

I wanted to start with a positive story given the bleakness of the past year. I had some sense we were in for a bad year when David Bowie died on my birthday in January. But just how bad I really could not imagine.

We meet in the aftermath of an election in the US that has brought to power a man who has openly espoused racism and boasted of sexually assaulting women. Closer to home Brexit represents a repudiation of the European ideals of working together bound by common commitments to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Brexit poses a more immediate set of challenges to Anti-Slavery. We were the first and only anti-slavery organisation to highlight, before the referendum, the serious risks that Brexit posed to law enforcement cooperation across Europe in anti-slavery operations, and of reductions of human rights protections to non-UK nationals in Britain that can increase their vulnerability to slavery. Further as Brexit withdraws the UK from the Council of Ministers this restricts radically the UK’s ability to influence Europe wide law and policy against slavery.

But the threats are more profound than that. Brexit certainly represents the UK turning its back on Europe. But it also represents a repudiation by the UK of the ideals of rule of law: certainly of the international variety as Brexit represents a desire to be unbound from the international treaties that have drawn Europe together so successfully for so long. But, with the recent attacks on High Court judges for having the temerity of doing their jobs by ruling that parliament is paramount in UK law, we see a repudiation by powerful and vocal sections of the UK population of the ideal of rule of law itself.

Advancing rule of law, particularly obtaining adequate human rights protections in national and international law, is an essential front in the struggle against slavery. The absence of such protections leads to the sort of slavery abuses we see from the brick kilns of northern India to the international trafficking of vulnerable workers to the building sites of Qatar and the servants’ quarters of London.

An immediate threat to the work of Anti-Slavery International is the UK government’s indication that they wish to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights.

Amongst other human rights issues, over the past decade the European Court of Human Rights have repeatedly held accountable European Governments on their failure to protect vulnerable workers from slavery.

This year the threat of referral to the Court forced the British Government to halt the deportation of a client of Anti-Slavery who had come to us with a credible account and substantial documentary evidence of forced labour in the UK, which the British police had refused to investigate when he approached them in two different UK cities.

This year we have also made a submission to the Court on a case from Greece where a group of Bangladeshi agricultural workers were enslaved with the collusion of the Greek police, a matter that the Greek Government has failed to resolve in spite of the entreaties of the Greek Ombudsman.

Over the past decade, several key judgments highlighted the obligations of the state in relation to slavery – in particular that it is the authorities duty to act on indications of trafficking. Without the Greek government being bound by the European Court of Human Rights there would be no legal recourse for their abject failure to protect the most basic rights of these enslaved migrant workers. Let us hope that Greece is not inspired by the UK’s contempt for the Court to also seek to remove itself from the jurisdiction of the Court.

In the bleakness of the current historical moment I recall how Abraham Lincoln would comfort himself in the midst of another crisis by reflecting on the sentence, “And this too shall pass away.”

There will be brighter days ahead. But we will not be a passive actor awaiting those days. We represent the oldest and deepest tradition of European human rights – remember the Committee for the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was formed by a bunch of awkward Quakers in London in 1787, two years before the French Revolution.

So we will be working for better days. Anti-Slavery will place itself at the forefront of the struggle to protect the Human Rights Act. We will continue to strive with our friends and colleagues in the anti-slavery movements of the global South, for stronger national and international action against slavery and for practical measures to empower those vulnerable to slavery, forced and child labour, in both East and West Africa, in South Asia, in Europe and in the Americas.

That is another reason why I began these remarks with a brief discussion of our work with Mondelez. It represents the real progress for tens of thousands of people that can arise from our sustained work, without artificially imposed timetables, with people of good will from non-traditional partners as well as with the more traditional variety that we work with. That is also part of the Anti-Slavery tradition, stretching back to Thomas Clarkson’s original organising and campaigning against slavery with all sections of society from business leaders to trade union organisers.

The UK’s modern slavery act, which Anti-Slavery played a decisive role in making more fit for purpose than the government’s underwhelming original draft of the Bill, contains a Transparency in Supply Chains clause. This has led to an increased attention by business to the risks of slavery in their supply chains and increased requests from businesses for Anti-Slavery to work with them to help mitigate the risks and hence open greater opportunities for decent work to those currently enslaved.

As we grasp these opportunities we fulfil, I believe, the imperative identified by Roger Casement in 1894, that “… we all on earth have a commission and a right to defend the weak against the strong, and to protest against brutality in any shape or form”. And, in fulfilling that commission, we will keep the flame of human rights alive, and continue to change the world for the better.

The Modi Effect, by Lance Price

Summary: A Spinner gets spun.


Lance Price presents his book to Prime Minister Modi

The first and most important thing that Lance Price wants you to know from his book The Modi Effect, is that he, Lance Price, is a BIG DEAL. He has worked for Tony Blair as his Director of Communications. He has met Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama. He even once had a 10 minute conversation with Nelson Mandela.

So it is only natural that Narendra Modi should chose him, Lance Price, to write this book on Modi’s successful 2014 election campaign. Price suggests this is an act of particular self confidence on Modi’s part, because someone who is as BIG a DEAL as Lance Price is not to be trifled with. “You can’t spin a spinner“, Price informs us early on, because he is a BIG DEAL, and used to work for Tony Blair.

To which I thought, “Hmmm… lets see.”

The thing is though Price is not really interested in India, per se. Price is interested in elections. So he is only interested in India insofar as it relates to his story of the conduct of this election. And he is interested in Modi because he won an overwhelming electoral victory in the world’s largest democracy.

Hence we get extensive passages on Modi’s personal fashion sense, branding, merchandising, manifesto writing, use of social media and technology, including the tour through rural areas of his hologram so he could make speeches to communities with no electricity or television. The deeper question, of what Modi really believes and represents is addressed in only a fragmentary fashion

Price discusses some of the key controversies relating to Modi, in particular his relationship with the RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP that many progressive Indians accuse of neo-fascism, Hindutva – the ideology of Hindu nationalism, and the 2002 Gujarat riots in which a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed on his watch as Chief Minister of the state. But Price insists on casting these issues in the most benign light possible. The RSS, he suggests, may be no more sinister than the UK’s trade union movement. Hindutva as espoused by Modi, shouldn’t really be seen as that antagonistic towards India’s non-Hindus.

As for the Gujarat riots of 2002, the Indian Supreme Court itself found that Modi couldn’t be held culpable. This may be true. Nehru should not be held directly culpable for the atrocities during the partition of India. But then Nehru spoke loudly against the bloodshed, personally faced down Hindu mobs to protect the lives of Indian Muslims, and ultimately managed to bring Nepalese and southern Indian troops into place to stop the killing. The best that Modi, that master of language, could bring himself to say regarding the bloodshed was if “someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is.”

Price notes that following the 2002 riots Gujarat has been peaceful and economically prosperous under Modi’s rule. Perhaps that shows his enlightenment? Perhaps it shows an effectively terrorised minority? Rather than deign to talk to Gujarati Muslims, Price is content that the carnage of the Gujarat riots “pains” Modi “greatly“.

But the fact that Modi has never been forceful in his denunciation of the 2002 or other alleged Hindu atrocities indicates, at best, a profound cynicism on Modi’s part, that he is not prepared to alienate even his most fratricidal potential supporters. The conduct of the 2014 election in Uttar Pradesh, in which Modi’s BJP stirred up caste and sectarian prejudices to win the election is further evidence that his BJP is less benign than Modi would like to portray. In two of the more interesting chapters towards the end of the book Price finally seems to recognise Modi’s silence on these issues cannot be excused as a mere political calculation, but rather they indicate a profound moral failure, that as elected leader of India Modi is making no effort to confront some of the darkest and most atavistic aspects of Indian society that have disfigured the world’s largest democracy since independence.

Overall The Modi Effect has some interesting information, but it would have benefited from a greater interest by Price in Indian politics instead of just Indian elections. And it would have benefited even more if Price had perhaps been a little more interested in the lives and experiences of the millions of Indians who are not so nearly as BIG a DEAL as he is.

The Human Rights Legacy of Roger Casement

From a talk given as part of the New Perspectives on 1916 series, organised by the Sheehy Skeffington Language School, Castlewellan, Co. Down

Casement’s revolutionary nationalism often overshadows his considerably greater achievements as a human rights and anti-slavery activist. So I would like to take the opportunity to consider in greater detail this contribution before reflecting upon Casement’s continuing legacy as one to the Twentieth Centuries towering human rights figures.

The Congo Investigaton

Casement had considerable experience of various parts of Africa, from his work in commercial enterprises, before he joined the British Consular service. Adam Hochschild, in his extraordinary book King Leopold’s Ghost, notes how Casement’s reports frequently drew attention to the atrocities committed by colonial authorities against local Africans. But this was mere prologue to Casement’s first major contribution to the field of human rights: his official 1903 investigation into the abuses in the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium.

Leopold had been granted personal possession of the Congo at the 1885 Berlin conference, in which the European powers carved up Africa, and he proceeded to plunder it with ruthless abandon, all the while telling the world that he was undertaking a civilising mission to develop the country and protect its peoples.

Hochschild, notes how in 1907 an exhibition of Congalese art toured Europe, no doubt to show how Leopold’s patronage of the country was an enlightened one. To this day the Congalese art of Angola and Congo is very distinctive. I remember the first time I encountered it in the markets of Angola where I worked during the civil war, and the shock of familiarity that it brought. Because it was at this exhibition that Picasso and others first encountered Congalse art and were inspired to experiment with cubism, something I had previously presumed was a distinctly European art form, but which I discovered was in fact a very African one.

But the wealth that Leopold was interested in was not art but ivory and, most disastrously for the human beings who lived in Congo, rubber.

The end of the 19th Century saw a surge in demand for rubber and the catalyst for this demand was the 1890 invention, by John Dunlop in Belfast, of the pneumatic tire, the first of which Dunlop fitted to his son’s tricycle. This new technology contributed to an increased interest in cycling and with the advent of the automobile yet more demand for rubber.

This was a demand that Leopold was more than happy to try to satisfy. And, in order to satisfy it he oversaw a dramatic escalation of violence and slavery in Congo.

One common punishment for the failure to satisfy the quotas for rubber demanded by Leopold’s officials was the hacking off of hands. But this was by no means the worst of the depredations brought by Leopold’s reign in the Congo.

Casement recorded in 1887, before he became a British Consul, a conversation he had with a member of Leopold’s private army, the Force Publique, who told him how he paid his soldiers the equivalent of two and a half pence “per human head that they brought him in the course of any military operation he conducted. He said it was to stimulate their prowess in the face of the enemy.”

In 1899 another state officer told an American missionary, Ellsworth Faris, about the killing squads he had under his command, stating that each time his corporal “goes out to get rubber, cartridges are given to him. He must bring back all not used and for every one used he must bring back a right hand.” This officer told the missionary that in 6 months in one part of the Congo his men had used 6,000 cartridges. But, Faris noted, it must mean that more than 6,000 people had been killed or mutilated as he had been told repeatedly that the soldiers killed children with the butts of their guns.

img_0978One of the first people to realise what was happening in the Congo was a young British shipping clerk called Edmund Morel. Morel, who was based in Antwerp, was involved in shipping cargo to Congo and also overseeing the cargos that returned loaded with what Leopold was telling the world was the results of a legitimate trade with the place. But while the cargos coming back were enormously rich, including rubber and ivory, the products going out were predominantly military stores, firearms, ammunition and whips.

Morel thought about this for some time and realised that the only explanation for such a lopsided trade could be that what was happening in the Congo was not fair trade but plunder. Indeed this was plunder that was being facilitated by enslavement and mass murder on almost industrial scales.

Casement’s 1903 report was one of the most high profile and damning indictments of Leopold’s reign in the Congo. It was commissioned following considerable pressure and agitation by Morel and his allies in parliament. Following the passage of a resolution in May that year in the House of Commons, “that the Congo natives [as the human residents were typically called in those days] should be governed with humanity”, the British government commissioned Casement, then its consul at Boma in the Congo Free State, to investigate the human rights situation.

Casement was already keenly aware from his years in Africa just what the nature of Leopold’s rule was. But this commission gave him the opportunity to do something about it.

In order to conduct his research Casement hired a steam boat from some missionaries and travelled for three and a half months through the upper Congo Basin. As he prepared to set out he knew that the trip was going to be a difficult one and noted an African proverb: “A man does not go through thorns unless a snake is after him, …or he is after a snake. I’m after a snake. And please God I’ll scotch it.”

In the course of these investigations he interviewed workers, overseers and mercenaries throughout the region, including 17 days at Lake Tumba where the state ran directly its rubber slavery operations. He described his expedition as “breaking into the thieves’ kitchen.”

The eyewitness report that Casement delivered in 1904 detailed the devastation that Leopold’s rule brought to individuals and communities. Large areas of the country had been depopulated. The use for forced labour was systemic and torture, mutilation and murder routine and practiced with impunity by state officials.

It was on his return to Britain and Ireland to present the report that Casement and Morel finally met for the first time. And, during a subsequent meeting in the Slieve Donard hotel in Newcastle they agreed to establish the Congo Reform Association to campaign for an end to Leopold’s atrocities. Morel was the public face and voice of this movement because Casement was still a civil servant. But Casement remained an key adviser and strategist in the agitation the followed the publication of the report.

The subsequent agitation by Morel and others, led to demands for action to relieve the situation of the Congolese. The international public and diplomatic pressure finally led to critics of Leopold’s Congolese policy in the Belgian Parliament to finally force Léopold to set up an independent commission of inquiry. In 1905, this confirmed the essentials of Casement’s report, and led in 1908 to the Belgian parliament taking over the administration of the Congo Free State.

It is estimated that Leopold’s rule in the Congo had brought about a halving of the population to around 10 million by 1924. Certainly that was not the end of the colonial tribulations of the Congo: Belgian rule never obtained a reputation for enlightenment. And to this day the wealth of the Congo is fought over by ruthless and blood-thirsty regional and international actors. But the efforts to which Morel and Casement contributed so decisively brought an end to a genocide, and that is an achievement of historical proportions.

The Peruvian Amazon Company

Casement’s second major human rights intervention also related to slavery atrocities associated with rubber, but this time in Peru in South America rather than in Congo.

The Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC) was registered in Britain in 1908 and had a British board of directors and numerous stockholders. However by as early as September 1909, a journalist, Sidney Paternoster, had published accounts of abuses against company workers. In addition, the British consul at Iquitos had said that Barbadians, considered British subjects as part of the empire, had been ill-treated while working for company. This gave the British government a reason to intervene.

So again Casement was commissioned to investigate. He made his first trip to the Putumayo District in the Amazon basin, where the rubber was harvested, in 1910. Like the upper Congo basin where he had helped uncover the abuses perpetrated by Leopold this area was very isolated. Casement found that for years, the indigenous people of this area had been forced into unpaid labor by the personnel of the Peruvian Amazon Company, who exerted absolute power over them and subjected them to near starvation, severe physical abuse, including branding and whipping, rape of women and girls by the managers and overseers, and casual murder.

Casement found conditions as inhumane as those in the Congo. As in the Congo he interviewed both the abused and the abusers in an effort to provide a thorough understanding of what was going on.

Casement’s report was described by Fintan O’Toole, the Irish Times journalist, as a brilliant piece of journalism“, as he wove together first-person accounts by both “victims and perpetrators of atrocities. Casement’s Congo report had been anonymised by the Foreign Office, but in this report, as O’Toole notes, “…distant colonial subjects [were] given… personal voices in an official document.

The publication of the report provoked many expressions of shock and horror by the wealthy board members of the Peru Amazon Company and the Peruvian government. As we still see today when exposes of slavery in international supply chains are made, diverse commitments were made to make changes. So in 1911, the British government asked Casement to return to Peru to see if promised changes in treatment had occurred. In a report to the British foreign secretary, dated 17 March 1911, Casement detailed the rubber company’s continued abuses.

Little substantive had changed and, summing up to a parliamentary select committee the conditions of the indigenous people forced to gather rubber he said “These people have absolutely no human rights much less civil rights. They are hunted and chased like wild animals.”

After his return to Britain, Casement continued to work with others, including the Anti-Slavery Society, as Anti-Slavery International was then known, to bring change to the region.

Some of those Casement had exposed as killers in his 1910 report were charged by Peru. But most fled the region and were never captured.

Ultimately the growth of farmed rubber began to reduce the demand for the wild rubber that had contributed to these depredations. But the positions of indigenous peoples across South America are still poor and many are still exploited and enslaved to this day.

The human rights legacy of Casement

Now both these investigations were considerable achievements in their own rights and the impact of the Congo investigation in particular, which contributed significantly to the ending of a genocide, should be recognised as a major historical achievement. But it is not, predominantly, for these things that Casement is remembered in Ireland, though he fares better than Morel who is barely remembered at all in Britain.

Fintan O’Toole suggests that Casement has a good claim to be the father of twentieth-century human rights investigations. He described Casement as, “a one-man precursor of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.” But I think this is perhaps an over-egged assertion.

Casement was very much a part of an already well established tradition of human rights investigation that had been pioneered by Anti-Slavery International, beginning with the investigations undertaken by Thomas Clarkson into the trans-Atlantic Slave trade at the end of the eighteenth century. This tradition was exemplified also by Edmund Morel in Casement’s own day. It is a tradition that continues to this day with journalists like Pete Pattisson, and the staff and partner organisations of Anti-Slavery itself who continue to expose these sorts of abuses across the globe.

So if one is seeking a more distinctive legacy from Roger Casement I would suggest that his human rights legacy lies in two other areas.

First towards the end of his life Casement would draw direct analogies between the plight of the Irish people and the indigenous peoples of Peru or the Congo. At the historical remove of 21st Century Ireland, some may find such analogies strained, though I suspect they may have been found less strained at the turn of the 20th Century. But however one may view those analogies I think it is important to recognise that they express an understanding of the common humanity that we all share. And that is an important and politically potent legacy, because it brought with it a repudiation of racist strains of Irish nationalism that had been espoused by national disgraces such as John Mitchell, whose virulently racist and pro-slavery views Irish leaders as distinguished as Arthur Griffith were still defending in Casement’s own day.

And this legacy remains relevant today because it brings with it a repudiation of the ghoulish forces of extremity, from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage, and their pathetic fellow travellers, who seek to stoke fear and division amongst ordinary human beings in the dangerous and fragile times in which we live.

This universalist view of humanity was apparent in Casement’s speech from the dock when he argued that “whe[n] men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruit of their own labours … then surely it is a braver, a saner, and a truer thing to be a rebel in act and deed against such circumstances as this than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.”

This commitment to an ideal of common humanity is one of the reasons why that speech was so resonant with Nehru and so many of the anti-imperialists of the early twentieth century. And it is that commitment to an ideal of common humanity that underpins and distinguishes true human rights struggles from sectarian or sectional agitations.

The other significant strand of Casement’s human rights legacy is, I think, tied up with the final portion of his life.

Casement’s conversion to revolutionary nationalism, to anti-imperialism, was not divorced from his human rights work, but rather, I think, an evolution of it. Now you can agree or disagree with some of the choices that he made, but what I think is undeniable was that what Casement properly discerned was that the systems of slavery and genocide which he did so much to expose were not aberrations from the colonial order but consequences of it.

Hochschild notes how Casement used to have arguments with Morel where he would take Morel to task for his assertion that the UK was less malevolent that other colonial powers. Now I think there may be a case that can be made for that if you are a historian and have nothing better to do.

But Casement’s point was more fundamental. It was that the entire system of colonialism was by its nature exploitative, and consequently violence and atrocity where intrinsic to it. Remember that the Famine, which halved the Irish population as a direct consequence of a combination of incompetent, racist and ideological British policy, was within living memory at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. And the British Empire visited similar carnage again on Bengal in 1943, something that the Conservative British historian Max Hastings, who is a sincere admirer of Winston Churchill, described as Churchill’s “unfinest hour” such was the level of Churchill’s culpability that he discerned for the carnage that engulfed that part of India during his premiership.

So the British Empire was not immune from comparable excesses to Leopold, or the Conquistadors, or the American Expansion into the West of North America, or the French in South East Asia, or the Zulu or Ethiopians as they sought to expand their empires in Africa. And this should not be surprising. Exploitation was fundamental to colonialism, and consequently violence and atrocity are intrinsic to that system.

Now the age of Empires has faded away, but I would argue that one of the key human rights legacies of Roger Casement is the insight that human rights abuses are a product of unjust political economic systems.

Just to define a term for a moment – by political economy I mean the laws, policies, customs and practices that we as a human society use to govern employment, production, trade and the ways we do business.

Colonialism was a particular system of political economy, but the sweeping away of colonialism has not seen its wholesale replacement with more just systems. Instead we see new systems of power established within which exploitation and slavery continue to thrive.

Casement may have, famously, been ‘hanged upon a comma’ given the ambiguities of the Treason Act under which he was prosecuted. But, let’s not quibble too much: he was a revolutionary and a committed anti-imperialist, captured in time of war under arms against the British Empire. He understood, as he said in his speech from the dock, that while others of his contemporaries had take paths that they hoped would lead to the Woolsack, the Lord Chancellorship, he had taken a path that he knew must lead to the dock. The British Empire never had a reputation for compassion and understanding to those who sought to rebel against the vested interests who profited so richly from colonialism.

But, perhaps, given this, it is apt to reflect for a moment on the aphorism: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason”.

Because the same is true for slavery. When it prospers none dare call it slavery. You may sometimes hear it said that slavery is today everywhere illegal. That is no more true today than it was in Casement’s own day. Slavery is sometimes perpetrated by criminal gangs breaking robust laws in spite of considerable efforts of law enforcement.

However it is vastly more common across the world for slavery to be, de facto, a legal enterprise.

For example it is not uncommon for states to establish systems of tied visas that facilitate unscrupulous employers to exploit up to the level of enslavement migrant workers. This is a particular feature of the political economies of Malaysia and the Gulf states. These systems deny migrant workers the rights to quit their jobs or even to return home without the explicit authority of the employers. The level of exploitation and contempt for human lives that emerges from such systems is going to mean that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is likely to be the bloodiest sporting event since Julius Caesar’s funeral games.

Tied visas are also a feature of the system by which overseas domestic workers in the UK are trafficked for domestic servitude. Irrespective of what the British Government says about wishing to be a world leader in the struggle against slavery, the sordid truth remains that the UK government has de-facto legalised trafficking for forced domestic servitude within its own borders. Tied visas are also a feature of the exploitation of migrant fishermen working in Irish waters.

If you still doubt the effective legality of slavery in parts of the world consider the case of North Korea. The North Korean government finances is nuclear programme as well as its repressive security apparatus and the luxurious lifestyle of Kim through the trafficking of its own citizens to forced labour in China, Russia, Poland and Malta, a trade that the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea estimates to be worth over USD 2 billion annually.

Or again, in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia government-organised forced labour is the principle means by which these countries harvest one third of the world’s cotton.

In other parts of the world slavery is facilitated by the simple expedient of ignoring the law. India has much decent law against slavery. But the lack of capacity of the courts, the corruption of the police, the ingrained practices of caste- based apartheid across much of South Asia, and the refusal of the various Indian state and union legislatures to do anything about these systemic failures means that for tens of millions of the most vulnerable people, particularly those from the Dalit and Adavasi communities, these laws means nothing, provides no protection from abuses and fewer guarantees of decent work for themselves or their families.

A consequence of the routine use of slavery in Central and South Asia is that anyone who is reading this who is wearing cotton is probably wearing at least one garment that has been manufactured, at least in part, by people in slavery.

So, while the urgency of the twentieth century anti-imperial struggles may have diminished Casement’s human rights work resonates still, not simply because of the scale of the remaining challenges, but because of the ideals that he espoused, of fraternity in the struggle and clear sightedness about the causality, are still vital.

But before anyone despairs, remember that slavery, human exploitation and the abuse of human rights are political issues and hence they demand political solutions. And the shapes of those political solutions are already apparent.  

In 1894 Casement wrote an unsuccessful protest against the execution by Germany in Cameroon of 27 soldiers and their wives. The soldiers had mutinied in protest against their wives being whipped. In it he said, “… we all on earth have a commission and a right to defend the weak against the strong, and to protest against brutality in any shape or form”.

That remains I think a potent challenge to all of us to this very day. And if we have the courage to grasp it, we may find we are able to change the world, just a little bit, for the better.