International and moral humanitarian action is very much a product of the 20th century. We've written about the history of humanitarianism in the past and its roots into centuries previous. Today we're exploring a facet of modern humanitarianism as it emerged in the early 20th century in the context of colonialism and Empires.
One of the famous humanitarian crises of the early 20th was the terrible treatment of the Congo by the Belgians. Many people know of it since Adam Hochschild's famous book on it, King Leopold's Ghost, and it has become a symbol of European oppression in Africa. In the Congo, the Belgians brutally exploited their subjects for economic gains. Eventually, the British government investigated the situation in the colony. The chief investigator into their crimes there was a British Consul, Roger Casement.
Casement was first appointed British Consul for the Congo in 1901. King Leopold operated there not as King of the Belgians, but as a private entrepreneur, and exploited his personal holdings for profit without the oversight of a government administration. Casement's witnessed the atrocities committed by the Belgian King and published a damning report. Its publication rallied British liberals to the cause. The abuses of the peoples in the Congo at the hands of the Belgians eventually caused pressure from other European powers and led to the Belgian Parliament seizing control of Leopold's possessions in 1908 and establishing a real colonial administration. Before its conquest in 1914 during the First World War, Belgium was known internationally by their abuses in the Congo and its exploitation of those people. (After 1914, they became better known as victims of German aggression.)
Next Casement travelled deep into the jungles of Peru in 1910-11, close to their border with Columbia, where the Peruvian Amazon Company (also called the Anglo-Peruvian Amazon Rubber Co.) operated its own little kingdom on the Putumayo River. Casement toured the Amazonian lands and again documented the abuse and criminals he found. The company exploited familial divisions between the local indigenous people to recruit family “units” of 200 for harvesting rubber. Each family unit of some 200 indigenous people was “owned” by a commercial association of white men, who quickly began to fight over which worker belonged to whom – killing them if they could not have them. The “kingdom” lay far enough into the jungle beyond the reach of Peruvian law, so as in the Congo, a company was able to operate as they wished. Since no one was allowed to enter the Company lands without permission, they effectively ruled over their indigenous subjects. Slavery, physical abuse, starvation and exploitation were regular occurrences. The systemic nature of the colonial abuses in the Amazon were even worse than those of the Congo.
In both cases, Casement's reports spurred on an international response to the crisis. He blamed “absentee capitalism” that caused the exploitation of Indigenous labour in places “away from the influence of civilised opinion.” Though unlike the Congo situation, the Peruvian Amazon Company had British backers and the case aroused less outrage in the English-speaking world and was soon eclipsed by the outbreak of the First World War.
Casement is perhaps more famous for his role in trying to transport German arms to Irish revolutionaries during the First World War. A long time supporter of Irish nationalists (Casement once called them victims of the same colonial oppression seen in the Congo and the Amazon), Casement went to Germany as a self-proclaimed ambassador of the Irish nation. He returned to Ireland in April 1916, where he was captured and tried for treason. At a highly publicized trial, Casement was indicted and sentenced to execution. On 3 August 1916, he was hung by the British government.
As a result of the final years of his life, Casement was forgotten. While his revelation about the Congo is remembered, few know of his role in it or his equally important mission to Peru. His betrayal of Britain to the Germans is better remembered, but not as much in North America. Allegations, which historians confirm, that he was a homosexual were circulated during the war years to further disparage his character. Despite Casement's impressive contribution to humanitarian action, he is mostly remembered as at traitor.
At a time when British Imperialists were debating how best to engage with colonial people, Casement's condemnation of the Congo and Peru rallied moral outrage at the excess of capitalist imperialism. He influenced one of the first international movements around the moral issue of exploiting an indigenous people. The situation in the Congo improved directly because of his report. In the Amazon, with less attention paid to it, the Rubber company was instead the victim of settled rubber plantations that made their brutal method of collection unsustainable. Modern historians like Roger Sawyer have called Casement “probably the bravest, most selfless, practical humanitarian of his day.” He was a man who struggled for human rights before human rights. It is unfortunate that his accomplishments have been shadowed by his time as an Irish revolutionary, even though that came at the end of his life, but at least his impact is acknowledged by historians today.