Wednesday, 3 August, marks the 106th anniversary of an often neglected landmark in queer history – the execution of Roger Casement after a vindictive homophobic campaign to prevent a reprieve.
Roger Casement was one of the great anti-colonialists, human rights advocates and defenders of Indigenous peoples of his or any other era. His investigation into the crimes against humanity in the Congo Free State (the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1903 began the process of Leopold II of Belgium surrendering his empire. Similarly, his investigation in the Amazon basin in 1910 exposed ethnocide against Indigenous peoples which, although not on the same scale, “Represented a far older, more enduring and more fatal wrong to humanity”, as he wrote in his Amazon Journal.
Without question he made errors of judgment in seeking German support for Irish independence from 1914 to 1916; indisputably he made the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of Irish freedom.
There can be few more clearcut cases of state-engineered homophobia than that which followed Casement’s arrest. Pages from the so-called Black Diaries, detailing his homosexual activities, were circulated by the British government and the US ambassador also saw copies. When refusing clemency, the home secretary Herbert Samuel referred to him as of “atrocious moral character”. In the opinion of most historians, the homophobic smear campaign prevented a reprieve. He was hanged for being gay as much as for a (contested) case of treason.
The royal prerogative of mercy should now be exercised in the case of Roger Casement.
Halifax, West Yorkshire