Water Lane at the Tower of London was once submerged in the Thames. Along Water Lane can be found the most notorious of all the Tower’s entrances: Traitors’ Gate. It gets its name from the number of prisoners who came through it accused of treason over centuries. On the anniversary of his death, we look back at one such individual accused of treason on pain of death, brought to the Tower of London in 1916 – a man by the name of Roger Casement.
He was 52 years old, and his life had by no means been a story of treachery and wrongdoing. He was well-known by this point and just a few years earlier, he was viewed very differently.
Casement was an Irish-born civil servant who worked for the British Foreign Office as a diplomat, afterwards becoming a humanitarian activist. He served for many years as a distinguished British Consul in Africa and South America.
He gained international renown for his Consular reports criticising the treatment of indigenous workers in the Congo who risked having their hands or even their children’s hands cut off for not working hard enough. As a consequence of his reports, Belgium overhauled its administration of the Congo in 1908 after which he was rewarded with a knighthood, and retired to Dublin.
Casement was so deeply affected by his experiences of imperialism abroad that when he returned home to Ireland, he became more and more concerned with the Nationalist movement.
After joining and recruiting members for the provisional committee of the Irish volunteers, he began to believe Germany could assist in the independence of an Irish state under the looming shadow of war.
When war broke out, he travelled to Germany, where he spent the next eighteen months trying to secure German military support, and recruit Irish prisoners of war to fight a rebellion in April 1916, now known as the Easter Rising. However, Britain intercepted Casement’s communications.
He was arrested on the 21st April before the risings and was imprisoned here, before his trial for treason, either above Traitor’s Gate in St Thomas’ Tower or in the East Casemates on Mint Street. He was denied a change of clothes to demoralise him further and was not allowed any laces or belts in case he tried to commit suicide.
In the run up to Casement’s trial, the director of British Naval Intelligence, orchestrated the distribution of extracts of his diaries, nicknamed the ‘Black Diaries’; they described Casement’s relationships with other men in great detail, both in the UK and abroad when he was a consul. In 1916, both the law and popular opinion were firmly opposed to homosexuality. So this deliberate release of the diaries was certainly calculated to prejudice any sympathisers he had in the government and international press against his cause.
It worked. Casement’s powerful lobby of supporters retreated into silence and any hope for clemency appeals were thwarted. His Irish supporters were in retreat, devastated by the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising. All were fearful of speaking out in defence of a man whose treason was so clear. For the rest of this century the Black Diaries became the means by which Casement’s treason was explained and rationalised to the public, perhaps their content being seen as a crime worse than treason itself.
The Black Diaries were released in 1997, after being withheld by the home office and partially released in 1959. Since his trial, there has been debate over the diaries being forged by the British Government in order to secure his execution. In 2002, their authenticity was confirmed by handwriting experts, however there is still much debate.
In consequence, on 3rd August 1916, Roger Casement was hanged for treason at London’s Pentonville prison. His naked body thrown into an open grave buried with quick lime, unlike the other leaders of the Easter Rising, who were given honourable burials. He was degraded and given much harsher treatment than others imprisoned for treason. Before his death, one of the priests who attended him described him as ‘a saint… we should be praying to him instead of for him’.
In his trial Casement gave a speech described by Robert Emmett, as ‘perhaps the most supreme expressions of Irish freedom by a prisoner in the face of execution’. He said: ‘Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth, a thing no more to be doled out to us, or withheld from us… surely, it is a braver, a saner and truer thing to be a rebel.’
His heroic reputation sits uncomfortably with his status as a traitor. Casement was a pioneer in the fight against colonialism, racism and prejudice, but sadly is usually only remembered as a traitor and for writing the Black Diaries. Roger Casement is a reminder of how a person’s sexuality could be used as a devastating weapon against them and still can be in some parts of the world today.