Roger Casement and his defense of Colombia’s Putumayo

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Amazon River boats by Juan Paulo Vargas
Amazon River boats by Juan Paulo Vargas

Mario Vargas Llosa, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature isn’t the first writer who has tried to rescue the memory of Sir Roger David Casement, the 19th Century Irish nationalist and central character of the Nobel Laureate’s book “El Sueño del Celta” (The Dream of the Celt).

In 1904, Roger Casement exposed the atrocities of the Belgians in the Congo, and later the genocide committed by Peruvians and British against the Colombian indians – the Bora and Huitoto – of the Amazonian Putumayo. Using slave methods, many children and women were chained by the neck and under the threat of receiving a beating, even to the point of exhaustion and death, forced to extract rubber as demand around the world grew for this commodity.

Until Vargas Llosa’s novel, the most celebrated work on the life of the former British diplomat who served as Consul in Angola, Brazil and Mozambique and was knighted in 1911 before being hanged on a scaffold in Pentonville Prison, London, for his involvement in the 1916 Easter Uprising, is Séamans O Siocháin’s Roger Casement: Imperialist, Rebel, Revolutionary (2008).

But even earlier on, the crimes committed against the indigenous tribes by the prosperous Casa Arana, founded in 1903 in Iquitos, Peru, and which would become the London-based Peruvian Amazon Company Limited, are exposed in the classic Colombian novel “La Vorágine” by José Eustasio Rivera (1924) and today, obligatory reading for students of Latin American literature and modernism. Rivera became interested in the “rubber fever” when working on an investigation with the Colombian Foreign Ministry and was sent to inspect the rubber plantations owned by the Casa Arana deep in the Colombian Amazon.

In 1911, a conflict broke out between Colombia and Peru over the land occupied by this multinational, and after a military expedition sent from Bogotá, 500 Peruvian soldiers were expelled from bases near La Pedrera in the Caquetá department.

In September 1932, another conflict broke out between Colombia and Peru; but this time, it was declared after Peruvian soldiers took Colombia’s main Amazonian port of Leticia. The two nations bombed each other’s hamlets and gunboats, using rudimentary aircraft purchased at the last minute.

After five battles, the war ended in June 1933 with the intervention of the League of Nations and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The 1932-33 Amazon War has been attributed by some historians as a calculated offensive by the Peruvian government to gain control of Colombia’s rubber plantations, yet Colombian President Alfonso López Pumarejo (who governed from 1934 -1938 and 1942-1945), claims that the invasion of Leticia had more to do with a row over a love affair gone wrong involving some low-ranking bureaucrats.

According to López, the intendant for the Amazonas department, Alfredo Villamil Fajardo, and the head of the Peruvian garrison Caballo Cocha, Juan De La Rosa, were both courting an attractive mestiza known as La Pila. The woman seemed to prefer intendant Villamil to De La Rosa. De La Rosa, angered by his rival’s advances, ordered 300 of his men to navigate the 10 kilometers of Amazon River from his base on the Peruvian side to Leticia. His troops took the town and shots were fired in the Colombian port. The border skirmish grew into an all out war and after Roosevelt and the League of Nations intervened, the Colombian flag returned to its rightful place in Leticia. Intendant Villamil was reinstated along with his concubine, La Pila.

In 1906 the British Foreign Office transferred Roger Casement from the Congo to Santos, Brazil, where he assumed his duties as Consul. Shortly after arriving in South America, Casement headed into the Colombian Amazon to investigate charges of human rights abuses committed by the Peruvian Amazon Company. The charges of slavery, mutilation and torture began making their rounds with ambassadors, in gentlemen’s clubs and in newspapers in London. Although Britain nominally abolished slavery in 1807, Casement’s mission was to go further: stop the extermination of Colombian indians by their rubber masters.

Sir Roger Casement/Archive

Fueled with the same social cause as Dr.Livingston in the sub-Sahara, Casement finished his report on the Putumayo atrocities and named it “The Putumayo Black Book.” The massive manuscript quickly circulated in London and Washington. According to the documentation gathered by Casement, the enslaved indians were forbidden to cultivate their food or pray.

The work groups were made up of peoples with different languages so the indians could not talk amongst themselves and disobedience was punished with mutilation of the tongue, the genitals, ears, or the hands and feet of those who tried to escape.

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