Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Roger Casement – A Champion of Human Rights

How a 1916 rebel became a national hero of the Faroe Islands

While the executed 1916 leaders are revered as heroes in most countries with a substantial Irish emigrant population, some have become well-known in rather unexpected locations. One such place is the Faroe Islands,the self-Governing nation north of Scotland and part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Roger Casement's work in exposing the horrors inflicted on native populations in the Congo and South America made him a hero to many across the world. His report on the horrors inflicted on the people of the Congo was instrumental in forcing Belgium's King Leopold II to relinquish his hold on the territory. Casement also helped organise the Anti-Slavery Society. His report on the treatment of indigenous peoples by the British-registered Peruvian Amazon Company saw him knighted in 1911.

In 1901 Daniel Jacob Danielsen became the first Faroese missionary to serve outside the Faroe Islands as part of the Congo Balolo Mission which operated in some of the most remote regions of the upper Congo.

Before this, Danielson had moved from the Faroe Islands to Scotland to train as an engineer on boats and steamers. He worked throughout the world for 10 years before converting to become a deeply religious man and involved in the Plymouth Brethren Movement after hearing a missionary speak in Glasgow in 1898, aged 27. He was originally based in Bonginda where he was assigned to the SS Pioneer – a gift to the missionaries from the Irish YMCAs.

Around this time word had begun to reach Europe – often via returning missionary workers – of some of the most appalling human rights abuses imaginable taking place in King Leopold's personal colony.

The brutal atrocities perpetrated in the Congo under Belgian rule included the systematic hacking-off of limbs of civilians as punishment for very minor issues. Most of the local population was enslaved to enrich the personal wealth of King Leopold through the exploitation of natural resources – notably rubber. Women were often taken hostage to ensure cooperation by their forced labourer husbands in what Casement described as an “infamous, infamous shameful system”.

The missionaries were not immune to allegations of cruelty either. Danielsen and other members of the Bonginda-based mission were investigated over claims they had whipped natives who were working aboard their boat and at the mission itself. Danielsen was recalled from the mission over the allegations – something he entirely refuted. Eventually his recall was withdrawn after the Mission's standing committee decided the allegations had been either false or grossly exaggerated by a fellow missionary worker with whom there had been a disagreement.

As word of these atrocities reached Europe, diplomat Roger Casement was tasked by the British Government to compile a report on the situation. He had already spent years living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Casement was an unusual character for a British diplomat at the time. He had an obvious sympathy for the native Congolese peoples and lacked the imperialist attitudes which were so prevalent among many Europeans at the time.

When Casement arrived in the Congo, the Belgian authorities tried to hamper his investigations. In order to get around this, Casement hired a small steamer named the SS Henry Reed but needed an engineer. On 17 July 1903, Danielsen, who had been on his way home due to ill health, agreed to take the job. Casement was also reliant on Danielsen to act as an interpreter with local peoples.

Writing to the British Foreign Secretary's office, Casement said of Danielsen:

Mr Danielsen's services were of the greatest value: Indeed without his help I could not have proceeded very far in my journey.” He said it was only down to Danielsen's “skill and hard work” that the aging vessel the Henry Reed managed to make the journey.

Soon after arriving in Congo, the Belgian authorities began a campaign to discredit Casement and accused him of being too close to 'English Protestant missionaries'.

Throughout their journey, Casement's team took photos to illustrate the horrors inflicted upon the natives. Most famous are the 'cut hand' photographs – most likely taken by Danielsen – which show dozens of natives displaying their severed limbs.

Towards the end of the journey Danielson became increasingly unwell and in late 1903 returned to Europe and undertook a speaking tour in Scotland about the horrors he and Casement had witnessed. He also toured his native Faroe Islands. The fact a native from such a tiny community had witnessed these atrocities first hand led to almost universal condemnation of Belgium from the Faroese people and made the rights of natives a cause célebre on the archipelago.

An article in the newspaper Tingakrossur on a talk given by Danielsen says that the Belgian regime in the Congo is “a regime of horror that is caused by capitalistic Belgian interests”.

Speaking at Synod Hall in Edinburgh, Danielson condemned the Congo Free State as nothing but a slave state.

'The Casement Report', published in 1904, and the subsequent high-profile campaign by Edmund Deane Morel's Congo Reform Association were instrumental in forcing King Leopold to relinquish his 'personal property' in the region in 1908.

Both Roger Casement and Daniel Danielsen would die just a few weeks apart in 1916. It is unlikely that news would have reached Danielsen in Tórshavn before his own death that his employer and friend – with whom he shared an obvious affinity for native people of the Congo – had been executed for attempting to liberate his own island from imperialism. 

The two were reunited almost a century later when, to mark the 110th anniversary of the Casement Report, Danielsen and Casement appeared on the national stamp of the Faroe Islands.

  • This article first appeared in the Special 1916 Centenary Edition of An Phoblacht

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