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BOOK REVIEW

Teller of Amazon slavery moved to a fateful choice

By Rob Verger
February 16, 2010

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In the Putumayo region of Peru in the early 20th century, collecting latex from the wild Hevea brasiliensis tree was a cruel, nasty business: The Peruvian Amazon Co., the chief regional exporter of rubber, used Indians as slave labor.

In 1910, after word of atrocities committed against the indigenous people reached London, the British Foreign Office sent Sir Roger Casement, their consul general in Rio de Janeiro, into the area to investigate. It would prove a fateful decision for Britain, the rubber company, and for Casement, an Irishman who, six years later, would be executed by the British government.

This is the story told in “The Devil and Mr. Casement,’’ written with detail and care by British historian Jordan Goodman. The book recounts a period of brutal corporate greed in the resource-rich Amazon, with Casement as its main character.

In the introduction, we get a quick overview of Casement’s life, touching on his Irish birth and peripatetic childhood. But the main focus involves his career before his assignment in Putumayo, largely his role in investigating and reporting atrocities committed by Belgium’s King Leopold’s rubber operations in the Congo, an experience which made Casement well suited for the South American assignment.

Goodman begins his narrative in 1907, when he introduces an American named Walter Hardenburg, who was the first to recount the horrors of what was happening in the Amazon. We also meet Julio César Arana, the man in charge of the Peruvian Amazon Co. and the devil of the book’s title. Arana’s practices in the region are so brutal that “telltale signs of beatings and whippings’’ become popularly known as the “mark of Arana.’’

The British government became interested in investigating the company’s practices because Arana’s company was registered in London, had British directors, and because Arana was employing Barbadians, then British subjects. Casement is sent to investigate and report back.

In 1912, when his report was published in a document called the Blue Book, the media took notice - including the New York Times, which ran the headline “Rubber Atrocities Spared No Victim; Bluebook, Issued in London, Confirms Worst Charges Against Peruvians.’’

What Casement and others discovered was horrifying. A typical method of punishment was: “Whole families could be held in the stocks for any amount of time, each confined in all the imaginable ways that the design of such an instrument of torture allowed.’’ Indians were made to carry backbreaking loads of rubber over long distances; were commonly beaten and tortured, and women were raped.

While his account sparked outrage and an investigation by a select committee, virtually nothing was done.

Casement, an Irish nationalist, turned his attention to Ireland. He was a changed man after the Amazon. His lesson, Goodman writes, “was that one people or race could not be trusted with power over another.’’ After a trip to the United States to garner support from Irish-Americans, he moved to Germany, and attempted to provide arms for the Irish Volunteers militia. Later, he was captured, brought to London, and executed on the charge of treason in 1916.

“The Devil and Mr. Casement’’ tells an important story, and it is precise and extensively researched. It also has a fascinating chapter on the history of rubber production, and mentions Woburn, where the vulcanization process was created.

Reading the book, though, is somewhat slow going. The narrative, while carefully told, feels somewhat flat, and the writing is a little dry. The book gives important context to the events and tells the story straightforwardly, and doesn’t spend much time digging into the psychologies of the leading players - most notably Arana, who remains in the background. Still this is a valuable addition to the histories of Western exploitation at the beginning of the 20th century.

Rob Verger can be reached at robverger@gmail.com.

THE DEVIL AND MR. CASEMENT: One Man’s Battle for Human Rights in South America’s Heart of Darkness By Jordan Goodman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp., $30