Historical tale of greed has lessons for today
By Christine Thomas
Special to The Advertiser
If we hope to change things for the better today, casting a focused gaze on past events may be the best hope of arresting lamentable cycles of history. Brief immersion in Jordan Goodman's new book "The Devil and Mr. Casement," an utterly thorough resurrection of turn-of-the-century Peruvian rubber trade atrocities, could be just the reminder we need about the perils of colonialism.
Goodman's engrossing narrative breathes life into meticulous research on circumstances surrounding Irish-born British consular Roger Casement's 1912 report on the treatment of Indians and Barbadian citizens in the Putumayo River region of the then-Peruvian Amazon (now part of Colombia). He first transports us to the Andes, when two American adventurers, Walter Hardenburg and Walter Perkins, enter Amazonia and then are crossed by the rich, crafty merchant Jose C sar Arana — president of the Peruvian Amazon Co. They soon learn Arana controls the Putumayo and virtually the entire country, deriving wealth and connections from systematic enslavement of native Indians forced to harvest wild rubber for export.
Goodman encapsulates the issue well later in the book: "The problem in the Putumayo, as in the Congo, was quite simply forced labor."
Even though the world had recently confronted King Leopold's terror in the Congo (in part, thanks to Casement), before Hadenburg's and Perkins's first mentions of Arana's transgressions, it remained blind to the worse "crimes against humanity" (Casement's term) playing out in Peru.
But, once Arana's company went public in Britain, and it came to light that indentured laborers from the British colony of the Barbados were involved, Britain launched an official investigation headed up by Casement.
The book carefully tracks that process, while Goodman motors the pace and stokes suspense with cliffhanger chapter endings, great titles such as "Godforsaken Hell-Haunted Wilds" and "Publish and be Damned," and even a dramatic courtroom trial. Precise, contextual description enlivens the historical record, such as the weather on the day Casement's report was finally made public after years of delay, or the particular look of a meeting place: "a spacious, wood-paneled Gothic-looking room, with two full-length windows overlooking the Thames on one side and an enormous fireplace on the other."
One can almost see Goodman fossicking through newspaper archives and visiting sites such as Iquitos — though he didn't visit Putumayo due to the region's instability — just as Casement once formulated his account. And, like Casement, Goodman at times "let the men tell their own stories, sometimes he presented their stories in the form of narrative." But, whereas Casement mixed narrative and "near-verbatim conversations," Goodman combines his own conjuring of place and time, peppered with impressive quotes of actual voices recorded in primary sources.
The book is definitely centered on Casement's report and protracted fight for Indian human rights, but "The Devil and Mr. Casement" is delicately presented as less a tale of atrocities than of all-too familiar corporate greed, diplomatic red tape, the politics and shifting influence of the West outside its borders. Continuing to tell such stories, Goodman hints, may be the best way to keep their lessons at the ready, as real today as they were more than a century ago.