Thorough account of a major human-rights atrocity of the early 20th century and the man who exposed it.
In 1909, at the request of Parliament, British consul and activist Roger Casement began investigating rubber trader Julio César Arana’s operations along the Putumayo River in Peru’s Amazon Basin. Already an international hero for an earlier report on King Leopold’s mistreatment of indigenous people in the Congo Free State, Casement now revealed that Arana’s Peruvian Amazon Company, a British firm, had enslaved and committed horrible acts of violence against Peruvians Indians, who were forced to extract latex from trees for the lucrative rubber market. Some 30,000 Indians died in what Casement called a “crime against humanity.” In an unusually thorough investigation, Casement twice visited rubber stations on the Putumayo, interviewing British citizens recruited to work with the indigenous population, and viewing the stocks used to punish Indians who did not meet quotas. In this brightly written book, historian Goodman (The Rattlesnake: A Voyage of Discovery to the Coral Sea, 2005, etc.), re-creates every aspect of the “abysmal horror of the Putumayo,” showing how Casement, a great believer in “a gentler humanity,” worked with the help of the House of Commons, the British newspaper Truth, a courageous Westminster Abbey preacher and human-rights activists to expose Arana’s exploitations. Arana expressed astonishment at the charges, liquidated his company and continued business as usual for some years. No one was ever held accountable for the forced-labor operation, and Parliament could find no way to legislate against the same thing happening in the future. Peru and the United States, with its vested interest in the region, took no action. Knighted for his Peru report, Casement then began pursuing his fervor for Irish independence, even urging Germany in 1914 to support the cause in the event of its victory in World War I. He was tried and hanged for treason in 1916.
An incisive rendering of an important episode in the ongoing battle for the rights of individuals.