Herbert Dickey in the Devil’s Paradise

Herbert Dickey in the Devil’s Paradise:

At Remate de Males, Dickey finally caught the Yellow Fever he had so long treated, and his convalescence brought him to another fateful encounter. In 1911, he left the continent for a break in Barbados. In a bar in Bridgetown, he “stumbled across the one man in all the world who had set himself the task of aiding the unfortunate Weetoto Indians to escape from the abominable overlordship of the Peruvian employees of a British rubber-collecting company.” This was Roger Casement.

In the middle of the coming World War, the British government hanged Casement as a traitor in one of the most notorious cases of the century. But at this point he was a hero, the pioneer of human rights investigations. As a career employee of the British consular service he had written a devastating report in 1903 on atrocities in the Congo of Belgium’s King Leopold II, also committed for rubber. In the 18 months since Dickey had left El Encanto, Casement had accompanied a commission to the Putumayo that exhaustively documented the crimes and abuses of the Peruvian Amazon Company.

Casement gave the comprehensive account of the system Dickey had only seen in pieces. It was based on two institutions, the stocks (cepos) and the tapir-hide lash (ronzal). Indians who refused to carry rubber, or who collapsed under their load, or who otherwise offended a company minion, would be seated on the ground with their ankles pinned between two heavy logs, often through holes smaller than the actual size of their legs. There they would stay, said Casement, for days, weeks, even months. Floggings, and worse violations, were frequent, in and out of the stocks.

“Whole families were so imprisoned,” wrote Casement, “fathers, mothers and children – and many cases were reported of parents dying thus, either from starvation or from wounds caused by flogging, while their offspring were attached alongside of them.”

Although figures were uncertain, Casement wrote, the Indian population in the Putumayo had fallen from 40,000 (a low estimate) at the beginning of the rubber boom to 10,000 to 12,000 at its peak.

His collection of incidents, depositions and even freely given confessions of murders at the company’s behest ran 125,000 words. It had not yet been published as a Parliamentary Blue Book when Dickey met Casement. (The U.S. State Department had asked for a delay so that the Peruvian government “could get its house in order,” and the report was released in July 1912.) In the meantime, Casement had made somewhat Quixotic plans to arrest some of the worst perpetrators. He asked Dickey to go along, as interpreter and local expert.

The two sailed up the Amazon for weeks, with their quarry always two or three steps ahead, forewarned, Dickey thought, by government officials. At the end, the pursuers only caught sight of the fugitives in Dickey’s stamping ground of Remate de Males. The former minions of the Peruvian Amazon Company were disembarking from a canoe on the Peruvian side of the Javary.

It is on this frustrating hunt that Dickey makes a brief appearance in Mario Vargas- Llosa’s historical fiction about Casement, Dream of the Celt (2010), which relies heavily, and perhaps mistakenly, on the version of Casement’s diaries released by the British government. Vargas-Llosa gives Dickey a speech worthy of Heart of Darkness. (Casement befriended Joseph Conrad in the Congo when Conrad was running the errand that inspired his great novel.)

“We carry wickedness in our souls, my friend,” Vargas-Llosa has him say. “In the countries of Europe, and in mine, it is more disguised and reveals itself only when there’s a war, a revolution, a riot. It needs pretexts to become public and collective. In Amazonia, on the other hand, it can reveal itself openly and perpetrate the worst atrocities without the justifications of patriotism or religion. Only pure, hard greed.”

James Ring Adams is Senior Historian at the National Museum of the American Indian – Smithsonian and managing editor of American Indian magazine.