News | March 23, 2023

Unseen Unpublished Roger Casement Autograph Letters to Auction


Series of six autograph letters signed by Roger Casement to Max W. Karstensen of the Münchener Zeitung, 6 November 1915 to 6 March 1916

Six unseen and unpublished autograph letters from Roger Casement to his regular correspondent and confidant the German journalist Max Karstensen are to be offered at Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in London on March 29. They are estimated at £4,000-6,000 ($4,900-$7,400).

The letters were written between November 6, 1915 and March 6, 1916 during the latter part of Casement's stay in Germany (1914-1916). The recipient, Max Karstensen, was a political insider and an influential special correspondent for the Münchener Zeitung for which Casement occasionally provided articles. In 1921, Karstensen sent the letters to the British diplomat David Somerville with a long, detailed and revealing letter of his own giving his sympathetic observations on Casement and his fate. Kartensen's letter, which has also never been seen before, is included in the sale.

Much of Casement's time in Germany – with which, of course, Britain was at war from August 1914 onwards – was devoted to the largely fruitless task of trying to assemble an Irish Brigade in the country. He had negotiated a 'guns for revolt' agreement with the Germans that if they supplied weaponry the Irish would revolt against British rule thereby deflecting men from the war effort. His letters deal with this and his rather more successful attempts to improve conditions for a small unit of volunteers. They also underline his desire for a peaceful solution to the situation in Ireland. "Peace, not War!...It is really against my grain to appeal to England – or to admit there is a better England. But it does exist...if only we get Englishman to see that the criminals are Asquith, Grey & Co. there might be hope of sanity coming again."

Casement refers frequently to his dealings with Thomas St. John Gaffney the US Consul in Munich and later a representative of the Friends of Irish Freedom in Europe. In his covering letter to Somerville, Karstensen suggests that Gaffney – whom he describes as 'always on the booze' – cynically used Casement for his own ends and took advantage of his good nature. As an example, the journalist reveals – possibly for the first time – how in the summer of 1915 he tried to help Casement get to America where he had spent six fulfilling and productive months the previous year. It was Gaffney, according to Karstensen, who talked him out of it.

A month after the last letter was written Casement returned to Ireland on a German U Boat with the intention, according to Karstensen, of dissuading the republican leadership from going ahead with the Easter Rising. This is almost certainly true; he was convinced that lack of support from the Germans would lead to its failure. On his arrival in Ireland, Casement was arrested, sent to London and tried for treason. Found guilty, he was condemned to death and stripped of the knighthood he had been awarded for his work exposing the abuse of Amazonian Indian workers by the Peruvian Amazon Company. Karstensen makes the astonishing – and almost certainly unfounded – claim that Gaffney connived in Casement's arrest to prevent any upset to their plans.

Despite the support of eminent figures including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Casement's appeal for clemency was turned down. His case was not helped by the leaked publication of extracts from his private diaries which portrayed him a promiscuous homosexual. The authenticity of the diaries – known as the Black Diaries – is still disputed.

Kieran O'Boyle, Bonhams representative in Dublin, said: "These are fascinating letters which highlight Casement's suspicions of German good faith and frustrations at his lack of progress. Equally interesting is Karstensen's letter which paints Casement as an easily manipulated almost childlike figure whose only interest was to secure Germany's good intentions towards Ireland in the event of victory in the war. This view both underplays Casement's significance and misrepresents his character."