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The Significance of Casement’s Putamayo Journal, 1910

Brian Guerin


This article was originally published online in November 2006 at http://homepage.eircom.net/~guerin/tfmnov2006.pdf



The Amazon Journal is one of the most important indictments ever made against perpetrators of atrocities and imperial system-building, and the genocide which international business sustains. The continued struggle of the indigenous people of the Putumayo underlines this reality.

The concept of land rights remains fundamental to the future stability of all Latin American countries, but the crucial flashpoint areas are Brazil, Peru, Venezuela and Columbia. In Brazil, the Movimento Sem-Terra (MST), which demands fundamental agrarian reforms, has much in common with Casement’s analysis of land rights back in 1910. Casement’s Putumayo Journal, with its forthright defence of the culture and assertion of the true history of Amerindian tribal culture in its continuing struggle for its land, resources, history and identity, has enduring value as a first hand account of the crimes committed against indigenous peoples in the Putumayo region of Columbia/Peru. [1]


Roger Casement’s Journal, coupled with the oral testimonies he recorded during his interviews with the Barbadian overseers, serve as important evidence in the analysis of Europe’s imperial “Heart of Darkness”. There is no chapter in the whole process of extermination of South America’s Pre-Columbian tribal life recorded in so much depth of detail, and is a fitting continuation of the writings of the 16th-century Spanish monk Bartolome de las Casas. The Putumayo voyage marked a definite turning-point in Casement’s political outlook, and the tone in the journal marks this shift. Instead of being the standard account of an imperial adventurer, it becomes the sustained record of an anti-imperial investigator. At the outset of the voyage Casement spends time comparing the superiority of British imperial methods to those of the Spanish and Portuguese; by the time of his return downriver, he is moving toward the insight that commerce and international trade are in themselves the instruments of imperialism. [2]


Casement exposed the propaganda of the rubber industry, with its self-serving argument that commerce was a vehicle for “civilizing” indigenous peoples. As Casement had previously worked to reveal the genocide committed in the Congo “Free State” and expose the barbarism set in motion by Stanley’s exploration of the African interior, so in his Putumayo investigation he set out to expose the brutal excesses wrought by four centuries of Spanish and Portuguese conquest. The Amazon Journal is one of the most important indictments ever made against perpetrators of atrocities and imperial system-building, and the genocide which international business sustains. The continued struggle of the indigenous people of the Putumayo underlines this reality.


Outline of the Putumayo Region: The Putumayo is now a department of the Columbian state. It borders Ecuador and Peru, and is in the south-west of Columbia. The area is 24,885km2. It has long been an area where some of the worst atrocities in South American history have taken place.[3] [4] [5] [6]

Plan Columbia– 2001: Plan Columbia, was conceived by the Colombian and U.S. governments, and is the latest phase of the Latin American conquest that began with Christopher Columbus.


In order to implement the $7.5 billion Plan, Colombia is asking for $3.5 billion in international aid to supplement $4 billion of its own funding. Little of this international aid has been realized, however, and it is still unclear just how the debt-ridden Colombian Government is going to raise the remaining $4 billion. According to the Plan, the initial objective is for the state to gain control of the entire country, some 40 % of which is currently controlled by guerrilla forces. It intends to achieve this goal by launching a military offensive against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in southern Colombia, while at the same time eradicating the coca crops that are grown in that region. Following the military phase, peasant farmers whose coca crops have been eradicated will be offered funding for alternative crops and aid will be made available to those campesinos forced to flee their homes and their land. [6][7]


Bolivia has the second largest reserves of natural gas in South America, after Venezuela. In 2005, widespread protests, on one occasion paralyzing the capital La Paz, greeted the passing of a hydrocarbons law that, while increasing taxes on the multinationals that have controlled the country’s oil and gas reserves since privatization in 1996, fell short of a demand for complete nationalization. IMF and World Bank demands that the country export its gas via a proposed pipeline through long-time enemy Chile resulted in the “Gas War”: when 500,000 citizens marched to demand the resignation of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada because of the deaths of 60 people at the hands of the military, the President boarded a plane to Miami. In May 2006, new president Evo Morales sent troops to seize gas fields, though whether his actions will live up to his promises waits to be seen. The privatization, like that in Ireland, was on terms highly favourable to (in other words virtually dictated by) the multinationals. In the years following, the companies discovered massive deposits of natural gas.


However, in the case of Ireland, the privatization, or hand-over, took place despite real alternatives for partnership with oil-producing states (Norway and Iraq), and awareness of considerable hydrocarbon potential in Irish waters.

[1] The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, Ed. Angus Mitchell, Lilliput Press (Dublin, 1997), p. 52

[2] Ibid, p.53

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putumayo_Department

[4] http://columbia.thefreedictionary.com/Putumayo+Department

[5] http://209.15.138.224/colombia_maps/m_Putumayox.htm

[6] http://www.cs.org/publications/CSQ/csq-article.cfm?id=1354

[7] http://eatthestate.org/05-23/PlanColumbiaAndean.htm

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