In this well-researched book, the author explores colonialism, human rights and a courageous investigation.

THE DEVIL AND MR. CASEMENT: One Man’s Battle for Human Rights in South America’s Heart of Darkness. Jordan Goodman. Farrar Straus & Giroux. 305 pages. $26.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. A few decades under your belt and regular glances at news headlines reveal that truth. Even brief immersion in Jordan Goodman’s new book proves it as well; he has written an utterly thorough resurrection of turn-of-the-century Peruvian rubber-trade atrocities.

Goodman’s engrossing narrative breathes life into meticulous research on circumstances surrounding the reluctant, Irish-born British consul 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 transports us to the Andes, when two American adventurers cross into Amazonia and then are crossed by the rich, crafty merchant Jose César Arana, president of the Peruvian Amazon Co. They soon learn Arana controls the Putumayo and virtually the country, deriving wealth and connections from systematic enslavement of native Indians forced to harvest wild rubber for export.

Goodman encapsulates the issue well: “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 there, before the first mention of Arana’s transgressions, we 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 officials learned that indentured laborers from the British colony of 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 and a dramatic courtroom trial. Precise, contextual description enlivens historical record, such as the particulars of a meeting place: “[A] roomy, Gothic-looking room, with two full-length windows overlooking the Thames on one side and an enormous fireplace on the other.”

Like Casement, Goodman at times “let the men tell their own stories, sometimes he presented their stories in the form of narratives.” But whereas Casement mixed narrative and “near-verbatim conversations,” Goodman combines his conjuring of place and time, peppered with impressive quotes of voices recorded in primary sources.

The highlight of the book is definitely Casement’s report and protracted fight for Indian human rights, but The Devil and Mr. Casement is delicately presented less as a tale of atrocities than as one of all-too-familiar corporate greed, diplomatic red tape, conflicting politics and the shifting influence of the West in South America. The resurrection of Casement’s story subtly but powerfully reminds us that we don’t always learn quickly enough from mistakes. All we can do, Goodman seems to hint, is continue to tell such stories so that they remain, like this one, as real today as they were more than a century ago.

Published 3/28/10 in the Miami Herald

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