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Culture of Terror—Space of Death. Roger Casement's Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture

  • Michael Taussig (a1)

This essay is about torture and the culture of terror, which for most of us, including myself, are known only through the words of others. Thus my concern is with the mediation of the culture of terror through narration—and with the problems of writing effectively against terror.

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The author first visited the upper reaches of the Putumayo river in Colombia in 1972 and has returned many times since, engaged in writing a history of conquest and shamanism. The first version of this essay was prepared for an informal seminar group of students and faculty from the Anthropology Department at the University of Sydney and MacQuarie University in Sydney, Australia. A version very similar to the present essay was read to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago in April 1982. The author wishes to acknowledge those participants, and especially Guillermo O'Donnell, by whom the author was prodded into first thinking hard about what O'Donnell called “the culture of fear” in Argentina. For their advice and encouragement the author thanks Raymond Grew and Ross Chambers of the University of Michigan, noting also that without the fine sense of judgment exercised by Rachel Moore it is unlikely that this essay in its final form would have been completed.

1 Timerman, Jacobo, Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 164.

2 Timerman, , Prisoner, 28.

3 Timerman, , Prisoner, 111.

4 Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo, Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians (Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press. 1971).

5 Benjamin, Walter, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia.” in the collection of his essays entitled Reflections, Jephcott, Edmund, trans., Demetz, Peter, ed. and intra. (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978). 189–90.

6 Timerman, , Prisoner, 52.

7 Foucault, Michel, “Truth and Power” in Gordon, Power', ed. (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 118.

8 Timerman, , Prisoner, 62, 66.

9 Karl, Frederick R., Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (New York: Farrar. Straus and Giroux, 1979), 286.

10 Ricoeur, Paul, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970).

11 Watt, Ian, Conrad: In the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), 161.

12 Inglis, Brian, Roger Casement (London: Hodder Paperbacks, 1974), 32. The text of Conrad's letter to Cunninghame Graham reads: “I can assure you that he [Casement] is a limpid personality. There is a touch of the conquistador in him too; for I've seen him start off into an unspeakable wilderness swinging a crook-handled stick for all weapons, with two bulldogs, Paddy (white) and Biddy (brindle) at his heels, and a Loanda boy carrying a bundle for all company. A few months afterwards it so happened that I saw him come out again, a little leaner, a little browner, with his stick, dogs and Loanda boy, and quietly serene as though he had been for a stroll in a park.” Inglis comments: “Time had embroidered Conrad's recollection. Casement himself described what the construction work entailed, in a letter to his young cousin [and] the countryside through which the railway was being constructed, he told her, consisted of grassy plains covered with scrub—inhospitable, but hardly unspeakable.” The Jorge Borges reference is “About the Purple Land” in Borges: A Reader, Monegal, Emir Rodriguez and Reid, A., eds. (New York: Dutton, 1981), 136–39.

13 Karl, , Joseph Conrad, 289n. The full text of Conrad's letter to Cunninghame Graham may be found in Watts, C. T., Joseph Conrad's Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham (Cambridge: The University Press, 1969), 148–52. Also see Joseph Conrad: Congo Diary and Other Uncollected Pieces, Najder, Zdzislaw, ed. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978), 7.

14 Inglis, , Roger Casement, 46.

15 Ibid., 131.

16 Ibid., 214.

17 Ibid., 234.

18 Some authorities glean Casement's report and state the figure of 30,000 deaths from 1900 to 1912 as a fact, while others, who had some knowledge of the area and its history, either present different figures (a wide range) or state that it is impossible to give any figure because census-taking was impossibly difficult. Furthermore, how much of the population decrease was due to disease (especially smallpox), and how much to torture or flight, is a very vexed question. Similarly, the number of Huitotos living in the Igaraparaná and Caraparaná region in the late nineteenth century is variously stated as around 50,000 all the way up to a quarter of a million (!), the latter estimate being that of Rocha, Joaquin, Memorandum de un viaje (Bogotá: Editorial El Mercurio, 1905), 138. In any event, the number of Indians in the area seems to have been extremely large by Upper Amazon standards and an important cause for the establishment of rubber trading there. It is worth nothing that Casement in his report was extremely cautious in presenting figures on population and population decrease. He gives details of the problem in his evidence presented to the British Parliamentary Select Committee on Putumayo (House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1913, vol. 14, 30, #707). Father de Pinell, Caspar, Un viaje por el Pulumayo el Amazonas (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional, 1924), 3839, presents an excellent discussion, as does his Excursión apostólica por los ríos Pulumayo, San Miguel de Sucumbios, Cuyabueno, Caquetá, y Caguán (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional, 1929 (also dated 1928)), 227–35.

19 Hardenburg, Walter, The Putumayo: The Devil's Paradise. Travels in the Peruvian Amazon Region and an Account of the Atrocities Committed upon the Indians Therein (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912), 214. The first publication of Hardenburg's revelations, in the magazine Truth in 1909, began with this article from the Iquitos newspaper, La Sanción. These articles, and probably the later book, were possibly ghostwritten by Paternoster, Sidney, assistant editor of Truth.

20 Hardenburg, , Putumayo, 258.

21 Ibid., 260, 259.

22 Ibid., 236. Also cited by Casement in his Putumayo report to Sir Edward Grey. There Casement declares that this description was repeated to him “again and again … by men who had been employed in this work.” Casement, Roger, “Correspondence respecting the Treatment of British Colonial Subjects and Native Indians employed in the Collection of Rubber in the Putumayo District,” House of Commons Sessional Papers, 14 02 1912 to 7 March 1913, vol. 68 (hereafter cited as Casement, , Putumayo Report), p. 35.

23 Casement, , Putumavo Report, p. 17.

24 Ibid., p. 34.

25 Ibid., pp. 33. 34.

26 Ibid., p. 37.

27 Ibid., p. 39.

28 Ibid., p. 37.

29 Ibid., p. 39.

30 Ibid., p. 42.

31 Ibid., p. 31. From various estimates it appears that the ratio of armed supervisors to wild Indians gathering rubber was somewhere between 1:16 and 1:50. Of these armed supervisors, the muchachos outnumbered the whites by around 2:1. See Wolf, Howard and Wolf, Ralph, Rubber: A Story of Glory and Greed (New York: Covici, Friede, 1936), 88; U.S. Consul Eberhardt, Charles C., Slavery in Peru, 7 February 1913, report prepared for U.S. House of Representatives, 62d Cong., 3d Sess., 1912, H. Doc. 1366, p. 112; Casement, Roger, British Parliamentary Select Committee on Putumayo, House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1913, vol. 14, p. xi; Casement, , Putumayo Report, p. 33.

32 Casement, , Putumayo Report, p. 33.

33 Ibid., p. 44–45.

34 Ibid., p. 55.

35 Inglis, , Roger Casement, 29.

36 Rocha, , Memorandum de un viaje, 123–24, asserts that because the Indians are “naturally loafers” they postpone paying off their advances from the rubber traders, thus compelling the traders to use physical violence. Eberhardt, , Slavery in Peru, p. 110, writes that “the Indian enters the employ of some rubber gatherer, often willingly, though not infrequently by force, and immediately becomes indebted to him for food etc. … However, the scarcity of labor and the ease with which the Indians can usually escape and live on the natural products of the forest oblige the owners to treat them with some consideration. The Indians realize this and their work is not at all satisfactory, judging from our standards. This was particularly noticeable during a recent visit I made to a mill where “cachassa” or aguadiente is extracted from cane. The men seemed to work when and how they chose, requiring a liberal amount of the liquor each day (of which they are all particularly fond), and if this is not forthcoming or they are treated harshly in any way they run to the forests. The employer has the law on his side, and if he can find the runaway he is at liberty to bring him back; but the time lost and the almost useless task of trying to track the Indian through the dense forests and small streams makes it far more practical that the servant be treated with consideration in the first place.”

37 Casement, , British Parliamentary Select Committee on Putumayo, House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1913, vol. 14, p. 113, #2809.

38 Morel, E. D., British Parliamentary Select Committee on Putumayo, House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1913, vol. 14, pp. 553, 556. Also see the evidence of the British accountant, Parr, H., of the Peruvian Amazon Company, in 19091910, at the La Chorrera, station (pp. 336–48).

39 Casement, , Putumayo Report, p. 50.

40 Rocha, , Memorandum de un viaje, 75.

41 Singleton-Gates, Peter and Girodias, Maurice, The Black Diaries (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 261.

42 Gridilla, P. Alberto, Un ano en el Putumayo (Lima: Colección Descalzos, 1943), 29. Rocha's description is of a Colombian rubber trading post, and not one of Arana's; Rocha, , Memorandum de un viaje, 119–20.

43 Hardenburg, , Putumayo, 218.

44 Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), 72. Cf. Taussig, Michael, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).

45 Arana, Julio César, Evidence to the British Parliamentary Select Committee on Putumayo, House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1913, vol. 14, p. 488, # 12,222.

46 See Fuentes, Carlos, La nueva novela hispanoamericana (Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Joaquin Mortiz, 1969), 1011.Rivera, José Eustasio, La vorágine (Bogotá: Editorial Pax, 1974), 277, 279.

47 Pinell, , Excursión apostólica, 156.

48 de Vilanova, P. Francisco, introduction to de Igualada, P. Francisco, Indios Amazonicas: Colección Misiones Capuchinas, vol. VI (Barcelona: Imprenta Myria, 1948).

49 Hardenburg, , Putumayo, 163.

50 Pinell, , Excursión apostólica, 196.

51 Casement, , Pulumayo Report, pp. 2728.

52 Singleton-Gates, and Girodias, , Black Diaries, 251.

53 Simson, Alfred. Travels in the Wilds of Ecuador and the Exploration of the Pulumayo River (London: Samson Low, 1886), 170.

54 Simson, , Travels, 170–71.

55 Rocha, , Memorandum de un viaje, 64.

56 Simson, , Travels, 58. It is worth noting that during the seventeenth or eighteenth century missionaries worked among at least some of the Indian groups Simson designates as auca, and thus it is not true that they (to quote Simson), “know nothing of the Catholic Church.” See y Herrera, P. José Chantre, Hisloria de las misiones de la Companía de Jesus en el Marañon español, 1637–1767 (Madrid: Imprenta de A. Avrial, 1901), 283. 321–28. 365–69.

57 Simson, , Travels, 58. This meaning of rebel against the Inca is sustained, referring to the Auracanians of Chile, in Cooper, John M., “The Auracanians,” in Vol. II of The Handbook of South American Indians, Steward, Julian H., ed. (New York: Cooper Square, 1963), 690. For the eastern montaña of the northern Andes, the term auca means pagan as against Christian Indians, according to Steward and Metraux, Alfred, “Tribes of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Montaña,” in Vol. Ill of the Handbook, 535656, esp. 629 (Zaparos), 637 (Canelos/Napos), 653 (Quijos).

Simson, Unlike, the mere traveller, these anthropologists of the Handbook fail dismally to indicate the magical and mythic connotations of the term auca.

58 Simson, , Travels, 166, 168.

59 Taussig, Michael, “Folk Healing and the Structure of Conquest,” Journal of Latin American Lore. 6:2 (1980), 217–78.

60 Casement, , Putumayo Report, p. 45.

61 Rocha, , Memorandum de un viaje, 125–26.

62 Casement, , Putumayo Report, 30. Father Pinell was told of a large uprising by rubber-working and other Indians along the Igaraparaná in 1917; the use of Peruvian troops was required to put it down. Pinell, , Un viaje, 3940.

63 An excellent discussion of this is to be found in Sweet, David, “A Rich Realm of Nature Destroyed: The Middle Amazon Valley, 1640–1750” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1975), I, 113–14, 116, 120, 126, 130–31, 141, 347.

64 Rocha, , Memorandum de un viaje, 9293.

65 Rocha, Ibid., 118.

66 Rocha, Ibid., 106–7.

67 Hardenburg, , Putumayo, 155. For use of coca in the chupe del tabaco, see Woodroffe, Joseph F., The Upper Reaches of the Amazon (London: Methuen, 1914). 151–55. With regard to the reliability and sources of Hardenburg's statements, it is perhaps of use to cite some of the evidence he gave to the British Parliamentary Select Committee on Putumayo, , House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1913, vol. 14. Asked what he saw himself of actual cruelties to the Indians, Hardenburg replied, “Of actual crimes being committed I did not see anything, practically; all I saw was that the Indians in [the rubber station of] El Encanto were nearly naked and very thin and cadaverous-looking; I saw several scores of them, and I saw what they were being fed on” (p. 510, #12848). His information came through accounts from other people: “In fact, I think I might say that most of the people came through others. They would say, ‘I know another man who could state this and that,’ and they would bring them” (p. 511. #12881). Asked if he questioned these people in detail about their statements, Hardenburg replied, “I cannot say I did much of that” (p. 511, #12882). It was, said Hardenburg, general knowledge that the atrocities were occurring. This “general knowledge” is precisely what I have been at pains to track down, not because I believe that the atrocities were less than described by the several authors upon whom I draw, but because it is this general knowledge in the shape of mythic narratives which acts as a screen and as a network of signifiers without which “the facts” would not exist. More specifically, the function of this screen of signifiers is to heighten dread and hence the controlling function of the culture of terror. Casement's evidence is altogether of another category, being more carefully gathered, cross-checked, etcetera, and as a result of it we can affirm reports, such as Hardenburg's, which are less well substantiated. Nevertheless, Casement's evidence serves not to puncture the mythic character so much as indicate its terrific reality.

68 Casement, , Putumayo Report, p. 48. Robuchon's text appeared as a book (“Official Edition”), printed in Lima in 1907 and entitled En el Putumayo ysusafluentes. It was edited by Carlos Rey de Castro, a lackey of Julio César Arana's and one-time Peruvian consul in Brazil, from Robuchon's papers after his mysterious death in the Putumayo rain forest. Judging from Rey de Castro's book on the Putumayo, , Los pobladores del Putumayo (Barcelona: Imp. Vda de Luis Tasso, 1917), and his relation to Arana, one can surmise that it would be unwise to read the Robuchon text as though it were really Robuchon's unadulterated work. The chances are that it was edited with a view to presenting a case favorable to Arana. The importance of prehistory, ”ethnohistory,” and Indian history in the ideological war for world opinion is well brought out by de Castro's, Rey bold stroke in his Los pobladores del Putumayo, in which he sets out to prove that the Huitotos and adjacent Indian groups are in reality descendant from the orejones of Cuzco in the interior of Peru—thus supposedly strengthening the Peruvian claims over the Putumayo rubber zone and its indigenous inhabitants.

69 Rocha, , Memorandum de un viaje. 111.

70 Ibid., 116–117.

71 Paredes, Rómulo. “Confidential Report to the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Peru,” September 1911, translated in Eberhardt, , Slavery in Peru, p. 146. Paredes's work is explained and put into context in a mass of testimony in the book of Valcarcel, Carlos A., El proceso del Putumayo (Lima:Imp. Comercial de Horacio La Rosa, 1915).

72 Paredes, “Confidential Report,” in Eberhardt, , Slavery in Peru, p. 158.

71 Ibid., p. 147. I am grateful to Fred Chin and Judy Farquahar of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago for impressing upon me the importance the muchachos as a mediating force. Then of course one should not omit the role of the blacks recruited in Barbados, mediating between the whites and the Indians. In much the same way as the British army from the mid-nineteenth century on deployed different colonial and ethnic groups so as to maximize reputations for ferocity and checking one against the other, the British and Peruvian rubber company's used its “ethnic soldiers” in the Putumayo.

74 Paredes, “Confidential Report,” in Eberhardt, , Slavery in Peru, p. 147.

75 Casement, , Putumayo Report, p. 44.

76 See page 482 above.

77 Illustrations of the way in which this following of the letter of the tale was enacted in the torture of Indians can be found in the rare instances of dialogue that Casement allows his witnesses in the section of his report given over to testimony by men recruited in Barbados, as, for example:

“And you say you saw the Indians burnt?” Consul-General Casement asked Augustus Walcott, born in the Caribbean island of Antigua but twenty three years before.


“Burnt alive?”


“How do you mean? Describe this.”

“Only one I see burnt alive.”

“Well, tell me about that one?”

“He had not work ‘caucho,’ he ran away and he kill a ‘muchacho,’ a boy, and they cut off his two arms and legs by the knee and they burn his body. …”

“Are you sure he was still alive—not dead when they threw him on the fire?”

“Yes, he did alive. I'm sure of it—I see him move—open his eyes, he screamed out. …”

“Was Aurelio Rodriguez [the rubber-station manager] looking on—all the time?”

“Yes, all the time.”

“Giving directions?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“He told them to cut off the legs and arms?”


There was something else the Consul-General could not understand and he called Walcott back to explain what he meant by saying, “because he told the Indians that we was Indians too, and eat those—.” What he meant, Casement summarized, was that the station manager, Señor Normand, in order “to frighten the Indians told them that the negroes were cannibals, and a fierce tribe of cannibals who eat people, and that if they did not bring in rubber these black men would be sent to kill and eat them.” (Casement, , Putumayo Report, pp. 115,118.)

Another, more complicated, example follows:

“Have you ever seen Aguero kill Indians?” the Consul-General asked Evelyn Bateson, aged twenty five, born in Barbados, and working in the rubber depôt of La Chorrera.

“No, Sir; I haven't seen him kill Indians—but I have seen him send ‘muchachos’ to kill Indians. He has taken an Indian man and given him to the ‘muchachos’ to eat, and they have a dance of it. …”

“You saw the man killed?”

“Yes, Sir. They tied him to a stake and they shot him, and they cut off his head after he was shot and his feet and hands, and they carried them about the section—in the yard and they carries them up and down and singing, and they carries them to their house and dances. …”

“How do you know they ate them?”

“I heard they eat them. I have not witnessed it, Sir, but I heard the manager Señor Aguero tell that they eat this man.”

“The manager said all this?”

“Yes, Sir, he did.” (Casement, , Putumayo Report, p. 103.)

This sort of stimulation if not creation of cannibalism by colonial pressure is also recorded in missionaries' letters concerning King Leopold's Congo Free State and the gathering of rubber there. See, for example, the account of Mr. John Harris in the work by Morel, Edmund, King Leopold's Rule in Africa (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1905), 437–41.

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