A discovery of India via Conan Doyle: What coloured Sherlock Holmes creator’s views on India

In 2005, British author Julian Barnes in his novel Arthur & George brought to light a long-forgotten legal case that involved the writer, Arthur Conan Doyle. The creator of Sherlock Holmes was steadfast in his defence of George Edalji, a young English solicitor who was the son of a Parsi-turned-Christian vicar and an Englishwoman. The young George had been falsely accused and convicted of horse and cattle mutilation.

Doyle backed Edalji in a series of newspaper articles; he also wrote a pamphlet in his defence. Barnes’ novel alternates between both their stories – Doyle’s and George’s — and in so doing sketched out a character of Doyle that seems to suggest the creator of Sherlock Holmes was a man with a soft corner for India and its people.

The portrayal of characters and incidents from the subcontinent that populate some of his famous Sherlock Holmes tales, however, shows the nature of Doyle’s interest. India interested Doyle because he found it “mysterious”, an attitude that betrays his Orientalism. American historian Daniel Stashower’s, a Doyle fan, in his book, Teller of Tales: Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, gives Doyle the benefit of doubt. Doyle’s fiction, he says, is “largely free of the [racial] slurs and stereotypes that mar the work of his contemporaries”. But Doyle’s portrayal of India and Indians does reflect the sense of racial superiority that marked the colonialists’ relationship with their subjects. Not all observers of the colonial scene, however, wrote thus.

Us and them

Soldier George Francklin Atkinson, who had served with the Bengal Engineers, is a case in point. In 1860, his Curry & Rice, a lavishly illustrated satirical work critiqued the lifestyle of British colonialists in India. He noted that following the 1857 mutiny the British treated Indians as “treacherous and unchangeable”; colonialists also distanced themselves from their subjects and through “exaggerated social values” (such as elaborate dinner etiquettes and the giving of Anglicised names to Indian places and objects) tried to carve out a space for themselves in India.

The novels of Doyle come with this baggage. For instance, in his second Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, Jonathan Small, despite being a criminal and subaltern in Britain, dehumanises his Andamanese accomplice Tonga; Small calls Tonga “hell-hound”, “little devil”, “bloodthirsty imp” and parades him at freak shows as “the black cannibal.” Both are underclass, but the sub-text is that the white-skinned Small has the right to dominate the dark-skinned Tonga. This is classic 19th -century race theory translated into fiction. Dr Watson, too, considered Tonga a mass of black — “like a Newfoundland dog”.

Doyle also suffers from other shortcomings. He had no first-hand experience of India. He visited various parts of the British Empire such as West Africa, Egypt, South Africa and Canada, but not South Asia. His bias towards people of colour is apparent in On the Slave Coast, an article that he wrote on his trip to West Africa. Doyle wrote: “A great deal has been said about the regeneration of our black brothers and the latent virtues of the swarthy races. My own experience is that you abhor them on first meeting them, and gradually learn to dislike them a very great deal more as you become better acquainted with them.”

Doyle’s attitude riled many British progressives. In 1904, Andrew Lang, the British polymath journalist, criticised Doyle for the portrayal of Tonga in an article. “The Andamanese are cruelly libelled, and have neither malignant qualities nor heads likes mops nor weapons,” he said. And people from Andaman are not all shorter than four feet; they do not use poison as a weapon or use blow-pipes as readers are told by Doyle.

Criminal connections

Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes differ from his predecessors — such as those by Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon — in the same genre. First, his detective’s dependence on physical evidence and scientific experiments rather than plain logic. (Holmes looking at a person or his/her boot size, colour of hair and so on would figure out his profession; he also conducted scientific studies with blood samples for instance to crack cases.) Second, Holmes serves as the mouthpiece of the author who legitimised Britain’s colonial project.

Interestingly, many of his famous criminals have connections to India. Jonathan Small (The Sign of Four) lost a leg to a crocodile while swimming the Ganga; he was liberal with the whip and insults at an indigo plantation. Dr Grimesby Roylott (The Adventure of the Speckled Band), who smoked Indian cigars and kept the company of gypsies was a doctor with a large practice in Calcutta; he killed his step-daughter with an adder, which the storyline suggests he was able to do because he had access to “exotic animals”. Sebastian Moran (The Adventure of the Empty House), whom Holmes called the ‘second most dangerous man in London’, was a big game hunter and served in the second Anglo-Afghan war.

In short: like many of his Victorian contemporaries, Doyle seemed to believe that Englishmen who had spent time in the Orient had picked up its savage ways and returned home to civilised England as hardened criminals.

In her essay Crime and the Gothic, professor Catherine Spooner peels off other layers regarding Doyle’s discovery of India. Referring to The Adventure of the Speckled Band, she says, “Dr Roylott intends to kill Helen by releasing a deadly poisonous swamp adder (the snake appears to be the Indian Cobra but Doyle changed the name), brought back from India, into her room. Following Holmes’ intervention, the snake returns into Roylott’s room and strikes him instead….The snake becomes an instrument of colonial retribution, revisiting on its master not only the violence he intended against his family, but also that perpetrated on the colonial subject, both literal (Roylott beat his native butler to death in Calcutta, but escaped being sentenced) and symbolic (the practice of colonialism itself).” That is, colonialism extracts its price one way or the other. But which side Doyle was on is still a question.

The ambiguity of Doyle’s messaging continues in the Adventure of Three Students in which a young Indian student, Daulat Ras, becomes a suspect only because of his racial features. Was the focus on this aspect a critique by Doyle or was he being racist? The confusion lies in the fact that it was common among wealthy Indians to study medicine or law in England during Doyle’s time and hardly any crime involving them had been reported. And yet, the needle of suspicion in this story is on the young Daulat.

After 1857, the British carried out a racial census of sorts in the subcontinent; Indians came to be seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending whether they had been rebels or British loyalists. Doyle, no doubt, was aware of the profiling. Doyle’s most famous creation once said, “My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” Doyle certainly did, but it must be said, he looked for information about the subcontinent, mostly in the wrong places.

Debkumar Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer and an editor of Longform, an anthology of graphic narratives.

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