Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan (1859-1930) Scottish novelist, short story writer, and memoirist

Eclipsed in fame by his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle incorporated the menace of colonialism in stories of crime and ingenious sleuthing. Born in Edinburgh and educated by Jesuits at Stonyhurst College and the University of Edinburgh, he completed specialized training in ophthalmology in Vienna. Simultaneously, he developed detective stories for a male audience, primarily fans of railroad fiction, the escapist short reads favored by business travelers. Already well-known for his short works in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, Beeton’s Christmas Annual, McClure’s, Lippincott’s, and Strand Magazine, he treated combat wounds during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and received a knighthood for medical contributions at field dressing stations. At the war's end, he published The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct (1902), an apologia for the British military presence.

Seven years later, Doyle shifted positions on colonialism. He championed human rights with a humanitarian pamphlet, The Crime of the Congo (1909), an expose of the private reserve of Leopold II of Belgium at Ikoko, where Congolese peasants lived in the bush like prehistoric cave dwellers and died of exposure and starvation because rules forbade making fires. Punishment for infractions was 25 lashes with the chicotte, a whip made of dried hippopotamus hide curled into a spiral. Doyle proposed that France, Germany, and the United States intervene in a humanitarian crisis, but he felt that “Great Britain, whose responsibilities of empire are already too vast, might well play the most self-denying part” (Doyle 1909, 124). He accused Belgian usurpers of “an odious pretence of philanthropy” and concluded with a call to conscience, stating that “there should be some punishment for those who by their injustice and violence have dragged Christianity and civilization in the dirt” (126).

Colonial Menace

As Wilkie Collins had done in his GOTHIC novel The Moonstone (1868), Doyle's literary response to imperialism demonstrated his skepticism and anxiety toward colonial influence on the United Kingdom. In “A Study in Scarlet” (1887), the first of 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, Doyle sets an accusatory tone by characterizing London as “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistably drained” (Doyle 1960, 3). His next forays into colonial symbolism, the novels The Mystery of Cloomber (1889) and The Sign of Four (1890), depict superstitions and crime on the Indian subcontinent. He turned a swamp adder, India's most venomous reptile, into an instrument of death in “The Adventures of the Speckled Band” (1892). At a climactic revelation, Holmes sermonizes, “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another,” an intertextual message to British imperialists (272).

Doyle spread colonial doubts to settings in the Western Hemisphere. One of his four Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), imagines a phantom dog with macabre phosphorescent teeth as a test for Holmes's forensic skills. He connects strands of evidence to the villain Stapleton's sojourn in South America, where he devised an extortion plot. In “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (1924), the detective analyzes the apparently cannibalistic behavior of Robert Ferguson's Peruvian wife, a devotee of an alien religion who appears to suck blood from her infant son. To ensure objectivity, Holmes compartmentalizes logic from feeling and discloses that the Fergusons' 15-year-old son, Master Jacky, has been shooting poisoned darts at the baby and that Mrs. Ferguson rescues the infant by sucking out the toxin. Because of Doyle's suggestions of occultism, censors banned Sherlock Holmes stories from Russia in 1929.

It is obvious to most Holmes fans, however, that Doyle leaned more to realism than occultism. Sherlockiana juxtaposes imperial decadence with native diseases, madness, and poisons in a variety of places, primarily the British Isles but also with references to Afghanistan, Bohemia, Canada, China, Egypt, India, Italy, Japan, Poland, Napoleonic France, Russia, and Sumatra. Against a panoply of psychoses and opium dens in London, the Holmes- Watson investigations allude to enteritis in India, opium addiction in the Punjab and Malaya, curare

'll Dream of the Red Chamber

poisoning in South America, a jungle malaise in the Andaman Islands, yellow fever in Central America, and leprosy in South Africa. In The Sign of Four, the detective discourses on the miseries of Agra, India, with a recitation of ills from a 20-year prison sentence. The inmate survives incarceration “in a fever-ridden swamp, all day at work under the mangrove-tree, all night chained up in the filthy convict-huts, bitten by mosquitoes, racked with ague, bullied by every black-faced policeman who loved to take it out of a white man” (144). A gibe at colonial Dutch insensitivity in “His Last Bow” (1894) describes “a coolie disease from Sumatra—a thing that the Dutch know more about than we, though they have made little of it up to date” (933). In “The Dying Detective” (1894), Doyle enlarges on Tapanuli fever (septicemic melioidosis), one the mysterious diseases of Formosa that cause “many problems of disease, many strange pathological possibilities,” a suggestion of the unknowable pathogens of distant places (934).

For Doyle, a more insidious threat than contagion was spiritual corruption. In “The Reigate Puzzle” (1894), Dr. Watson introduces his partner Holmes's interest in the backwash caused by “The Netherland-Sumatra Company and the colossal schemes of Baron Maupertuis” (398), a covert hint at the author's distaste for the East India Company's sullied dealings and trade monopolies. “The Bascombe Valley Mystery” (1891) presents an Australian gang, led by Black Jack of Ballarat, as an unsubtle linkage between the colony of Victoria and rampant stickups and convoy robberies. Black Jack exults, “We got away with the gold, became wealthy men, and made our way to England without being suspected” (216), a condemnation of the English for harboring colonial criminals and exploiters. In perhaps Doyle's most damning moment, in “The ’Gloria Scott'” (1894), he summarizes the profiteering of the British in Australian goldfields, where justice is lax or nonexistent: “We prospered, we travelled, we came back as rich colonials to England, and we bought country houses” (385).


Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de

Siecle: Identity and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

New York: Bantam, 1960.

----- . The Crime of the Congo. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1909.

Harlow, Barbara, and Mia Carter, eds. Archives of Empire: The Scramble for Africa. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.

Wynne, Catherine. The Colonial Conan Doyle: British Imperialism, Irish Nationalism, and the Gothic. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2004.