Sherlock Holmes, Doyle and issues of race

51f+gYsr9pL._SL500_AA300_A new Sherlock Holmes story makes me turn back to the original canon and think about Conan Doyle’s attitudes towards issues of race.

I’ve just finished reading Anomalous by Samuel Williams Jr. It is, I believe, the first Sherlock Holmes novel written by an African American and features the characters of Al Capone and black American boxer Jack Johnson. It’s a very enjoyable, fast-paced read with excellent use of characters from the original works – boxer Steve Dixie and Lucy Hebron being the highlights.

Williams has cleverly taken the character of Lucy from The Yellow Face and worked her into this new adventure. In the original story, Lucy is a mixed-race child hidden away by her white mother who fears losing her new, white, husband if the truth is revealed. In this story, Doyle shows a very forward-thinking, sensitive view of interracial marriage and the result is a heart-warming tale which remains one of my favourites. Upon discovering the truth, the new husband scoops the child into his arms and accepts her completely.

The Yellow Face does seem to be a bit of an exception though. Throughout the rest of the canon, stereotypical views of ‘foreigners’ are largely upheld.

Upon meeting black ruffian Steve Dixie, Holmes has the following interaction with him:

“I’ve wanted to meet you for some time,” said Holmes. “I won’t ask you to sit down, for I don’t like the smell of you, but aren’t you Steve Dixie, the bruiser?”

“That’s my name, Masser Holmes, and you’ll get put through it for sure if you give me any lip.”

It is certainly the last thing you need,” said Holmes, staring at our visitor’s hideous mouth’.

Reading this with modern eyes, the racism is clear. Likewise with Holmes’ description of Tonga and his people, aborigines from the Andaman Islands, taken from The Sign of Four –

‘They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small fierce eyes and distorted features,’ continuing to add, ‘They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining their survivors with their stone headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast’. 

Of course, the reader must remember the times in which the stories were written, times which were far less enlightened than our own.

Anomalous cleverly examines these attitudes – with Watson clearly representing the traditional, colonial view. Lucy Hebron is now 35 years old and talks of her difficulties fitting in to such a rigid society. Steve Dixie is wonderfully fleshed-out and developed well beyond the stereotypical bruiser. If Doyle were writing today, perhaps this is more the direction he would have taken. He was certainly a free-thinker and able to explore beyond conventional ideas – his later devotion to spiritualism demonstrates that.

So was Doyle racist or simply a product of his time? I really don’t profess to be an expert on Doyle and there are many out there who are, so I’ll tread carefully here. He was certainly a colonialist and strong supporter of the Boer War. The conduct of the British was widely condemned around the world but Doyle wrote a pamphlet entitled – ‘The War In South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct’ to justify the United Kingdom’s role. Was he racist or perhaps just patriotic?

The two people who Doyle put his reputation on the line to protect from injustice were not white British. He took great personal risk to champion their cause and clearly saw only the pursuit of justice, not the ethnic background of the accused, as paramount. George Edalji was a half-Indian Lawyer wrongly accused of brutality towards animals and Oscar Slater a German Jew accused of battering an 82 year old woman. Thanks to Doyle’s efforts he was acquitted.

Could a truly racist man have risked so much to defend two men of such different backgrounds to his own? And could a truly racist man have written The Yellow Face with such touching sentimentality. Personally, I think not. Holder of some questionable racist attitudes, yes – a truly racist man through and through – not in my opinion.

About barefootonbakerstreet

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10 Responses to Sherlock Holmes, Doyle and issues of race

  1. Patrick Kincaid says:

    Some years ago I read an account of Conan Doyle’s meeting with the US consul to Liberia Henry Garnet. Doyle was a ships surgeon and treated Garnet, if I remember rightly. Doyle was amazed to think that one who was so intelligent and articulate had once been a slave – it appalled him. I think he writes about it ‘Memories and Adventures’, and that Owen Dudley Edwards gives it a lot of space in his biography of Doyle (but I don’t have either to hand, so I can’t check!). It was an epiphany that fed into his powerful (if unsubtle) story of an ex-slave’s revenge, ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’.

    I remember being embarrassed by the presentation of Steve Dixie when I first read that story – and puzzled that it could come after both The Yellow Face and The Five Orange Pips. But Doyle is generally less embarrassing in this way than many of his peers – you have to swallow a lot of racism with your John Buchan, for instance…

    • Thanks for sharing that interesting account. I think, overall, Doyle was quite forward-thinking in his views but was heavily influenced by the conventions of the age. Being British at a time when Britain ruled so much of the world, did give Victorians a strong sense of superiority.

  2. Ship's Cook says:

    It’s worth remembering that the Boer war was fought against the white descendents of Dutch settlers and not the indiginous people of South Africa.

    • I admit that my knowledge of history leaves a lot to be desired! But I did think that the black population of South Africa were also involved in the conflict. Apologies if i’ve got that wrong.

      • Ship's Cook says:

        I’m not trying to obscure that fact that the UK did some pretty objectionable things in the name of Empire, but the Boar War was in modern parlance a white on white conflict,

      • I suppose you can argue that racism isn’t just between people of different colour skins – it comes in many forms – Hitler and the Jews for example. I suppose what I was trying to say (probably not very well as usual!) was that by supporting colonialism, Doyle could be seen as racist. Generally, I think we now see empire building as a rather racist/unfair thing and likewise those who support it.

  3. I think you should read up on the period a little more. In his books, articles and pamphlets on the conflict in South Africa Conan Doyle defended Britain’s reputation against many slanders that it suited other European countries to put about to serve their own political agendas. Britain was a colonial power yes but so was France and others.

    I’m not saying Britain had clean hands (so to speak) but other countries talked up the bad things to suit themselves. It is for this reason that Conan Doyle actively involved himself in the process of getting his “pamphlet” (it is actually more of a book) translated and sent to many countries throughout the world. The press in many countries reported on the book and how it had changed their opinions and how they were no longer so quick to believe the opinions of Britain’s opponents. It did not make everyone fall into line behind Britain (that was never its intention) but it went a long way to neutralising some of the falsehoods.

    Furthermore, while Conan Doyle defended Britain he also defended the Boers against unpleasant accusations made against them in the press. His book The Great Boer War (which he constantly updated to be as true as he could make it) and his letters to the press frequently drew attention the the honourable way that he felt the Boers were fighting.

    With regards to Steve Dixie. You cannot take the words ACD puts into his character’s mouths as indications of his own opinions. He also wrote about murder and fraud but it hardly means he condoned either does it? His writing reflected his time and, as you pointed out, he went to great pains to battle injustice against people, perceived by others rather than him, as not “one of us”.

    Finally, I would refer you to following poem written by Doyle:

    “To an Undiscerning Critic

    Sure there are times when one cries with acidity,
    ‘Where are the limits of human stupidity?’
    Here is a critic who says as a platitude
    That I am guilty because ‘in ingratitude
    Sherlock, the sleuth-hound, with motives ulterior,
    Sneers at Poe’s Dupin as very “inferior”.’
    Have you not learned, my esteemed commentator,
    That the created is not the creator?

    As the creator I’ve praised to satiety
    Poe’s Monsieur Dupin, his skill and variety,
    And have admitted that in my detective work
    I owe to my model a deal of selective work.
    But it is not on the verge of inanity
    To put down to me my creation’s crude vanity?
    He, the created, would scoff and would sneer,
    Where I, the creator, would bow and revere.
    So please grip this face with your cerebral tentacle:
    The doll and its maker are never identical.

    • Thank you for your informative comments. You are absolutely right – the words Holmes and other fictional characters speak do not automatically represent the views of the person who created them. I just made a stereotypical assumption, presuming that those sentiments would be the norm for a gentleman such as Doyle in that period.

      The poem is wonderful and was used in my favourite story in Sherlock’s Home – The Doll and His Maker by Patrick Kincaid.

  4. Young Kid says:

    The dominant ideology of colonizing powers during this time period was paternalism – the idea that people of color (even if they were not indigenous to a colonized country) were less civilized than white people. They therefore were less capable of taking care of themselves, as the popular idea went, and this helped to justify colonizing as ‘civilizing missions’. This attitude became popularized in America near the very end of slavery, with slave masters arguing that they were taking care of and civilizing slaves, and abolitionists arguing that black people could not become properly ‘civilized’ in slavery. As you can see, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ sides used this argument – in fact, some abolitionists actively argued against the black vote, because they did not trust them.
    This general attitude could explain the discrepancies – Watson is forgiving and protective (one might even say paternal) when discussing Lucy, but insulting when discussing the boxer. I think this reflects the feeling of the need to protect, but the simultaneous fear of ‘savagery’ that existed side by side under paternalism. (Another thought – many times, racist actions are born from fear. Since Lucy is a little girl, there is no need to be afraid of her. A huge boxer, however, might inspire more fear.)

    • I do think it’s important to view the stories in the context of the period they were written and you’ve summed up the attitudes of the time very well. Slavery was such a shameful thing, how shocking it is now to our modern minds and thank goodness!

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