The Elephant in the Room

On the ninetieth anniversary of the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as the Black Lives Matter movement sweeps across America like an East wind, it seems like a good time to address the question: Was Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Watson racist? Should Holmes’s statue be taken down from public places?
It is undeniable that in “The Adventure of the Three Gables” (1926), Holmes remarks to Steve Dixie, evidently a Black boxer, that “I don’t like the smell of you” (though this may be literally true) and makes fun of what Watson calls “his hideous mouth” (though that too may be literally true, the result of too many punches in the face). Dixie speaks with a caricature of a Black man’s voice, and Holmes remarks on his “woolly head.” But–in Holmes’s defense–the man was a criminal, apparently mixed up in a murder, and the boxing world in general was not held in high repute. When Dixie appears in the rooms of Holmes and Watson to threaten them with his fists, we certainly couldn’t expect Holmes to treat him with respect. Nonetheless, the air of the Canon would be sweeter without the scene.
On the other hand, we must not overlook the story of “The Yellow Face” (1893), in which Holmes aids a client whose wife, Effie Munro, has concealed her previous marriage to a Black man and their child (described as a “coal-black negress”). There is not a word expressed by Holmes or Watson suggesting any untoward reaction to the situation or the child, and Watson describes the client, Grant Munro, as a good man who does not hesitate to embrace the child as his own. While there is a bit of a congratulatory air to the tale (“Look how tolerant I am!”), it is hard to expect more in Victorian London.
Watson is also charged with racism for remarking, in The Sign of Four (1890), that the natives of the Andaman Islands were “naturally hideous.” However, Watson relied on a gazetteer read aloud by Holmes which stated expressly that the natives “are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features,” and later, Tonga, the Islander who is Jonathan Small’s companion, exactly fits that description. Now, we are unable to find such a gazetteer nor any similar description in other sources, and so we must conclude that the description was fictitious, invented by Watson for narrative purposes and crafted retroactively to suit the actual appearance of the Islander Tonga. In short, Tonga was in fact hideous, and Watson (perhaps without any research of his own) decided to put into Holmes’s mouth the words of a fictional book suggesting that the racial characteristics of the Andaman Islanders were those of Tonga himself. Why did he do so? We can only speculate that he wanted to heighten the fear induced by the idea of Tonga prowling around London. He achieved this by invoking the stereotype of a tribe of cannibalistic “others” held in check by the representatives of the Empire.
Watson, it will be recalled, was an ex-soldier. He had been wounded in a war begun by a native population suppressed by the British Empire. He was on the wrong side of that war by modern standards, but he was doing his patriotic duty. Can we reasonably expect that the young doctor would refuse to serve, refuse to support his Queen? But let’s look a little closer at The Sign of Four. This is a story about White men–English soldiers–who, together with native soldiers–decided to commit a great robbery, stealing a nation’s treasure, and then turned on each other. There were no “good guys” among the “Four,” and all of them essentially got what they deserved. In other words, despite Watson himself clearly being on the side of the Empire, he decided to tell a story about corruption and evil in the ranks of that Empire.
Conan Doyle himself was also a “mixed bag” of opinions and prejudices. How can we explain his true sympathy for the plights of George Edalji and Oscar Slater, both “foreigners” facing serious charges resulting in no small part from their “foreignness”? His hard work to bring about justice for the Congo? His devoted support of the National Divorce Reform Union? And yet–his opposition to women’s suffrage?
Did you think that there would be a clear answer? Holmes, Watson, and Doyle were men of their age–struggling for justice and, at the same time, struggling to overcome their own bone-deep cultural training. This is not to excuse the attitudes and prejudices of the age. Victorian England was not a good place or time to be a person of color or a woman. But if we can’t understand the struggles of that time and place, we can’t learn to be better. Holmes, Watson, and Doyle all surely would have agreed with the motto of the detective Harry Bosch, expressed 100 years later by Michael Connelly: “Everyone counts or no one counts.”


  1. Warren Randall on July 8, 2020 at 11:31 am

    Well said

  2. MJohn Sherwood on July 8, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks very much for this commentary!

  3. Bonnie MacBird on July 8, 2020 at 1:58 pm

    Good analysis, pulls no punches, and I agree that generally Doyle, and by extension his literary creations, were tolerant and fair minded men, trying, as you say to serve justice while living in a time and place much different from our own.

  4. David R. McCallister on July 8, 2020 at 3:24 pm

    And FIVE might be mentioned for the KKK references, and Openshaw’s aversion to black suffrage which precipitated his move back to the fogs of England and away from the charming climate of Florida ( ACD must have not been here in summer – or maybe he liked heat and humidity, not to mention hurricanes).
    By the time of the adventure, the KKK might well have been quite obscure- especially to Britons. Holmes was pictured as an avenging angel tracking the Lone Star down to Savannah. There are others, myself included who think Capt Calhoun was really doing some avenging of his own. Either way, Holmes comes off as a good guy who may not have understood the Southron as well as the Englishman.

  5. Chuck Kovacic on July 8, 2020 at 3:27 pm

    And so…there it is then.

  6. James O'Leary on July 12, 2020 at 2:11 pm

    You are right, Holmes, Watson and Doyle were men of their times. Even the most enlighten view of the English Victorian and Edwardian would probably be regarded as racist by today’s standards. Remember that the family magazine The Strand had no problem printing the n-word spoken by the unnamed inspector in “The Three Gables” in October 1926. I recommend Nils Clausson “Arthur Conan Doyle’s Art of Fiction; A Revaluation” for Doyle’s complex presentation of empire in and out of the Holmes stories. While Watson glimpse of Tonga from a distance in the twilight during a heart-pumping chase on the Thames matched (or may have been colored) by the fictitious gazetteer, Clausson points out the Jonathan Small’s assessment, “‘He was stanch and true, was little Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate,” to the behavior of Major Sholto “who is the epitome of British colonials behaving badly.” The depiction of racism in “The Three Gables” maybe more complex than a single reading would suggest: Watson, as depicted throughout the Canon, maybe, with his framed Beecher portrait and love-conquers-all view of the Monros, seen as an abolitionist; Holmes, with his past reference to Culvier and his assessment of Dixie as ” a harmless fellow, a great muscular, foolish, blustering baby, and easily cowed,” as a follower of race science, the pseudo-scientific belief in white race superiority, which was in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century; and the unnamed inspector who was a plain racist. Race and heredity (often referred to as “blood” as in “Art in the blood”) in the Canon are deeply convoluted and rooted in the history of Enlightenment science and thought, and a series of essays such as this could only scratch the surface.

  7. Lauren Cercone on July 23, 2020 at 5:10 am

    Thanks for this essay. The scene with Steve Dixie in 3GAB is indeed squirm-inducing, but the point that Holmes may have been reacting to the boxer more as a loutish criminal than as a Black man is well-taken. There are a good number of instances wherein Holmes is rude to Englishmen, royalty, suspects, and clients. It’s certainly not behavior he saved for POC.

  8. Nathalie Bretecher on July 24, 2020 at 2:53 am

    It also must be remembered that authors can’t escape the background of the time they live in. It was generally assumed in these days that colonisation by Europeans, and more specifically by Brits, was for the greater good of all humanity (see Rhodes and Kipling), a thought based upon the so-called “superiority” of “white men” who should share “civilisation” for “half devil and half child” people. As we say in French, “l’enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions” (I don’t know if “hell is paved with good feelings” exists in English)… Even in the protest for Congo Conan Doyle is shaped by this overwhelming background and it was, I guess, impossible to question it properly. Os course this, with the biological pseudo-science of the time, gives a bitter hint to Sherlock’s rationality, but any reasonable reader can react (I’ve always found the scene with the skull analysis in the beginning of Baskerville ridiculous), and we musn’t forget Sherlock as a hero of this rationality we need so much these days (to end with another French saying: “il ne faut pas jeter le bébé avec l’eau du bain”).

    • Sophie Handley on February 27, 2023 at 6:19 am

      This is a very good point, however I would like to mention that in “the Problem of the Three Students” Holmes argues against stereotypes which would be synonyms with science in the time.
      For any who don’t know the story, Holmes is employed by a university professor to find a student who has cheated on a test. There are three suspects: An upright English gent who plays on the sports teams and has noble family background, an Indian exchange student who is rather reclusive but not unfriendly, and a man who rarely goes out and often misses lectures.
      Holmes questions each of them and searches their rooms. The first chap is willing and answers all of Holmes’ questions willingly, the Indian chap answers just as easily but a bit more impatiently and is glad when they go and the unfriendly man won’t even see them.
      After Holmes and Watson leave Watson is telling Holmes how it is more likely to be the Indian student rather than the others, Holmes disputes him on every point: “[T]hat Indian was a sly fellow also. Why should he be pacing his room all the time?’ ‘There is nothing in that. Many men do it when they are trying to learn something by heart’ [said Holmes] ‘He looked at us in a queer way.’ [said Watson] ‘So would you if a flock of strangers came in on you while you were preparing for an examination the next day.”
      Naturally Holmes is defending the student because he’s not the guilty one (Spoiler: it was the first one, the fancy guy) but it would be very easy for Doyle to have made the guilty student the Indian one. As it is, Holmes uses his superior intellect to combat stereotypes, not uphold them as truth the way most would in the Victorian/Edwardian era

  9. Nils Clausson on November 1, 2022 at 6:10 pm

    Thank you, James, for recommending my analysis of Conan Doyle’s complex presentation of race and empire in his fiction. In this respect, he shares much with his contemporary, Joseph Conrad.

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