Since today is Martin Luther King Day, and I'm currently reading The Sign of Four, it occurred to me that it would be appropriate to write just a bit about the treatment of race in the Holmes stories. Of course, the issues of race and racism don't come up all that much in the canon, as most of the characters are Englishmen (and Englishwomen). But Arthur Conan Doyle was a man of his time, so it makes me, as a modern reader, a bit uncomfortable to read the descriptions in The Sign of Four of the "savage" Tonga. The gazetteer that Holmes consults refers to the Andaman Islanders as "naturally hideous" and accuses them cannibalism, which apparently is completely untrue.
When I was young, right around the same time I discovered the Holmes stories, I also devoured the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. (On a related note, I recently acquired a Kindle edition of a Philip Jose Farmer novel that teamed up Holmes, Watson and Tarzan, called The Peerless Peer.) Burroughs, writing in America right around the same time as Conan Doyle was writing in England, often referred to the African natives as "savages," who were naturally bloodthirsty cannibals. And, although the Lord of the Jungle befriended a tribe of African natives who were somehow more noble than the other tribes, Burroughs' racism is sometimes embarrassing.
To be fair to Sir Arthur, though, I also recently reread "The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips," and the KKK is certainly not portrayed in a positive light. Holmes seems indifferent as to the Klan's attitude towards "negroes," but the KKK are portrayed quite plainly as villains. So, perhaps we must simply accept that this is part of the "time travel" of reading stories set over a hundred years ago. Certain attitudes and practices were so different from the "progressiveness" of our world today. And yet the stories still speak to us, so perhaps we can be forgiving of the cultural blindness that sometimes rears its ugly head, and appreciate the good attributes of Holmes, Watson and company all the more.
I'm a stay-at-home dad, and Director of Music Ministries at a United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, TN. And a longtime fan of Sherlock Holmes.