Although The Moonstone focuses on the eponymous Diamond’s theft and attempted recovery once it has reached England, it is telling that the novel proper is bookended by the stories of the Moonstone’s initial theft from its ceremonial position in India and ultimate return to that place. Even though the novel’s characters never travel to India and view the three Indian Brahmins who come to retrieve the Moonstone as sinister thieves, the novel is suffused with Collins’s sympathy for the Indian victims of British imperialism and tellingly ends with the Diamond being restored to its proper place—not pinned to Rachel Verinder’s dress, but in the statue of the moon God in the Somnauth temple. While Collins does not use The Moonstone to explicitly outline his political beliefs, his portrayal of Indians is remarkably sympathetic and progressive compared to his contemporaries’, which in turn suggests that he understood and sought to reveal the brutality and shortsightedness of British colonialism.
The Moonstone’s theft and return are a clear metaphor for the British plunder of India, which the novel presents in a way that was uncommon for Victorian England. The novel’s preface tells of “the wicked Colonel” John Herncastle’s involvement in the 1799 taking of Seringapatnam, a battle during which the British overthrew the powerful Indian princely state of Mysore. Collins shows the English as brutal and cruel, taking pleasure in murdering Indians and looting the palace treasury; Herncastle is even called “the Honourable John,” which was a colloquial term for the British East India Company. The Moonstone becomes a symbol of his excesses, and in turn British violence in India, something many of Collins’s contemporaries simply refused to acknowledge, preferring instead to believe that the Empire was India’s benevolent protector.
When the Moonstone arrives in England, Franklin Blake and Gabriel Betteredge immediately learn about its apparent curse—the product of both the stone’s value and the three Indian Brahmins’ tireless attempts to return it to India. While the British talk about this curse as a mystical legend, to Indians it is simply a practical attempt to undo the plunder done by English (and other foreign) invaders. The stone’s real-life counterparts, such as the Koh-i-Noor and Orloff Diamond in the Russian Imperial Sceptre, have also been stolen under suspicious or downright unlawful circumstances from India and left in the possession of powerful overseas interests centuries later. Collins carefully ties the details of the Moonstone’s theft back to the reality of British colonial exploitation at every stage, using the Diamond’s backstory to reveal the history of the British Empire.
At the same time, many of Collins’s characters see Indians as at once exotic, backwards savages and cunning, mystical rogues. This exemplifies common European stereotypes about India and highlights the mindset Britons used to justify colonizing peoples they considered lesser than themselves. For instance, Franklin Blake cites British anthropological studies of “Oriental races” to support his speculation about why the Indians somehow value their Diamond more whole than cut up into smaller diamonds, even though to the Indians it would be strange to destroy and divide something so beautiful and valuable. At the same time, Betteredge berates Franklin for his foreign education and everyone’s distrust in Ezra Jennings seems to relate to his mixed racial background, itself a product of British colonialism. Collins invokes stereotypes in order to bash them; while his British characters are baffled and frightened by any trace of foreignness, his non-British characters reveal the foolishness in their counterparts’ stereotyping and xenophobia.
In fact, Collins shows the Indians as intelligent and sophisticated, contradicting most of his countrymen’s prejudices and betraying his critical view of Empire. When one of the three Indian Brahmins visits Mr. Bruff in his office, Bruff is astonished at the man’s “excellent” English, his unparalleled manners, and the fact that (unlike nearly all Englishmen) “he respected my time.” While the protagonists are delighted to have the Anglo-Indian traveler Mr. Murthwaite translate for them and help them understand Indian culture, the Indians already know far more about the English people and outsmart them at every turn. They are always one step ahead of the protagonists: they find out that the Diamond is in London first and immediately search Godfrey Ablewhite, who the reader only finds out to have been the thief some 200 pages later. Indeed, when the Indians search Godfrey and Mr. Luker for the Diamond, they leave “an ancient Oriental manuscript, richly illuminated with Indian figures and devices, […] open to inspection on a table” and attack the men while they are entranced with the book. The Indians are astute enough to self-consciously evoke stereotypes in order to get the Englishmen to stop in their tracks.
In the book’s closing passage, Mr. Murthwaite discovers the Moonstone being returned to its rightful place during a mass pilgrimage to Somnauth, a surreal episode that is clearly part of the book’s happy ending—just as the Verinder family has resolved its conflicts, the return of the Moonstone to its rightful owners is a sign that the world has returned to its proper, balanced order. Wilkie Collins likely could not have openly come out against the British Empire in his book—after all, Britain had crushed India in the infamous First Indian War of Independence a decade before, and prominent intellectuals like Collins’s friend Charles Dickens openly advocated genocide in India. In Collins’s time, to celebrate the Moonstone’s return to India—indeed, to celebrate India’s victory over Britain in any respect—was incredibly radical, and Collins gets away with it only because the Diamond was “cursed” (by British colonialism) while on British soil. While the involvement of India may have only added a level of exotic intrigue for many Victorian readers, and while it is difficult to precisely track Collins’s political beliefs, his very willingness to depict the senseless brutality of British violence in India and write noble, intelligent, and honorable Indian characters shows that he saw the issue in a far more complex light than most of his contemporaries.
British Imperialism ThemeTracker
British Imperialism Quotes in The Moonstone
The Moonstone will have its vengeance yet on you and yours!
When the Christian hero of a hundred charitable victories plunges into a pitfall that has been dug for him by mistake, oh, what a warning it is to the rest of us to be unceasingly on our guard! How soon may our own evil passions prove to be Oriental noblemen who pounce on us unawares!
“In the name of the Regent of the Night, whose seat is on the Antelope, whose arms embrace the four corners of the earth.
Brothers, turn your faces to the south, and come to me in the street of many noises, which leads down to the muddy river.
The reason is this.
My own eyes have seen it.”
If the excellent Betteredge had been present while I was considering that question, and if he had been let into the secret of my thoughts, he would, no doubt, have declared that the German side of me was, on this occasion, my uppermost side. To speak seriously, it is perhaps possible that my German training was in some degree responsible for the labyrinth of useless speculations in which I now involved myself. For the greater part of the night, I sat smoking, and building up theories, one more profoundly improbable than another. When I did get to sleep, my waking fancies pursued me in dreams. I rose the next morning, with Objective-Subjective and Subjective-Objective inextricably entangled together in my mind; and I began the day which was to witness my next effort at practical action of some kind, by doubting whether I had any sort of right (on purely philosophical grounds) to consider any sort of thing (the Diamond included) as existing at all.
The curtain between the trees was drawn aside, and the shrine was disclosed to view.
There, raised high on a throne—seated on his typical antelope, with his four arms stretching towards the four corners of the earth—there, soared above us, dark and awful in the mystic light of heaven, the god of the Moon. And there, in the forehead of the deity, gleamed the yellow Diamond, whose splendour had last shone on me in England, from the bosom of a woman's dress!
Yes! after the lapse of eight centuries, the Moonstone looks forth once more, over the walls of the sacred city in which its story first began. How it has found its way back to its wild native land—by what accident, or by what crime, the Indians regained possession of their sacred gem, may be in your knowledge, but is not in mine. You have lost sight of it in England, and (if I know anything of this people) you have lost sight of it for ever.
So the years pass, and repeat each other; so the same events revolve in the cycles of time. What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone? Who can tell!