The Sign of the Four is the second story in the world-famous Sherlock Holmes detective fiction series. The novella is set in the late nineteenth century, a time when the British Empire was immensely powerful and wide reaching under the reign of Queen Victoria. The Empire is a significant presence in the book, both informing the particular details of the mysterious story, which are centered around the Agra treasure hidden in British-controlled India, and in the attitudes of its central characters, who portray a racist attitude towards “the East,” considering it a place of intrigue and suspicion. While setting the story within the Imperialist context is a deliberate move on Arthur Conan Doyle’s part, the racist attitudes are more likely a reflection of the times rather than an attempt on the author’s part to offer any implicit critique.
The first key way in which The Sign of the Four reflects the Imperialist mindset is in the plot itself. The story revolves around the Agra treasure, a bedazzling array of jewels that originates in India. This association of “the East” with luxury and riches ripe for the picking is typically Imperial; for the British Empire and its subjects, “the East” was a place of mystery and luxury. The treasure at the heart of the story originally belongs to an Indian rajah (a prince-like figure), and neither the thieves nor Sherlock Holmes ever consider whether the treasure should be returned to its original owner. Instead, Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson, try to track it down in order to give it to Miss Morstan. Her father, Captain Morstan, was involved in the second stage of the original theft (the first was Jonathan Small and three Sikh soldiers). If Holmes and Watson can find the treasure, Miss Morstan will be rich for life. In this way, then, the story itself mimics the power dynamic at play during the British Empire. That is, foreign lands like India were plundered for their riches, considered fair game because they were populated by inferior peoples. Of course, this is a simplified account of a complicated state of affairs, but the general operation of infrastructures like the British East India Company saw the exploitation of resources from “the East” for the Empire’s gain.
The novella also embodies problematic imperialist ideas about race and superiority. In essence, those from “the East” are seen as inferior to those from the West, and are frequently presented as morally treacherous, intellectually defective, and savage. This is not limited solely to “the East,” but extends to black people throughout the book. Imperialist attitudes toward race are best exemplified through the character of Tonga. He is a native of the Andaman Islands and described as a “black cannibal.” Of Tonga, Watson says, “never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty,” and describes him as “half-animal.” There is a clear link here between Tonga’s blackness and his “otherness”— he is typecast as an evil, inferior human. This reflects the dominant Eurocentric attitude of the British Empire, which views the “other” as distrustful and morally compromised in comparison to the Western man. Though frequent mention is made of Tonga, at no point in the novella does he speak. In that sense, the way in which he is disenfranchised reflects the attitude of the British colonizers to the peoples they colonized. Tonga is further dehumanized when, in the last chapter, the imprisoned Jonathan Small tells his life story. He explains his relationship to Tonga: “He was staunch and true, was little Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate.” The relationship between Tonga and Small is portrayed as more like that between man and dog than two human beings. The central role of “Tonga” as the novella’s main source of evil, then, is highly troublesome for a contemporary reader. It’s important to remember the context in which the book was written, in which the problematic attitudes above were much more entrenched and expected.
But it isn’t just Tonga who typifies the racist attitudes within the novella. Practically any mention of non-white people appears in a negative and demeaning light. Jonathan Small discusses the existence of the treasure with Captain Morstan and Major Sholto, as told during the last chapter’s recollection. Jonathan Small was originally part of a group with three Indian men—whom Doyle mistakenly gives Arabic names—that hatched a plan to seize the treasure. He wants to remain loyal to his other partners, but Major Sholto can’t see why. He asks, “What have three black fellows to do with our agreement?” Being black, then, is seen as inherently inferior to being white. Though these words come from a particular character’s mouth—and the novella as a whole is told by Watson—they are fundamentally uncomfortable for a modern reader. Though problems relating to Empire and Imperialism are rife through the book, they serve as an accurate reflection of the times and give the reader a sense of the Victorian mentality.
Empire and Imperialism ThemeTracker
Empire and Imperialism Quotes in The Sign of the Four
"Your servant, Miss Morstan," he kept repeating, in a thin, high voice. "Your servant, gentlemen. Pray step into my little sanctum. A small place, miss, but furnished to my own liking. An oasis of art in the howling desert of South London."
We were all astonished by the appearance of the apartment into which he invited us. In that sorry house it looked as out of place as a diamond of the first water in a setting of brass. The richest and glossiest of curtains and tapestries draped the walls, looped back here and there to expose some richly-mounted painting or Oriental vase. The carpet was of amber-and-black, so soft and so thick that the foot sank pleasantly into it, as into a bed of moss. Two great tiger-skins thrown athwart it increased the suggestion of Eastern luxury, as did a huge hookah which stood upon a mat in the corner. A lamp in the fashion of a silver dove was hung from an almost invisible golden wire in the centre of the room. As it burned it filled the air with a subtle and aromatic odor.
"'I have only one thing,” he said, “which weighs upon my mind at this supreme moment. It is my treatment of poor Morstan's orphan. The cursed greed which has been my besetting sin through life has withheld from her the treasure, half at least of which should have been hers. And yet I have made no use of it myself, so blind and foolish a thing is avarice. The mere feeling of possession has been so dear to me that I could not bear to share it with another. See that chaplet dipped with pearls beside the quinine-bottle. Even that I could not bear to part with, although I had got it out with the design of sending it to her. You, my sons, will give her a fair share of the Agra treasure. But send her nothing—not even the chaplet—until I am gone. After all, men have been as bad as this and have recovered.”
“Now, then, listen to this. 'They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features. Their feet and hands, however, are remarkably small. So intractable and fierce are they that all the efforts of the British official have failed to win them over in any degree. They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the survivors with their stone headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast.' Nice, amiable people, Watson!”
"It is a romance!" cried Mrs. Forrester. "An injured lady, half a million in treasure, a black cannibal, and a wooden-legged ruffian. They take the place of the conventional dragon or wicked earl."
"And two knight-errants to the rescue," added Miss Morstan, with a bright glance at me.
"Why, Mary, your fortune depends upon the issue of this search. I don't think that you are nearly excited enough. Just imagine what it must be to be so rich, and to have the world at your feet!"
It sent a little thrill of joy to my heart to notice that she showed no sign of elation at the prospect. On the contrary, she gave a toss of her proud head, as though the matter were one in which she took small interest.
At the sound of his strident, angry cries there was movement in the huddled bundle upon the deck. It straightened itself into a little black man—the smallest I have ever seen—with a great, misshapen head and a shock of tangled, dishevelled hair. Holmes had already drawn his revolver, and I whipped out mine at the sight of this savage, distorted creature. He was wrapped in some sort of dark ulster or blanket, which left only his face exposed; but that face was enough to give a man a sleepless night. Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty. His small eyes glowed and burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with a half animal fury.
“But it does seem a queer thing," he added, with a bitter smile, "that I who have a fair claim to nigh upon half a million of money should spend the first half of my life building a breakwater in the Andamans, and am like to spend the other half digging drains at Dartmoor. It was an evil day for me when first I clapped eyes upon the merchant Achmet and had to do with the Agra treasure, which never brought anything but a curse yet upon the man who owned it. To him it brought murder, to Major Sholto it brought fear and guilt, to me it has meant slavery for life."
Major Sholto was the hardest hit. He used to pay in notes and gold at first, but soon it came to notes of hand and for big sums. He sometimes would win for a few deals, just to give him heart, and then the luck would set in against him worse than ever. All day he would wander about as black as thunder, and he took to drinking a deal more than was good for him.
One night he lost even more heavily than usual. I was sitting in my hut when he and Captain Morstan came stumbling along on the way to their quarters. They were bosom friends, those two, and never far apart. The major was raving about his losses.
“It's all up, Morstan,” he was saying, as they passed my hut. “I shall have to send in my papers. I am a ruined man.”
“Well, Small,” said the major, “we must, I suppose, try and meet you. We must first, of course, test the truth of your story. Tell me where the box is hid, and I shall get leave of absence and go back to India in the monthly relief-boat to inquire into the affair.”
“Not so fast,” said I, growing colder as he got hot. “I must have the consent of my three comrades. I tell you that it is four or none with us.”
“Nonsense!” he broke in. “What have three black fellows to do with our agreement?”
“Black or blue,” said I, “they are in with me, and we all go together.”