The Sign of Four or The Sign of Foreign? How Colonialism Divides “Us vs. Them” on a Global Scale


Today’s Sherlock stars (because I love these two so much, ugh, my little fandom heart)

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson embark on a quest to locate a treasure in the clutches of a British officer gone rogue and an Andaman native. While it seems as though Sherlock and Watson are indeed only facing these two foes, what’s consistently lurking in the subtext of this mystery-adventure is the grander (suggested) antagonist of Britishness as they knew it: the threat of the uncultured foreigner, in this tale best represented in the character of Tonga.

Indigenous to the “Andaman Islands, situated 340 miles to the north of Sumatra, in the Bay of Bengal,” Tonga belongs to “a fierce, morose, and intractable people” who are “naturally hideous, according to the gazetteer Sherlock consults (141-142). At the time, the Andamans themselves were under control of the British Empire and housed convict barracks that allowed British criminals to mingle with what were believed to be savage natives (savage being a perspective held by British colonialists).

Out of curiosity, I Googled the Andaman Islands and found that even in 1850, the aborigines of these islands were divided into five major groups, each quite distinct. However, there is no such detail given in the gazetteer that Sherlock uses. Moreover, Tonga was itself at the time a geographic location, as it was a series of Polynesian islands conducted as a kingdom (after missionaries arrived there, it was a constitutional monarchy). For Tonga the character to be named after another foreign land that experienced British influence is rather unsettling and revealing, for it demonstrates how Tonga the character seems to be merely an insubstantial tool utilized only to emphasize the menace that is the foreigner.


The Andaman Islands


A modern member of the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands

Of course, the story is not without contradictions and colonial ambiguities. Unlike with the Andaman aborigines where, according to Sherlock’s gazetteer, “all the efforts of the British officials have failed to win them over in any degree,” the British-foreigner dynamic appears to exist non-threateningly with Thaddeus Sholto and his “Hindoo servant” and Major Sholto and his servant Lal Chowdar (107). While there is no description of the relationship between Thaddeus and his servant, Major Sholto’s account to his son describes how Lal Chowdar so willingly helped his master dispose of a dead body, demonstrating a British-foreigner relation in which the foreign is an asset, not a danger. This stark contrast between the faithful foreign servant and the devilish Tonga suggests the fragmentation within British colonial strategies. The fact that peaceful, albeit hierarchical, relationships can be forged with some colonial subjects but not with the physically deformed and irrevocably wild natives like Tonga demonstrate a failure in colonialism–that of the inability to convert and civilize non-British peoples.

That Conan Doyle acknowledges the flaws within colonialism is notable, but the fact that Tonga dies at the hands of two British men (who themselves have ties to foreign sort-of-threats–Watson with his former army life and Sherlock with his Oriental cocaine usage) demonstrates an innate belief in and desire for British triumph. Watson writes, “[e]ven as we looked he plucked out from under his covering a short, round piece of wood, like a school-ruler, and clapped it to his lips. Our pistols rang out together. He whirled round, threw up his arms” and fell into the Thames a dead man (155). In such a brief account of Tonga’s death, Conan Doyle imbues it with multiple images of Englishness and victory. That Tonga’s poison dart weaponry is compared to a very scholastic “school-ruler” echoes the formal education that proper British children do but native islanders such as Tonga do not. Moreover, that Tonga “threw up his arms” as he fell is a final gesture of surrender–that is, the foreign surrender to British power. Not only do Sherlock and Watson kill Tonga, but they do so with pistols, a modern form of mechanized weaponry that starkly contrasts the primitive poison darts kept by an aborigine. For the “little black man” to be lost to the “white swirl of the waters” reveals the token white vs. black binary that no longer automatically referred to the “black” slum-goers of London, but to the “black” figure of non-British lands (155-156).

Although Tonga dies in the end of this tale, the fact that he lies buried in the Thames underscores the one of the disconcerting elements of British colonialism. Despite the immense hold the British Empire enjoyed over foreign lands, the eternal presence of one within the waters of a quintessentially British staple that is the Thames suggests the diminishing authority of the colonizers. The so-called foreign threat penetrated British boundaries and permeated the English culture in such a way that metaphorical enemy lines shifted from the us vs. them of proper vs. uncivilized Englishfolk to the us vs. them of British vs. non-British, and is this metaphorical enemy that shaped British history for decades to come.


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