Over 120 years after Sherlock Holmes' novel, the racist stereotype of the savage Andamanese persists.

The revelations in the U.K. newspaper The Observer that police have been complicit in the “human safaris” in the Andamans was truly disturbing but to close readers of the novels and short stories about fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, the news that Andamanese have been made to dance in return for money and food won't come entirely as a surprise.

In the second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, published in 1890, Holmes pursues a mysterious murderer and his one-legged accomplice across London. The murderer turns out to be from the Andamans, a man named Tonga, who Holmes and his sidekick Watson end up shooting after a tense chase down the River Thames.

“We earned a living at this time by my exhibiting poor Tonga at fairs and other such places as the black cannibal,” the one-legged man tells Holmes and Watson towards the end, speaking about his earlier life before Tonga was killed. “He would eat raw meat and dance his war-dance: so we always had a hatful of pennies after a day's work.”

The reader's first glimpse of Tonga is a hairy, “wild, fierce face” with “wild cruel eyes and an expression of concentrated malevolence” staring at them through a window. From that and other evidence, including poisoned darts, a stone mace and splayed toes, Holmes and Watson work out who he is: “A savage!”

“The aborigines are a fierce, morose, and intractable people,” reads Holmes, after looking up “Andaman Islands” in a book. “They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small fierce eyes, and distorted features. So intractable and fierce are they, that all the efforts of the British officials have failed to win them over in any degree.”

Holmes' and Watson's own impressions are no more enlightened. “That face was enough to give a man a sleepless night,” Watson says of Tonga. “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 half animal fury.”

Why is this nonsense even worth drawing attention to? Mainly because these sorts of descriptions reinforce ignorant, racist stereotypes of indigenous peoples which are then exploited by governments and companies to steal their land, or mislead members of the public into trying to spot these “wild” and “bestial” people while on holiday — ergo the “human safaris.”

2010 article and concern

Here's an excellent example. In 2010 the U.K. newspaper Sunday Times published an article about a trip to the Andamans by Andrew Lycett, a British writer, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and the recent author of a biography of the man who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle.

In his article, Lycett is very open about what he plans to do. Even though he acknowledges that it is forbidden, his intention is to join a tour group, enter the reserve belonging to the Jarawa, and then make contact with these supposedly “fierce aboriginal people,” as he calls them, whom he read about in The Sign of Four.

“Then, suddenly, I saw him, a solitary ebony figure, standing stock-still on one leg, naked but for a cache-sexe in vivid maroon thread, and clutching a rudimentary bow and arrow,” Lycett writes of the first Jarawa man he spots, while sitting in a Sumo with other tourists. “He looked for all the world like a pygmy version of a Masai warrior …”

The NGO, Survival International, first expressed concerns about “human safaris” in the Andamans in 2010, six months before Lycett's article appeared. In a letter to the Sunday Times in response, Survival's director, Stephen Corry, slammed Lycett and said it was “hard to imagine a more irresponsible piece of journalism.”

“Mr. Lycett is parroting the same outdated stereotypes which were responsible for the decimation of the tribes' population under colonial rule,” Corry wrote. “After all, why trouble oneself with the welfare of people who clearly belong in the past? Anyone interested in the Jarawa as people, rather than curiosities in some literary quest, will leave them in peace in their reserve.”

So what has changed? Over 120 years since The Sign of Four's publication, the same ignorant, insulting stereotypes about the Andaman Islanders are being trotted out and they still find themselves treated like animals at a zoo — or on safari. The publisher Penguin calls The Sign of Four “classic fiction,” but “colonialist fantasy” would be more accurate.

(David Hill is a writer and journalist. Website: www.hilldavid.com)

More In: Comment | Opinion