Donald Zaldin, BSI, ASH: The Sherlockian Durbar Room of Arthur Conan Doyle

Donny Zaldin is a member of The Bootmakers of Toronto (The Sherlock Holmes Society of Canada), the Baker Street Irregulars, The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Over the past quarter-century, he has contributed as author and editor to numerous Sherlockian books, journals and websites (including Canon Law, the Sherlock Holmes Journal, the Baker Street Journal, Canadian Holmes, The Magic Door, and “” He is a retired barrister-at-law and is married to his own “certain gracious lady,” Barbara Rusch, with whom he shares six children and fifteen grandchildren.


The colonial history and geography of the British Empire provided recurring “canon fodder” for locales and characters in the adventures, exploits and memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Foreign countries included America, Canada, Australia, South Africa and India.

 This essay details and examines Conan Doyle’s references to India  and “all things Indian” in the Canon; and, how and why in the year 1890, ACD created a Durbar Room in The Sign of Four in the style of the magnificent Durbar Room which Queen Victoria built at Osborne House in the same year.


The British East India Company

In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I created the Company by Royal Charter, which granted a monopoly in perpetuity of all English trade to Asia. Led by soldier and privateer Robert Clive, the Company turned its focus from trade to territory and by 1803, the colossus boasted its own currency, a private navy and a private army — allowing it to exercise military, political and economic control over most of British India.

The East India Company extended its dominance over the subcontinent for another half-century until the mid-1800s, laying the foundation of British rule for a further 100 years. In the process, it annexed by military means more territory than all of Napoleon’s conquests in Europe. During that time, the interests of the company and country were placed head and shoulders above those of India and its indigenous populations — which fomented the development of Indian nationalism. In 1848, Governor General Lord Dalhousie was quoted, “In India one is always sitting on a volcano,” which figurative geographic feature erupted on April 14, 1857.


The 1857 Indian

“Mutiny” / ‘Rebellion”


The Armed Conflict of 1857-58

After 250 years of exploitation, Indian soldiers and civilians raised arms against the British. The armed struggle — which Britain calls “The Indian (or Sepoy) Mutiny” and India calls the “The Indian Rebellion” — lasted fourteen months, concluding with the sound defeat of the native inhabitants. About 7,500 British lives were lost versus a staggering 800,000 soldiers and civilians on the Indian side, in the uprising and ensuing famines.


Resultant Transfer of India from the Company to the Crown

In the following year, 1858, direct rule by the British Crown was substituted for that of the Company.

In the 1880s, High Court Justice Sir James Fitzjames Stephen Q.C., formerly a Member of the Council of India, stated that empire had to be “absolute” in order to achieve “its great and characteristic task … of imposing [British interests] on Indian ways of life and modes of thought” — which statement epitomised the government and civilian sentiment. However, the Government moderated somewhat its political, social and economic rule via consultation between the mother country and her colonial child; and India benefited from this transfer of power from private to national hands, although it took another century until Britain granted full independence to India, which encompassed one-seventh of the world population.


“The Jewel in the Crown”

The 18th century saw India’s vast population provide Britain with a plentiful source of cheap labour and an abundant supply of soldiers for its military, raw materials for its industrial revolution, opium for trade, cash crops for its economy, spices, jewels and textiles for British consumers, and a burgeoning market for its manufactured goods. The British Empire was transformed from relatively self-governing Atlantic communities to financially lucrative Asian territories — laying the foundation of its modern colonial empire, and producing an epochal shift in the balance of world power.

By the mid-nineteenth century, India was regarded as “The Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, known as the Raj. This gemmological accolade was coined by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who proclaimed Queen Victoria by statute as “Empress of India” in 1876.


PM Disraeli offering Queen Victoria

the Crown of India and title “Empress of India”

Punch Magazine, April 15, 1876


This prestigious title of the “Jewel,” due to India’s raw natural resources and its strategic location, produced immense profits and wealth to the Empire upon which the sun never set, and propelled Britain to become the most powerful and influential country in the world. Maps showing its territory coloured in a vivid, eye-catching red hung in schools at home and throughout the empire.


The far-reaching lands which formed 19th and early 20th century India comprised about one-third in area of the British Empire, which would constitute almost one-quarter of the world’s land mass and population following World War I.


Influence of India upon Britain

The geo-political relationship between Britain and India was described by Welsh historian Jan Morris:


… India meant something to everybody, from the Queen herself with her Hindu menservants to the humblest family … India was the brightest gem, of the Raj, and part of the order of things: to a people of the drizzly north, the possession of such a country was like some marvel in the house … some fabulously endowed if distant relative. India appealed to the British love of pageantry and fairy-tale, and to most people the destinies of the two countries seemed not merely intertwined, but indissoluble.


Indian Independence

In 1947, a war-weary Britain partitioned the vast colony into two separate, sovereign nations, India and Pakistan, based on religious lines: Hindu vs Muslim — with Britain ceding political self-determination, financial ownership and management of India’s natural resources and economy.


Queen Victoria and the Koh-i-Noor Diamond of India

Mined in Golconda, India, the 186-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond (“mountain of light” in Persian) transitioned from a thing of beauty to a symbol of political potency. In 1849, this irresistible symbol of prestige and power was acquired by force by the British East India Company as war compensation. One of the oldest, largest and most famous diamonds in the world, it has carried a deadly curse through the male line: “He who owns the diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only G-d, or a woman, can wear it with impunity.”

The Company formally presented the priceless gem to Queen Victoria on July 3, 1851 and it was displayed in the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, London, where it took pride of place at The Great Exhibition. Her Majesty wore the precious jewel in a brooch and a circlet before it was mounted in 1853 and subsequently remounted in 1858 and again in 1911. Finally, in 1936, it was transferred to the Coronation Crown of Queen Elizabeth (later the “Queen Mother”), consort to King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II. This Crown Jewel is on public display in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. After achieving their independence in 1947, India and Pakistan each claimed title of the Koh-i-Noor, but all demands for its return have been rejected by Britain, lest it “suddenly find the British Museum … empty.”


The Durbar

The Durbar was the term used for the place where Indian and other eastern rulers held their formal and informal meetings — equivalent to a King’s or Queen’s Court in the European context.


The Delhi Durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911

Indians were such enthusiastic subjects of the British Monarchy that they held three royal Durbars at Delhi: in 1877 for Queen and Empress Victoria; in 1903 for King Emperor Edward VII and Queen Empress Alexandra; and, in December 1911 — to commemorate the coronation of King Emperor George V and Queen Empress Mary, both of whom travelled to India to attend the ceremony in person. Practically every ruling prince, nobleman, landed gentry and other person of note in India, and over 500,000 of the common people came out to greet them and pay obeisance to their new sovereigns.


Delhi Durbar, India, 1911 Coronation of

King Emperor George V and Queen Empress Mary


Queen Victoria, the “Munshi,” and her love of “all things Indian”

Her Majesty’s beloved husband, Prince Albert died in 1861, from which loss she never recovered. Her Scottish Highland servant John Brown became her personal attendant and faithful friend. Four years after Brown’s 1883 death, the “Widow of Windsor” became similarly attached to an Indian servant, Abdul Karim (1863-1909), who served as her personal attendant and “Munshi” (clerk or teacher) for the last fifteen years of her life. He taught her Hindustani and Urdu and introduced her to a world that was fascinatingly foreign and alien to her, creating an inextricable connection to India and its exotic culture and customs. The aging Queen elevated the Munshi to the position of her “Indian Secretary” and in in 1899, she appointed him to the rank of Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, intermediate between Member and Knight, contrary to the wishes. and to the consternation of, her government and family.  


The “Munshi”

Abdul Karim


The Durbar Room at Osborne House

In 1845, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, two miles south of Hampshire, in the English Channel, for a summer home and retreat. A new, more spacious Osborne House was built over the next six years and the main wing was added later. The final addition was another wing built in 1890-91, which included an authentic Durbar built for state functions, patterned on the magnificent Durbars of ancient and nineteenth century India. The room was designed in an elaborate and intricate style and decorated with splendorous Indian art, furniture and artefacts, atop a carpet from Agra. It now holds gifts Queen Victoria received on her Golden and Diamond Jubilees, and other treasures.


Durbar Room

of Queen Victoria

Osborne House, 1890


Indian Ethnography in the Sherlockian Canon

Ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures, designed to explore cultural phenomena from the point of view of the subject group in order to represent its principles and systems. The frequency and detail of references to India — from mainly British but also Indian perspectives — in almost one-third of the sixty tales, especially in The Sign of Four, qualify as ethnographic in nature and are considered to be a valuable source of the history and culture of India in the Victorian era.


References to India in the Canon

Arthur Conan Doyle was fascinated with pageantry and heraldry and featured India in his literary works. Although he never travelled there, he recognized the intertwining of the history and destiny of the two nations. Over a Sherlockian and non-Sherlockian writing career spanning a half-century, ACD often used the theme of the foreign culture of Britain’s jewel in its Crown in his writings.

The Indian influence is a recurrent theme in the Sherlockian Canon, especially in The Sign of Four, “The Speckled Band,” and “The Crooked Man” - published in 1890, 1891 and 1893, respectively.

In The Sign, ACD features the “Indian Mutiny,” providing readers with the jingoistic and xenophobic mindset of the British Empire. Mention is made of: an Indian lunkah (cigar) and a Hindoo khitmutgar (lowly servant); the little savage, Tonga from the Andaman Islands, an Indian territory; Watson’s first wife, Mary Morstan, whose father served in India; Jonathan Small, an invalided enlistee who loses his leg to a crocodile in the Ganges River; and, the Agra Treasure,  which goes missing from the pretty and heavy treasure box of Benares metal-work with a hasp wrought in the image of a sitting Buddha.

In “The Crooked Man,” Corporal Henry Wood serves in The Royal Mallows (Royal Munsters in the American texts) army regiment in India during the 1857 “Mutiny,” when he is betrayed by his superior, Sergeant James Barclay, rival for the affections of the Colour Sergeant’s daughter, Nancy Devoy. Wood is captured by the enemy, tortured and permanently crippled, and subsists by becoming a conjurer and performer in India and then in England upon his return home.

In “The Speckled Band,” Dr Grimesby Roylott was stationed in India but returns to England, with his family and takes up residence in the ancestral house at Stoke Moran. There he keeps Indian animals: a cheetah, a baboon and a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India, which he uses to kill his step-daughter Julia for her inheritance. When he tries to kill Helen in like manner, Holmes takes action and causes the snake to turn upon its master and inflict a deadly wound with its poison fangs. This tale lends its name to the venerable American Sherlockian society, “The Speckled Band of Boston.”


There are also numerous other Indian references, including those in:


·           A Study in Scarlet, in which Watson lands at Bombay to serve in the second Afghan war; and, later contracts enteric fever, “that curse of [Britain’s] Indian possessions;”

·           “The Cardboard Box,” in which Watson states that his term of service in India had trained him to withstand heat better than cold;

·           “The Greek Interpreter,” in which Sherlock and brother Mycroft look out the bow-window of the Diogenes Club, and compete with each other to make out a small, dark fellow, who they deduce served in India as a non-commissioned officer in the Royal Artillery;

·           “The Empty House,” in which Holmes ensnares shikari Colonel Sebastian Moran, once of Her Majesty’s Indian Army, and the best heavy game shot England’s eastern empire has ever produced;

·           “The Three Students,” in which one of the trio is Daulat Ras, an Indian student of Mr Hilton Soames, tutor and lecturer at the College of St. Luke’s;

·           “The Second Stain,” in which the murder of Eduardo Lucas is committed with a curved Indian dagger;

·           The Valley of Fear, in which Holmes deciphers a message by recognising printing dealing with the trade and resources of British India.


Military Service in India

As above set out, various tales reference military service in India by assorted canonical characters, including Dr Watson, Captain Arthur Morstan, Colonel Sebastian Moran, Dr Grimesby Roylott, Jonathan Small, Corporal Henry Wood, and Colonel James Barclay.


Indian Geography

Places, such as Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Lucknow, Benares and Pondicherry are interspersed throughout the Canon.


Cursed Indian Jewellery in the Canon

India is a major foreign backdrop in the Canon, especially in The Sign of Four, which features “the great Agra treasure,” consisting of gold and silver and a blinding collection of precious gems.


Cursed Indian Jewellery in Literature

In 1868, some nineteen years before Sherlock Holmes made his literary debut in A Study in Scarlet, English novelist Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone, an early detective novel. In it, a precious yellow diamond inset in the forehead of an Indian god in a temple of a holy city is stolen by a British soldier whose family is then cursed, until the sacrilege is avenged by its recovery. The story incorporates elements of the legendary origins of three fabulous, cursed and expatriated Indian diamonds: the Hope, the Black Orlov, and the Koh-i-Noor.

For centuries, jewels have been objects of fascination and many cultures have at one time or another ascribed to them magical properties — for both good and evil. In each case, their rarity, beauty and value have led them to become objects of desire; and literature, particularly detective fiction, abounds with stories of greed, envy and thievery, which is often accompanied by a curse on the thief and his descendants.

While Holmes does not locate the Great Agra Treasure, prized jewels which go missing in the Canon but find their way onto Holmes’s lost-and-found list include the Blue Carbuncle, the Mazarin Stone, the famous Black Pearl of the Borgias, the Beryl Coronet and the ancient crown of the Kings of England, which was last worn by King Charles I — and presumably the Bishopgate jewels and the Vatican cameos (two untold tales, mentioned in The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles, respectively).

In “The Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes investigates the theft of that valuable blue garnet and gives his verdict on the powers of priceless gems:


Holmes took up the stone and held it against the light. “It’s a bonny thing,” said he. “Just see how it glints and sparkles. Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil’s pet baits. In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed … In spite of its youth, it has already a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallised charcoal. Who would think that so pretty a toy would be a purveyor to the gallows and the prison?


The Durbar Rooms of Queen Victoria and Arthur Conan Doyle

In 1890, the same year that the Queen Empress built her Durbar Room at Osborne House, ACD included a Durbar Room in The Sign of Four, the chamber in which Thaddeus Sholto receives Holmes, Watson and Mary Morstan. In his “third-rate suburban dwelling-house,” the trio are ushered “down a sordid and common passage, ill lit and worse finished,” into Sholto’s little “sanctum,” which looks “as out of place as a diamond of the first water in a setting of brass”:


A small place … but furnished to [his] own liking. An oasis of art in the howling desert of South London … 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 odour.


Like “A Certain Gracious Lady”: Like a certain “Knight, Patriot, Physician & Man of Letters”

Thus, Arthur Conan Doyle followed in the footsteps of the beloved sovereign, that “certain gracious lady” whom Holmes honoured by adorning the wall opposite his arm-chair at 221B “with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks” (“The Musgrave Ritual”). ACD did so by simultaneously creating a literary Durbar Room in The Sign of Four in the style and manner of the magnificent Durbar Room which Her Majesty, the Queen Empress built at Osborne: two cultural homages to India which each survive to this day.


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