Conan Doyle’s ‘Tragedy of the Korosko’

korosko cover

A while ago I wrote here about Galsworthy’s eighth Forsyte novel, Flowering Wilderness (1932). That is the book in which the disillusioned war poet Wilfred Desert has just returned from Darfur, in the Sudan, where he had been kidnapped by fanatical followers of the Mahdi, and told he must convert to Islam, on pain of death. Having no Christian religious convictions, Desert acquiesces. When back in London he is looked at askance by those who had never been put into so challenging a position.
Galsworthy contrasts Desert’s behaviour with that imagined by the Victorian poet Alfred Comyn Lyall in his  dramatic monologue, Theology in Extremis (1889). At the time of the Indian Mutiny, an Englishman is offered the choice – conversion or death. He has no firm religious convictions, but refuses the offer, out of a feeling of national pride:

Yet for the honour of English race,
May I not live or endure disgrace.
I must be gone to the crowd untold
Of men by the cause which they served unknown,
Who moulder in myriad graves of old;
Never a story and never a stone
Tells of the martyrs who die like me,
Just for the pride of the old countree.

In 1932, Galsworthy’s embittered war poet, Desert, has ‘seen through’ patriotism as well as religion. He has no ideals worth dying for.
What I did not know when I read Flowering Wilderness (or when I elaborated on the theme in a conference paper about representations of war poets in twenties and thirties fiction) was that the same choice had been the subject of a novel published in 1898.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Tragedy of the Korosko tells the story of a group of tourists traveling up the Nubian Nile in the Korosko, ‘a turtle-bottomed, round-bowed stern-wheeler, with a 30-inch draught and the lines of a flat-iron’. They are a mixture of English, Irish, and American, plus M. Fardet, an excitable Frenchman who is very critical of the British Empire.
The passengers get on well together, despite political disagreements. There is an interesting argument in an early chapter about whether Britain should maintain its role as world policeman and peacekeeper (an argument that reminded me of current American discussions about how far the U.S. should exert itself to maintain order in troubled regions).

When the tourists, with Mansoor, their local guide, set out to look at the pulpit rock, a famed attraction, they are in dangerous territory, though Mansoor assures them that all will be well. Unfortunately they are surrounded by a group of Dervishes on camels, who take them prisoner. The men are brutal and arbitrary, and the book becomes a gripping adventure story. Doyle had visited the area, and his descriptions of the vast threatening desert add to the suspense.

The tourists assume that they are being held for ransom, but there is also talk of their being sold in the slave market in Khartoum. A man who is carrying a pistol slips it to the attractive young woman, telling her that she might need it if the worst came to the worst, so the possibility of rape is hinted at. Transporting the  tourists becomes difficult, however, and when  the patience of their captors wears thin, they are given an ultimatum:

[T]he terrible old man looked with his hard-lined, rock features at the captives. Then he said something to Mansoor, whose face turned a shade more sallow as he listened.
“The Emir Abderrahman says that if you do not become Moslem, it is not worth while delaying the whole caravan in order to carry you upon the baggage-camels. If it were not for you, he says that we could travel twice as fast. He wishes to know therefore, once for ever, if you will accept the Koran.” Then in the same tone, as if he were still translating, he continued: “You had far better consent, for if you do not he will most certainly put you all to death.”
The unhappy prisoners looked at each other in despair. The two Emirs stood gravely watching them.

Like Lyall’s hero, and unlike Galsworthy’s Desert, the tourists stand firm. Some are sincerely religious, others not. The argumentative Frenchman is an atheist, but shows his moral quality:

“It is absurd that I should die for that in which I have never had belief,” said Fardet. “And yet it is not possible for the honour of a Frenchman that he should be converted in this fashion.” He drew himself up, with his wounded wrist stuck into the front of his jacket, “Je suis Chretien. J’y reste,” he cried, a gallant falsehood in each sentence.

The morally flexible Mansoor sees no problem in accepting a conversion, if it leads to freedom. The tourists unanimously refuse, though they do buy time by agreeing to listen to a ‘Moolah’ (We might say ‘Mullah’ today):

[T]he Mussulman preacher came walking towards them at this moment with a paternal and contented smile upon his face, as one who has a pleasant and easy task before him. He was a one-eyed man, with a fringe of grizzled beard and a face which was fat, but which looked as if it had once been fatter, for it was marked with many folds and creases. He had a green turban upon his head, which marked him as a Mecca pilgrim. In one hand he carried a small brown carpet, and in the other a parchment copy of the Koran. […] So they grouped themselves round him, sitting on the short green sward under the palm-tree, these seven forlorn representatives of an alien creed, and in the midst of them sat the fat little preacher, his one eye dancing from face to face as he expounded the principles of his newer, cruder, and more earnest faith.

This ‘Moolah’ is the only one of the Dervishes who is given any special individuality, apart from the Emir, whose ‘fierce eyes’ and ‘harsh, imperious voice’ make him the exemplar of all the Dervish traits and qualities. The band of Arabs are depicted as implacable, cruel, and utterly devoted to their religion. There is at least some admiration in Doyle’s prose when he describes their concentration and dedication at prayer:

The great red sun was down with half its disc slipped behind the violet bank upon the horizon. It was the hour of Arab prayer. An older and more learned civilisation would have turned to that magnificent thing upon the skyline and adored that. But these wild children of the desert were nobler in essentials than the polished Persian. To them the ideal was higher than the material, and it was with their backs to the sun and their faces to the central shrine of their religion that they prayed. And how they prayed, these fanatical Moslems! Rapt, absorbed, with yearning eyes and shining faces, rising, stooping, grovelling with their foreheads upon their praying carpets. Who could doubt, as he watched their strenuous, heart-whole devotion, that here was a great living power in the world, reactionary but tremendous, countless millions all thinking as one from Cape Juby to the confines of China? Let a common wave pass over them, let a great soldier or organiser arise among them to use the grand material at his hand, and who shall say that this may not be the besom with which Providence may sweep the rotten, decadent, impossible, half-hearted south of Europe, as it did a thousand years ago, until it makes room for a sounder stock?

The end of this resonates with typical fin de siecle fears of degeneration and decadence. Southern Europe is too rotten to survive in the face of implacable militant Islam. Doyle is an optimist about Northern Europe, though. None of his tourist party succumb to the temptation of surrender, and fate brings most (but not all) of them through the ordeal. How they find the strength to endure is the drama of the book. Some are believing Christians, but the more interesting ones are those who do not have the faith, but will not be forced to renounce it.

The European and American tourists are presented as complex characters, with contradictions, strengths and weaknesses, and a range of emotions. The Arabs are one-dimensional – just cruel fanatics, offering no hint of any interior life. There is a clear comparison with the way that militant Islamists are often portrayed today.

There seem to be just two stereotypes of the Muslim in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century fiction. One is the fanatic, and the other is the sturdy steadfast soldier. Kipling presents Islam as a soldier’s religion, and gives positive portrayals of Muslim soldiers serving the Empire loyally. This stereotype can be found in imitators of Kipling, such as Edgar Wallace in his Sanders of the River stories, where the steadfastness of the Muslim Houssas of Sanders’s police force is contrasted with the unreliability of other Africans.

There is a recognition of this positive stereotype towards the end of the book, when the Camel Corps arrive to rescue the remaining tourists, and the Emir first prays, and then performs a deliberate act:

Then he rose, and taking something from his saddle he placed it very deliberately upon the sand and stood upon it.
“Good man!” cried the Colonel. “He is standing upon his sheepskin.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Stuart.
“Every Arab has a sheepskin upon his saddle. When he recognises that his position is perfectly hopeless, and yet is determined to fight to the death, he takes his sheepskin off and stands upon it until he dies. See, they are all upon their sheepskins. They will neither give nor take quarter now.”

Lyall’s Victorian died rather than undergo the ritual of conversion. Doyle’s tourists are equally composed for death, but the author does not push the situation quite so far; he allows some to be saved by the arrival of the Imperial cavalry. Galsworthy’s Desert will give in, since to die would seem pointless. Galsworthy’s point may be that the Great War has spoilt the taste for deaths that achieve nothing.

Personally I have a soft spot for Dervishes. When we were on holiday in Istanbul about twenty years ago, we saw a sign advertising an appearance by whirling dervishes at 3 p.m. the next afternoon. Marion and I went to see.

It was in a rather anonymous modern hall. Men in tall hats and white dresses were fussing around till the appointed time came. Then the music began, and they stretched out their arms, shut their eyes and began gently to rotate, at increasing speed, until they had whirled themselves into a state of deep religious wonderment. I was impressed.


Maybe this was a different kind of Dervish.


  1. Bill
    Posted March 30, 2016 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Doyle was presumably writing with the Somali dervishes in mind, in the early days of their resistance to colonialism under the leader who became known as the “mad Mullah” (different from the “mad Mahdi” of course, except in the way his religious belief and resistance to the Empire was portrayed as a form of mental illness). I am not sure “morally flexible” is entirely fair in relation to Mansoor. The doctrine of ‘taqiyya’ is well-founded in Islam – especially Shia Islam – as a dispensation allowing the believer to conceal or modify the outward forms of his belief under duress. It helped many of the minority sects survive under persecution by the majority regimes. The basis seems to be that Allah will know perfectly well what you really believe, whatever you say to others. Much more reasonable than martyrdom. And less wasteful.

    • Posted March 30, 2016 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      This sounds like the Jesuits’ ‘equivocation’, which Shakespeare made fun of in ‘Macbeth’.
      Doyle definitely doesn’t think much of Mansoor.

  2. Bill
    Posted March 30, 2016 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    No. I had assumed Mansoor was himself a follower of Islam, but I see he is portrayed as a Christian, if a somewhat mongrel one (“half Copt, half Syrian”). Obviously Doyle’s main grievance with him – as characterised – is his betrayal of “the women” in an effort to save his own life. Doyle obviously prefers fanatics of one form or another to “equivocators”. He doesn’t seem to differentiate much between religions, but seems to suggest that any is better than none (I think he was a lapsed Roman Catholic himself before adopting spiritualism, but perhaps he avoided Jesuit education).

  3. Anonymous
    Posted March 30, 2016 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    “Islam and the Army in Colonial India: Sepoy religion in the service of empire” by Nile Green is a study of the form of islam which was adapted and adopted in the Indian army.

  4. Bill
    Posted March 30, 2016 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    The English in India seem to have commonly preferred Moslems to Hindus.

    I am not sure where Doyle formed his picture of Islam, although some was based on his own experience as a tourist on a Nile trip in Eqypt (when he seems to have felt Thomas Cook didn’t appreciate how vulnerable the trippers would be to a “Dervish general”). But any experience of Mahdists or other “dervishes” is unlikely to have come from direct observation. Although Doyle did make efforts to attach himself to Kitchener’s invading force as a “special correspondent” he never travelled with them.

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