- Conan Doyle’s The Tragedy of the “Korosko”: The Clash of Civilizations and the Necessity of Empire
WESTERN TOURISTS holidaying in Egypt are kidnapped by Arab militants working for a remote and fanatical Islamist leader, who has already inflicted a series of spectacular defeats on Western interests. The tourists are taken into the desert where they are threatened with death or slavery if they do not convert to Islam. In the nick of time, British forces arrive, rescue the hostages, and wipe out the Arab fanatics.
The plot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Tragedy of the “Korosko,” serialized in the Strand magazine in 1897 and published in volume form the following year, could have come from any number of modern, post–9/11 political thrillers.1 Although the present-day resonances of this late-Victorian thriller are striking, it is also very much a narrative of its time. The story’s representations of geopolitics and the related cultural issues of race and religion have much to teach us about the relationship between literature and politics—especially the politics of empire, international intervention, and what today would be called “national security.”
In Memories and Adventures (1924), Conan Doyle recalls the genesis of the tale during a holiday in Egypt for the health of his consumptive wife, Louise (known as Touie). In January 1896 the Doyles travelled, courtesy of Thomas Cook & Sons Ltd., on board the Nicrotis, a steamer heading from Aswan to the “outposts of civilization” at Wadi Halfa. Doyle recalled:
I thought that the managers of those tours took undue risks, and when I found myself on one occasion on the rock of Abousir with a drove of helpless tourists, male and female, nothing whatever between us and the tribesmen, and a river between us and the nearest troops, I could not but [End Page 164] think what an appalling situation would arise if a little troop of these far-riding camel men were to appear.… It was the strong impression which I there received which gave me the idea of taking a group of people of different types and working out what the effect of so horrible an experience would be upon each.2
What he calls “tribesmen” are what he and everyone else in Britain at this time also called “dervishes”—the forces of the Khalifa, the ruler of the Mahdiyya.3 The Mahdiyya was the theocratic state established in the Sudan by Mohammed Ahmed, who had proclaimed himself “Mahdi”—the “rightly guided one,” or redeemer—on 29 June 1881; after Mohammed Ahmed’s death in 1885, several months after the conquest of Khartoum, rule of the Mahdiyya had passed to his ally Abdullahi, who became “Khalifa” (literally “successor”). Wadi Halfa was indeed the frontier between Egypt and the Mahdiyya, and travelling there at the end of the nineteenth century would have been like touring the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan at the beginning of the twentieth-first century: on one side an ally of the West and on the other an Islamic state that had already declared a jihad, purged itself of any Western presence, and was ambitious to extend its territory and influence.
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Conan Doyle’s fictional tourists in The Tragedy of the “Korosko” visited the rock of Abousir on 13 February 1895, a few months before the author (Fig. 1). This specificity locates the action geographically, temporally, and geopolitically. In 1895 the Mahdiyya appeared to be at its [End Page 165] zenith but, as Conan Doyle and his readers knew, it was about to experience a colossal military onslaught that would, shortly after the story was serialized, destroy it almost completely and bring the Sudan under direct British control.
The tourists on board the steamer Korosko, travelling the River Nile between the first cataract (Aswan) and the second (Wadi Halfa), comprise four Britons, three Americans, an Irish couple, and a Frenchman. The nationality of the story’s Western cast is sufficiently important to be set out in table form...