Thackeray's decorated initial R

eading even slightly against the grain, Doyle's character Roxon, who slaughters animals, ape-men, and “half breeds” with the greatest gusto, appears far less benign than might first appear. Both Doyle and Roxon share more than a little of that darkness Conrad finds in the Belgian Congo. The South American Indians are the only non-Europeans described favorably, and all other non-Europeans apparently deserve to die. The first villains of the piece turn out to be “Gomez and Manuel, two half-breeds from up the river, just come down with a cargo of redwood. They were swarthy fellows, bearded and fierce, as active and wiry as panthers,” and Roxon demonstrates his marksmanship by shooting one of them at long range as he flees. For Doyle descendants of both Europeans and Indians or Europeans and Africans seem inherently evil, cruel and duplicitous.

A possible example of Doyle's typical late-Victorian racism appears in his characterization of their heroically loyal African retainer, the “gigantic negro named Zambo, who is a black Hercules, as willing as any horse, and about as intelligent.” Nothing in the narrative requires such denigration. Surely this is an aberration, since Doyle elsewhere shows a lack of racism highly unusual in his day.

The ape-men receive Doyle's harshest description. Lord John explains that the party was attacked and captured

They had been assemblin' in the dark, I suppose, until that great tree over our heads was heavy with them. I shot one of them through the belly, but before we knew where we were they had us spread-eagled on our backs. I call them apes, but they carried sticks and stones in their hands and jabbered talk to each other, and ended up by tyin' our hands with creepers, so they are ahead of any beast that I have seen in my wanderin's. Ape-men—that's what they are—Missin' Links, and I wish they had stayed missin'. They carried off their wounded comrade—he was bleedin' like a pig—and then they sat around us, and if ever I saw frozen murder it was in their faces. They were big fellows, as big as a man and a deal stronger. Curious glassy gray eyes they have, under red tufts, and they just sat and gloated and gloated.

Roxon continually presents the ape-men as subhuman, despite the fact that according to his own description they fight with tactics and bravery and obviously have a civilization of their own. In fact, Doyle describes them much as European settlers described Norther American Indians whom they slaughtered. In fact, repeating in fiction what happened to native peoples in North America, the explorers with modern weapons joined one group and used their firearms to destroy another. Doyle describes the climatic battle that ends in genocide in three paragraphs:

We had not long to wait for our enemy. A wild shrill clamor rose from the edge of the wood and suddenly a body of ape-men rushed out with clubs and stones, and made for the center of the Indian line. It was a valiant move but a foolish one, for the great bandy-legged creatures were slow of foot, while their opponents were as active as cats. It was horrible to see the fierce brutes with foaming mouths and glaring eyes, rushing and grasping, but forever missing their elusive enemies, while arrow after arrow buried itself in their hides. One great fellow ran past me roaring with pain, with a dozen darts sticking from his chest and ribs. In mercy I put a bullet through his skull, and he fell sprawling among the aloes. But this was the only shot fired, for the attack had been on the center of the line, and the Indians there had needed no help of ours in repulsing it. Of all the ape-men who had rushed out into the open, I do not think that one got back to cover.

But the matter was more deadly when we came among the trees. For an hour or more after we entered the wood, there was a desperate struggle in which for a time we hardly held our own. Springing out from among the scrub the ape-men with huge clubs broke in upon the Indians and often felled three or four of them before they could be speared. Their frightful blows shattered everything upon which they fell. One of them knocked Summerlee's rifle to matchwood and the next would have crushed his skull had an Indian not stabbed the beast to the heart. Other ape-men in the trees above us hurled down stones and logs of wood, occasionally dropping bodily on to our ranks and fighting furiously until they were felled. Once our allies broke under the pressure, and had it not been for the execution done by our rifles they would certainly have taken to their heels. But they were gallantly rallied by their old chief and came on with such a rush that the ape-men began in turn to give way. Summerlee was weaponless, but I was emptying my magazine as quick as I could fire, and on the further flank we heard the continuous cracking of our companion's rifles.

Then in a moment came the panic and the collapse. Screaming and howling, the great creatures rushed away in all directions through the brushwood, while our allies yelled in their savage delight, following swiftly after their flying enemies. All the feuds of countless generations, all the hatreds and cruelties of their narrow history, all the memories of ill-usage and persecution were to be purged that day. At last man was to be supreme and the man-beast to find forever his allotted place. Fly as they would the fugitives were too slow to escape from the active savages, and from every side in the tangled woods we heard the exultant yells, the twanging of bows, and the crash and thud as ape-men were brought down from their hiding-places in the trees. [emphasis added]

When the battle has been won, Challenger, whose “eyes were shining with the lust of slaughter,” proclaims that “the future must ever be for man.”

"We have been privileged," he cried, strutting about like a gamecock, "to be present at one of the typical decisive battles of history—the battles which have determined the fate of the world. What, my friends, is the conquest of one nation by another? It is meaningless. Each produces the same result. But those fierce fights, when in the dawn of the ages the cave-dwellers held their own against the tiger folk, or the elephants first found that they had a master, those were the real conquests—the victories that count. By this strange turn of fate we have seen and helped to decide even such a contest. Now upon this plateau the future must ever be for man."

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Last modified 20 November 2013