In the country those men came from, they care just as much about killing a man, as you care about emptying the ashes out of your pipe. If a thousand lives stood between them and the getting back of their Diamond—and if they thought they could destroy those lives without discovery—they would take them all. The sacrifice of caste is a serious thing in India, if you like. The sacrifice of life is nothing at all (Collins 89).
In this passage taken from Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel, The Moonstone, Mr. Murthwaite warns Mr. Betteredge and Mr. Franklin of the three Brahmins (higher caste Hindu priests) that have been stalking the Verinder-Herncastle family in search of the famed Moonstone (a great yellow diamond). Colonel John Herncastle, who stole the sacred diamond during the Siege of Seringapatam (5 April – 4 May 1799), the final confrontation of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War between the British East India Company and the Kingdom of Mysore, recently died and bequeathed the diamond to his estranged niece, Rachel Verinder. By including this depiction of the Hindu priests as murderous thieves who value wealth and social status over human life, Betteredge perpetuates the Western discourse that demonizes the Indian population and strips blame from the real villains of history: the English colonialists.
In his 1978 book, Orientalism, Edward Said argues that Westerners created and reenforce a socio-political racial dialogue about the East (the Orient) that shapes how the West perceives the East and in turn influences the way the West perceives itself (Said 7). Said’s theory applied to The Moonstone reveals that Betteredge’s narration, and its inclusion of the racist dialogue from the people he encounters, is another contribution to a toxic discourse that teaches the English to be afraid or suspicious of Easterners.
Early in the novel, Betteredge, the Verinder’s head servant, turns the three Indian jugglers and their young British companion away for fear that their offer to perform for Lady Verinder is an excuse to gain access to the estate’s material possessions. Later on, he mentions spotting them lurking about the estate, and grows more wary of them. Betteredge’s fixation on the Indian jugglers is fueled by his racist, colonialist mindset that assumes these foreign figures have a sinister purpose in mind. He discusses his suspicions with Mr. Franklin, a cousin to the Verinders, whose “opinion was, not only that the Indians had been lurking about after the Diamond, but also that they were actually foolish enough to believe in their own magic—meaning thereby the making of signs on a boy’s head, and the pouring of ink into a boy’s hand, and then expecting him to see persons and things beyond the reach of human vision” (Collins 64). Here, Mr. Franklin not only reenforces Betteredge’s prejudice, but paints this picture of the Indians being these supernatural figures that use their knowledge of occult, mysterious, foreign customs to manipulate an innocent British boy and exploit his clairvoyant talents for a seemingly greedy desire.
However, Betteredge does not include anything about how Colonel Herncastle was a corrupt British officer who stole the Moonstone from the Indian people. His conversation with Murthwaite and Franklin dismisses the religious significance of the gem and neglects to inform the reader that Brahmins are important Indian priests devoted to preserving Hindu culture and teachings. Instead, he records this assertion that their sacrifice of caste is for a superficial, material, colonialist in spirit reason. He selects what he wants to share, manipulating the facts to depict the Indian jugglers are thieves, murderers, and heathens. Considering The Moonstone‘s audience at the time of its original publication, Betteredge’s narration becomes another example of English revisionist writing and colonialist propaganda.
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2005.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, 1978.