The strange racism of Martin Hewitt

I’ve been reading these old stories, like Arthur Morrison’s  (1863-1945) Martin Hewitt, Investigator (1894) and it continually strikes me not just how very racist they were, but how varied they are in that. Nothing new there, I know, but it’s crazy reading them all the same. Thought I might start collecting strange racisms, maybe do something article-wise with them at some point because they are not just the narratives that have helped form common-sense understandings of race still existing today, but help show how they have shifted as well as the kind of ‘work’ they do — the exploitations and injustices they have made possible. I’ll just collect them for now maybe, though.

I’ve already started a little — the crazy view of the Chinese as the people of evil genius and immense imperial ambition is so evident in Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, then there are the stupid and slow and lustful Chinese dockworkers of Burke’s Limehouse Nights

Martin Hewitt, Investigator - Arthur MorrisonArthur Morrison was a very different author, a man of the East End’s working classes who wrote powerful, and often nicely twisted stories of working class life there. After Tales of Mean Streets and Child of the Jago (both of which serve as a good counterpoint to Burke), I was looking forward to trying a little of his lighter detective fiction. Morrison lived by his journalism and writing, and was a better hack writer than most. Still, his Martin Hewitt stories follow in the mold of his contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle (who came with plenty of his own racism), complete with private detective and his sidekick who narrates the tales.

All was well, and fairly enjoyable until you reach story VII. ‘The Affair of the Tortoise’. This exposes a whole lot of vile beliefs about Haitians in particular, and probably Black folks in general. These tie in, of course, to the fact that Haiti’s revolution (beginning in 1791) was led by slaves and actually did topple to great extent the colonial and racist power structures. There’s some been written about how this incredible movement and period have been written out of radical history and into savagery, sterling examples of historiography like CLR James for one, Trouillot for another. After reading those, it’s interesting how some of the stereotypes they examine continue to emerge in detective fiction from the other side of the world, like Martin Hewitt, Investigator published in 1894. ‘Funny’ how deductive reasoning based on tiny details so often require prejudices and stereotypes to be true.

“Right! Well, here you are.” Hewitt reached an atlas from his book-shelf. “Now, look here: the biggest island of the lot on this map, barring Cuba, is Hayti. You know as well as I do that the western part of that island is peopled by the black republic of Hayti, and that the country is in a degenerate state of almost unexampled savagery, with a ridiculous show of civilization. There are revolutions all the time; the South American republics are peaceful and prosperous compared to Hayti.

We have here the savage. Hewitt is investigating what they believe is the murder of Haitian named Rameau, who fought with almost everyone else in the boarding house, and who killed the pet tortoise of another boarder when he flung it at his head.  Hence the title.

Martin Hewitt, Investigator - Arthur Morrison

But not everything is as it seems, and this because of the striking physical differences held as racist gospel between Black and white,

First, although there was a good deal of blood on the floor just below where the housemaid had seen Rameau lying, there was none between that place and the door. Now, if the body had been dragged, or even carried, to the door, blood must have become smeared about the floor, or at least there would have been drops, but there were none, and this seemed to hint that the corpse might have come to itself, sat up on the sofa, stanched the wound, and walked out. I reflected at once that Rameau was a full-blooded negro, and that a negro’s head is very nearly invulnerable to anything short of bullets.

Right. For a little more on the difference in skulls between the races, along with some unquestioning insults in everyday language:

“I suppose, then,” Nettings remarked slowly, like a man on whose mind something vast was beginning to dawn, “I suppose—why, hang it, you must have just got up while that fool of a girl was screaming and fainting upstairs, and walked out. They say there’s nothing so hard as a nigger’s skull, and yours has certainly made a fool of me. But, then, somebody must have chopped you over the head; who was it?”

Rameau is a stock-character cross between comedy and cowardice:

“My enemies—my great enemies—enemies politique. I am a great man”—this with a faint revival of vanity amid his fear—”a great man in my countree. Zey have great secret club-societies to kill me—me and my fren’s; and one enemy coming in my rooms does zis—one, two”—he indicated wrist and head—”wiz a choppa.”

Along with chopper-proof skulls we have the old stand-by of lazy and shiftless.

The would-be murderer had plainly prepared for the crime: witness the previous preparation of the paper declaring his revenge, an indication of his pride at having run his enemy to earth at such a distant place as this—although I expect he was only in England by chance, for Haytians are not a persistently energetic race.

At least Hewitt acknowledged he had enough brains to plan a little in advance.


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