49. The Pot of Caviare (1908)

Detail from Richard Caton-Woodville's illustration from the Strand Magazine, 1908

Hello and welcome to Episode 49. This month, we look at a classic Conan Doyle short story, one the author felt was “gloomy but of [his] best” - ‘The Pot of Caviare’ from 1908.

You can read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Pot_of_Caviare

Or listen to an audio recording by Greg Wagland here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yah89KYMwr8

You can listen to the episode here:

The episode will be uploaded to our YouTube channel soon, where you can listen with closed captions. In the meantime, subscribe to our YouTube channel for updates here: https://www.youtube.com/@doingsofdoyle


During the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, the small European garrison of Ichau is barely holding out against a besieging Boxer army. A relief force is expected but its progress is uncertain. Hope and fears both run high, and the defenders begin to weigh up their options: relief, death or capture by a merciless foe.

Writing and publication history

'A Gentleman in Khaki'
After a relatively prolific period during which he wrote the Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1903-4 and Sir Nigel in 1905-6, Conan Doyle’s output reduced to nothing following the death of his first wife, Louise, in July 1906. Just over a year later, in September 1907, he married Jean Leckie and the family moved to their new home, Windlesham in Crowborough, East Sussex in November.

“The Pot of Caviare” was one of the first projects Conan Doyle finished in Windlesham. It was completed in December 1907, after which Conan Doyle wrote to his mother that it was “very gloomy but of my best.”

The story was first published in the Strand Magazine, March 1908, with illustrations by Richard Caton-Woodville, who was famed for his battle scenes and an iconic image of Empire, a defiant Tommy with a bandaged head, titled ‘A Gentleman in Khaki.’ Woodville also provided illustrations for early Conan Doyle stories ‘Uncle Jeremy’s Household’ and ‘An Exciting Christmas Eve’.

Shortly after first publication, Conan Doyle revised the short story as a play entitled “A Pot of Caviare.” See later.

“The Pot of Caviare” was first collected in ACD’s Round the Fire Stories in 1908. In the John Murray anthologies, it was moved to Tales of the Ring and Camp (1922), indicating how the story could be viewed as an example of both gothic and military fiction.

The story received praise on publication, with Dr Robertson Nicoll in the British Weekly (14 March 1908) noting “Conan Doyle has lost none of his skill. He can tell a story as no other writer of his time can tell it, without superfluity, without tedium, with unerring skill and point.”

The Boxer Rebellion

'I'll try, Sir! - American troops take part in the
relief of the Peking legations, by
Hugh Charles McBarron Jr (Wikimedia)

The Boxer Rebellion was an anti-foreign, anti-imperialist uprising in North China between 1899 and 1901, which came to a head in June 1900 with the Siege of Peking. The origins lay in British and European actions to force China open to trade. After the First Opium War (aka the First China War, 1839-42), the British secured trading rights and access to China for Christian missionaries at the Treaty of Nanjing (1842). Nanjing opened the floodgates to other powers, European and America.

Tensions rose through the nineteenth century as Christian missionaries converted swathes of the population and European trade, notably in opium, had profound social and economic consequences for the Chinese. It was also a period of significant internal strife in China, with the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) being the bloodiest civil war in history.

The Sino-Japanese War (1895-96), in which China was defeated by its smaller neighbour Japan, revealed the weakness of the Qing dynasty and spurred the European powers to an event more rampant wave of expansion in China, during which Kaiser Whilhelm II of Germany proposed the partition of China as had taken place in Africa. This, combined with rising numbers of conversions and a series of poor harvests, led to the rise of the Boxer movement in North China, which was supported by the peasantry and eventually, tacitly, by the Dowager Empress Cixi.

Imperial Chinese troops, 1900
The Boxers – or the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists – were given their nickname by British officers. They initially targeted Chinese Christians, before attacking European missionaries and then diplomats. In June 1900, they besieged the European and American powers in the diplomatic quarters, or Legation, in the capital Peking (Beijing).

The siege was recounted in Peter Fleming’s excellent The Siege at Peking (1957) which was cribbed for the movie 55 Days at Peking (1963), starring Charlton Heston, Eva Gardner, David Niven and Flora Robson (an unlikely choice for the Dowager Empress…). Niven’s character, based on Sir Claude Maxwell MacDonald, the British minister who commanded the defence of the Legation, was renamed Sir Arthur for the film.

Innes in China

John Francis Innes Hay Doyle
Conan Doyle’s brother, John Francis Innes Hay Doyle (Innes), served during the mopping up campaign in China. Innes studied at Woolwich and obtained his commission with the Royal Field Artillery in 1893. In April 1899, he was posted to India, where he was joined by his sister Lottie who kept house for him. Shortly after Lottie married Leslie William Searles Oldham of the Royal Engineers (m. Nagpur, 27 Aug 1900), Innes’ unit, the 12th Battery of the Royal Artillery, was sent to China.

Innes saw little action, arriving after the Siege at Peking had been lifted, although would have been present during the period of bloody reprisals against the Boxers. His own account survived in a letter sold at the Christie’s auction in 2004. “I went over the Forbidden City the other day and was not impressed at all… [the Chinese are friendly but] most annoying on the golf course where they retrieve your ball with greatest zeal.” He returned to India in late 1901 before moving on to South Africa in January 1902.

Conan Doyle was concerned for his brother, writing to his mother and to Innes in February 1901 to enquire whether the unit was there to prevent another Boxer uprising or to outflank the Russians. Here, Conan Doyle was referencing the ‘Great Game’, the secret war between Russia and Britain for control of central Asia, which had seeped into popular consciousness and fiction. John Buchan’s The Half-Hearted (1900) and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) are early examples, the latter the classic of the genre.

Tensions among the defending Westerners

Illustration by Richard Caton-Woodville
The story centres on an ‘absurd little garrison, consisting of native Christians and railway men, with a German officer to command them and five civilian Europeans to support him.’ The party is completed by Professor Mercer, an American doctor and entomologist, who has lived in China for some time and who survived an earlier siege in Sung-tong in 1889.

There is jocular rivalry between the nations as they debate who they hope will lead the rescue party, although there are rather sharper tensions between the Presbyterian missionary family and the Roman Catholic priest. The nations come together in response to the threats facing them.

One wonders if this is a reflection on the European situation when written, when tensions between the nations and fears about German expansion were rife (although Conan Doyle was notably slow to recognise the threat from Germany, as we discussed in Episode 4 on Danger!).

Mercer’s pessimism is one of the more unusual aspects of the story, with Conan Doyle making the American the defeatist. American policy in China had been marginally less aggressive and more lenient towards the Chinese, and perhaps this is reflected here.

The ending

Conan Doyle’s story is about the evil of defeatism. Mercer’s drastic decision to poison the caviare, only for the party to be rescued, leaves him a suicide and multiple murderer at the end of the tale. Although a lapsed Catholic, Conan Doyle appears to have retained the view that suicide was a sin. In ‘The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger’ (1927), Sherlock Holmes memorably tells Eugenia Ronder “your life is not your own… Keep your hands off it.”

The ending owes much to the conte cruel stories that fascinated Conan Doyle and to the influence of French writers such as Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Guy de Maupassant. To modern audiences, it’s twist ending is much like a Twilight Zone or Tales of the Unexpected.

As a parable on defeatism, “The Pot of Caviare” sits within a wider set of stories that Conan Doyle would start to write which all concern the fate of empire, which would be collected in 1922 as Tales of Long Ago.  While “Caviare” is not “long ago,” being set seven years before the story is written, it shows Conan Doyle working through conceptions of threats to empire. Another case in point is Danger! (1914), which concerned the lack of British preparedness for a future submarine war.


The Knackfuss lithograph
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the concept of the “Yellow Peril” was propagated by European powers to justify the exploitation of China. Kaiser Wilhelm II notably deployed Herman Knackfuss’s ideological lithograph ‘Peoples of Europe, Guard Your Most Sacred Possessions’ to amplify European anxieties about the threat from the East, and position Germany as the saviour of the West.

Reports from China during the Boxer Revellion amplified anti-Chinese sentiment. Arguably the worst was an account of ‘The Peking Massacre’ which appeared in the Daily Express on 16 July 1900. The report claimed the Legation had been breached and all inside murdered. One of the rumours attached to this story was that the men had shot the women and children to stop them falling into the hands of the Boxers. While the story was later retracted, it seeped into the imagination, including potentially that of Conan Doyle.

While Conan Doyle does not explicitly show the horrors of the Boxers in the story, he is nevertheless complicit in projecting the “otherness” of China and negative images of the Chinese, notably through Mercer’s remembrance of tortures. This sort of imagery would later be exploited by Sax Rohmer for the Fu-Manchu novels, beginning with the short story ‘The Zayat Kiss’ in 1912 and The Mystery of Fu-Manchu in 1913. In the latter, Rohmer borrows heavily from Conan Doyle’s depiction of the London opium dens in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1892). Conan Doyle had not been beyond his own stereotypical portrayal of the Chinese in his aborted play 'Angels of Darkness' (c 1886).

“The Pot of Caviare” also appeared towards the end of the period of Orientalism which marked a mixture of horror and fascination with China and the East into which the Boxer stories flooded. An example is the Wild West performances of Buffalo Bill’s touring company who would don Chinese outfits to mimic the Boxers.

The Play (1908, 1910)

Conan Doyle turned the short story into a one-act play in 1908, which was first performed on 13-14 November 1908 at the Jersey Opera House, USA, dramatized by Mrs Arthur Mortimer. Between 19 April and 9 May 1910, the play served as a curtain opener for The House of Temperley at the Adelphi Theatre, London, before touring the provinces. Its short run was bad luck: Edward VII died on 6 May, leading to a period of national mourning which closed the theatres.

The play is a little different from the short story, being rather more mawkish sentimental and including an implied love interest between Ainslie and Jessie. These is also more tension between the Presbyterian and Catholic missionaries. The most significant change is that Colonel Dressler of the Hanoverian Infantry becomes Colonel Rameau, “a tall, alert, debonair Frenchman.” This may reflect rising anti-German feeling, or simply a change of nationality to suit the cast.

While well received, one negative review can be found in the London and China Express (22 April 1910): ‘Never surely has anything quite so tragic being seen on the stage as the wholesale slaughter here depicted… The whole story is very obvious from the beginning. The play in fact, in spite of a certain thrill produced by the knowledge of the impending tragedy, is not a strong effort on the part of its author.’

Next time on Doings of Doyle

We reach out fiftieth episode (good heavens) and spend it in the company of ‘The Surgeon of Gaster Fell,’ which first appeared in Chambers’ Journal in 1890, and which Conan Doyle sought to suppress in later life…

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Image credits: Thanks to Alexis Barquin at The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopaedia for permission to reproduce these images. Please support the encyclopaedia at www.arthur-conan-doyle.com.

Music credit: Sneaky Snitch Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/.