Review: ‘A Deal in Ostriches’ by H. G. Wells

‘A Deal in Ostriches’ is a short tale by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), originally published on 20 December 1894 in the Pall Mall Gazette before being republished in Wells’s first short-story collection, The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents, a year later.

‘A Deal in Ostriches’ takes place on board a ship, and is narrated by the Taxidermist who also features in another Wells tale, ‘The Triumphs of a Taxidermist’. The story is about an ostrich which bit off, and swallowed, the diamond in the centre of the turban worn by a Hindu man named Sir Mohini Padishah. After the ostrich had swallowed the precious stone, it immediately went and walked around with four other ostriches which were kept with it, so it was unable for Padishah to work out which of the five birds had taken his diamond.

After several unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the diamond, Padishah decided there was no alternative but to offer to buy all five ostriches from their owner. But another man, named Potter, bought them instead, intent on finding the missing diamond. Padishah offered him money for all five birds, more than two hundred per cent what Potter had paid for them, but Potter refused to sell.

In the end, Potter offered to sell the birds separately for £80 each, while keeping one of them for himself ‘for luck’. The narrator had heard that one of the ostriches was dying of indigestion, and, surmising that this was the bird with the diamond, he outbid Padishah for it. But then a Jewish merchant outbid both of them, shooting the bird as soon as he had won it. However, the ostrich turned out not to have the diamond in it.

Potter decided to adjourn the auction until the next day, and made it a condition that none of the birds be given to the successful bidder until the auction was over. The next day, one of the birds was sold to an officer on board, one went to the Jewish merchant, and the third went to a syndicate of the ship’s engineers. Padishah tried to get all of the buyers to exchange names and addresses with him, so they could send on his diamond once it had been recovered from the relevant bird, but nobody wished to give their name or address.

The Taxidermist-narrator concludes the tale by saying that, a week or so after this, he saw Padishah and Potter walking arm-in-arm down Regent Street, and wondered if the whole swallowed diamond business was nothing more than a ruse to ensure the ostriches would sell for much more money than they otherwise would.

‘A Deal in Ostriches’ is a clever little tale about a con trick – if it is, indeed, a con trick. The narrator, addressing the (unprinted) concerns of his unseen interlocutor in the story, acknowledges that it had crossed his mind, when he saw Padishah and Potter together in London, that the two of them had hatched the diamond plan together. But he also observes that Padishah (who has been knighted by Queen Victoria) was ‘an eminent Hindoo’, suggesting that his religion would not allow him to pull off such a dishonest scheme.

Wells’s story is a piece of entertainment, of course, published when he was writing at the peak of his powers and knew how to entertain his readers with a good story. But ‘A Deal in Ostriches’ also dates from the time of the British empire, when the British raj was in India, and it is perhaps significant that Wells chose a ship involving both Indian and British passengers as the setting for his story.

Similarly, the diamond may be significant in light of the empire: one of the largest diamonds in the world, the Koh-i-Noor, was mined in India and given to Queen Victoria in the 1840s. A diamond, then, represents the riches which drove much of the British imperial project: the hapless Indian character, Padishah, has his possession stolen from him and then sold off so that a Brit, Potter, can profit from the theft.

Of course, if we, like the narrator and his associate, are correct in suspecting that the diamond was a trick and Padishah and Potter were in cahoots, this brings the tale to a happier ending in one sense, involving a partnership between coloniser and native, in a way. And ‘A Deal in Ostriches’ is ultimately a piece of storytelling designed to entertain, rather than a searing indictment (or defence, for that matter) of British imperialism.


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