From the 1887 Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet:

... He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin ... Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.
(emphasis added)

Now, as far as I know, Afghanistan is not in tropics - not even particularly close.

Who is confused here? Holmes, Watson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or me? I was astonished not find a discussion of this question anywhere (though I did just find this).

The only explanation I can think of besides the obvious one (that Sir Arthur was completely confused) is that perhaps the term tropical meant something somewhat different back when 1870?

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    No, Afghanistan is not in the tropics and certainly doesn't have a tropical climate, but it gets quite hot in the summer so soldiers returning from there were sometimes sunburned. It was also on the border of British India,so that might have confused Conan Doyle. Returning soldiers probably passed through India on their way back.
    – Michael Walsby
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 7:22
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    Also, the British Empire had a lot of oversea colonies back in the day, several of them in the tropics, not so many of them in moderate climates. So based on Watson's tan and the probability it was the save bet to say "tropics" - which is what Holmes does most of the time: betting/playing with probability.
    – Erik
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 7:27

4 Answers 4


Don't interpret "the tropics" with such scientific precision.

You originally posted this question on the Earth Sciences site, and you seem to have been thinking of this quote with a literal (I'd even say pedantic, noting that I consider this a compliment) interpretation of the word "tropics". But in everyday English, the word isn't always used so precisely - I'd wager most English people aren't aware even today that the tropics refers specifically to the region between 23°N and 23°S, and that was probably even more true in the days of the British Empire when people travelled less and knew less about the world beyond their own country.

A tropical climate is characterised as one that's both hot and humid. This is another potential meaning of "tropics" (short for "tropical climates"), which may include regions above the Tropic of Cancer or below the Tropic of Capricorn. However, the climate of Afghanistan is hot and dry, so this definition doesn't strictly work either.

But, checking the quote again:

He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin

... the important point about the region is not its latitude, nor its humidity, but its temperature and the intensity of the sun, which cause people to become tanned. While "tropics" doesn't actually cover Afghanistan, it probably does cover most places in the world with the most intense tan-inducing heat and sunlight. "Tropics" will do as a catch-all term. Even a precise intellect like Holmes's (or Doyle's) doesn't need to split hairs when it's not necessary.

I can't find any specific information on how the word "tropics" was generally used in the late 19th century, but it seems plausible that it was used more loosely than today, in an era when many "foreign parts" could be bunched together as "the colonies" and mostly ignored by Englishmen. It may be worth noting that the Köppen climate classification was first published in 1884, after the time of "A Study in Scarlet", so "tropical climate" may not have been defined at all at this time except vaguely as something like "hot parts of the world".

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    Thanks, Rand! From any other author, I would have shrugged and moved on. But for someone who focused on powers of observation, I thought the error was a bit too much. But then again, I am glad I asked. The fact that the climate classification came out a bit later is qutie interesting.
    – stacksia
    Commented Nov 2, 2019 at 3:56
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    Watson's posting probably could be called 'tropical'. His regiment was formally stationed around western/central India, (slightly under the Tropic of Cancer) and he landed by ship at Bombay to join his duties. But at that time war had broken out and he discovered his regiment had been given orders to invade Afghanistan. He and others then made their way overland to what is now Afghanistan temporarily for the duration of the war.
    – Pranab
    Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 18:57

I agree with the others the use of “tropical” is not intended to refer to the (astronomically-defined) tropics, but I would like to add that some parts of Afghanistan are quite hot and humid. Dr. Watson was in the Battle of Maiwand, which has a dry climate. But if you look at a physical map you'll see that the area around Jalalabad (Nangarhar Province) is basically an extension of the Punjab, i.e., very hot and humid. Jalabad was an important part of the Second Anglo Afghan War. From Wikipedia:

In 1878, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the British again invaded and set up camps in Jalalabad but withdrew two years later.

  • It might be helpful for this answer, to include the information that the climate zone that the southern two thirds of Afghanistan lies in is within the 'subtropics', which seems to make it a legitimate inclusion in a lay usage, of 'tropics'.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subtropics#/media/…
    – Spagirl
    Commented Dec 16, 2020 at 10:59

Sir Arthur was mistaken. Afghanistan is certainly not officially 'tropical', neither does the inter-tropical convergence zone extend that far north. However, Afghanistan, especially in the northern lowlands adjacent to the Amu Darya near the Tajikistan border has an eminently continental climate, and can get ferociously hot in high summer - I speak from experience. Occasional daytime temperatures of >40 degrees C are becoming more common. Similarly the flat plains to the south and west can be hugely debilitating.

I doubt if Sir A.C-D ever visited Afghanistan, and certainly not in the mountains in mid-winter when temperatures can plummet to less than -20. Much as I enjoy the Sherlock Holmes stories, his correlation of sunburn with 'the tropics' is at fault. For example, I have been sunburned north of the Arctic Circle.

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    Yeah, it seems that Doyle/Holmes were confusing "hot sunny weather" with "the tropics" - which is, as a commenter on the question mentioned, an instance of Holmes playing with probabilities. His deductions aren't always 100% certain, no matter what the hype makes out.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 9:54

I am reading ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and had the same question because I lived in Kabul this past year. The summers can be hot, but the winters are freezing cold and there is a good deal of snow. He mentions Kandahar which is much hotter than Kabul. Considering how overcast and rainy London is, this would be tropical by comparison and Watson would have a tan.

I would not consider Afghanistan to be in the tropics or tropical , but it would ‘Tropical’ in comparison to London during the summer. From pure language and definition, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be incorrect, but conceptually and comparing he would be correct. The answer above about the tropical range was also a good one to keep in mind about what was considered ‘The Tropics’ during the that time.

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