Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Empire and its Prostitutes

 The BBC website carries a report on how sex workers in India had to undergo medical examinations by the British colonial authorities. 

As usual, the BBC's reporting is belated. The Socialist Party were early critics of the Empire's use of women to "service" the troops. 

And an article appeared on an Indian based progressive website based upon this blog post.

The Conscripted Prostitutes

During the days of Empire when Britain ruled India there were licensed brothels for the use of the occupation troops. Each regiment had at its disposal from twelve to fifteen native women, who dwelt in what were called “chaklas.” These women were allowed to consort with British soldiers only, and were registered with the local magistrate. If a woman tried to escape from the chakla, she would be punished with fine or imprisonment. In charge of the women was placed a superintendent or brothelkeeper, called the “mahaldarni.” She also was expected to procure women. “Ameer has supplied the 2nd Derby Regiment with prostitutes for the past three years, and I recommend her to any other regiment requiring her for a similar capacity.” -S. G. M., Quartermaster 2nd Derby Regiment.”

The price of the visits of soldiers to the chakla was fixed and was so low that the soldier would scarcely miss what he paid. When the soldiers were on the march, the women were carried in carts, with British soldiers to guard them.

Their sexual exploitation was justified by Colonel T. G. Crawley, commanding Allahabad District, describing the monetary compensation calculation: --

“It stands to reason that the women could not be in debt, for if a woman only received six men daily for twenty-three days in a month, at the rate of only four annas [about fourpence] per visit, that would represent thirty-four rupees eight annas, and even allowing one-fourth of this to go to the mahaldarni, rent two rupees, and food at the rate of four annas daily for thirty days, a woman would have fully seventeen rupees [a little more than one ]pound] a month clear.”

An 1886 military order, written by the Commander-in-Chief of the army in India (Lord Roberts) laid out the rules:

“In the regimental bazaars it is necessary to have a sufficient number of women, to take care that they are sufficiently attractive...”

His orders were carried out. The officer in command of the 2nd Battalion Cheshire Regiment sent the following application to the magistrate of Umballa Cantonment: “Requisition for extra attractive women for regimental bazaar, in accordance with Circular Memorandum 21a...Please send young and attractive women..” Another commanding officer writes: “There are not enough women; they are not attractive enough. More and younger women are required, and their houses should be improved.” Yet another commanding officer writes: “I have ordered the number of prostitutes to be increased to twelve, and have given special instructions as to the four additional women being young and of attractive appearance.” Another case cited was one commanding officer who issued orders to his quartermaster to arrange with the regimental Kutwal [an under-official, native] to take two policemen, and go into the villages and take from the homes of these poor people their daughters from fourteen years and upwards, about twelve or fifteen girls at a time. They were to select the best-looking. Next morning, these were all put in front of the Colonel and Quartermaster. The former made his selection of the number required. They were then presented with a pass or license, and then made over to the old woman in charge. The women already there, were then examined by the doctor, and found diseased, had their passes taken away from them, and were removed by the police and these fresh, innocent girls put in their places.

Innocent females were denounced as suspected prostitute and made to register to live among the soldiers. Corrupt police made large sums of money by threatening to thus hand over girls to the magistrate, and demanding bribes as the alternative of such a fate.

The above facts are taken from a missionaries book “The Queens Daughters in India”. Despite the Christian morality it espouses against the state-sponsored prostitution it does offer some other insights about the subjugation of India by the British Empire.

“Wages are so low in India as to constitute the native the virtual slave of the Anglo-Saxon.

By means of the pitiful wages paid for work, not one-half the comfort is provided by white masters to Indian servants that was secured to the black men in America, by the few of those owners of slaves who were really humane. The very fact that the slave was a rather scarce article and a good price paid for him in America, made it to the interest of his owner to look after his health and comfort to a certain extent. We are not defending slavery – it is an abomination in the sight of God, whether it exists under the disguise of abnormally low wages or shows itself openly; and slavery is always a greater moral curse to the master than to the oppressed. England virtually owns a whole nation of slaves in her control of India, and the effect of this fact upon the morals of that country will depend wholly upon whether she rules to redeem her subjects or to enrich herself. The worst feature of all in slavery is the appropriation of women by their masters. And this form of villainy is always excusing itself by slandering the oppressed women.”

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