Hostname: page-component-cd4964975-598jt Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-29T12:59:25.969Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Stimulation, Segregation and Scandal: Geographies of Prostitution Regulation in British India, between Registration (1888) and Suppression (1923)*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2012

University of Nottingham Email:


This paper explores the regulation of prostitution in colonial India between the abolition of the Indian Contagious Diseases Act in 1888 and the passing of the first Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act in 1923. It challenges the commonly held assumption that prostitutes naturally segregated themselves in Indian cities, and shows that this was a policy advocated by the Government of India. The object was to prevent the military visiting these segregated areas, in the absence of effective Cantonment Regulations for registering, inspecting, and treating prostitutes. The central government stimulated provincial segregation through expressing its desires via demi-official memoranda and confidential correspondence, to which Rangoon and Bombay responded most willingly. The second half of the paper explores the conditions, in both India and Ceylon, that made these segregated areas into scandalous sites in the early twentieth century. It situates the brothel amongst changing beliefs that they: increased rather than decreased incidents of homosexuality; stimulated trafficking in women and children; and encouraged the spread of scandalous white prostitutes ‘up-country’, beyond their tolerated location in coastal cosmopolitan ports. Taken alongside demands that the state support social reform in the early twentieth century, segregation provided the tipping point for the shift towards suppression from 1917 onwards. It also illustrates the scalar shifts in which central-local relations, and relations between provinces, in government were being negotiated in advance of the dyarchy system formalized in 1919.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



This paper benefitted greatly from two anonymous peer reviews and was researched using funds from a Philip Leverhulme Prize. The British Library Board generously allowed the reproduction of figure one, and the Centre for Advanced Study, University of Nottingham, provided the funds to print the colour image. My thanks to Elaine Watts for preparing figure two.


1 See Edwardes, S. M. (1924). Crime in India: a Brief Review of the more Important Offences included in the Annual Criminal Returns with Chapters on Prostitution & Miscellaneous Matters, Humphrey Milford, London. p. 75Google Scholar.

2 Howell, P. (2009). Geographies of Regulation: Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the Empire, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. p. 234Google Scholar.

3 Edwardes. Crime in India, p. 90.

4 Howell. Geographies of Regulation.

5 Bayly, S. (1999). Caste, society and politics in India from the eighteenth century to the modern age, Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Ballhatchet, K. (1980). Race, sex and class under the Raj: imperial attitudes and policies and their critics, 1793–1905, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, LondonGoogle Scholar.

7 Levine, P. (1996). Rereading the 1890s: venereal disease as ‘constitutional crisis’ in Britain and British India, The Journal of Asian Studies 55:3, 585612CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Roy, R. B. (1998). Sexually transmitted diseases and the Raj, Sexually Transmitted Infections 74, 2026CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

9 Phillips, R. (2002). ‘Imperialism, sexuality and space: purity movements in the British Empire’, in Blunt, A. and McEwan, C.Postcolonial geographies, Continuum, London, pp. 4663Google Scholar.

10 Levine, P. (2003). Prostitution, race and politics: policing venereal disease in the British Empire, Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar.

11 Kumar, M. S. (2005). ‘Oriental Sore’ or ‘Public Nuisance’: The Regulation of Prostitution in Colonial India, 1805–1889, in Proudfoot, L. J. and Roche, M. M.(Dis)Placing Empire: Renegotiating British Colonial Geographies, Ashgate, Aldershot; Burlington, VT, pp. 155174Google Scholar.

12 Hodges, S. (2005). Looting the Lock Hospital in Colonial Madras, Social History of Medicine 18:3, 379398CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Raj, S. M. (1993). Prostitution in Madras: a study in historical perspective, PVT Ltd, DelhiGoogle Scholar.

14 Banerjee, S. (1998). Dangerous outcasts: the prostitute in nineteenth century Bengal, Seagull Books, CalcuttaGoogle Scholar.

15 Tambe, A. (2009). Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay University of Minnesota Press MinneapolisGoogle Scholar.

16 Legg, S. (2009). Governing Prostitution in Colonial Delhi: from Cantonment Regulations to International Hygiene (1864–1939), Social History 34:4, 447467CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 ‘Scalar’ is used here to refer to processes that assume, and work to create the impression of, autonomous levels of social and material existence. These usually assume a vertical ontology, that is, of ‘higher’ (global, state, economic or demographic) realms and processes, with corresponding ‘lower’ (local, municipal, trade, family) levels. These assumptions can be worked against by investigating the material networks and discursive naming effects through which the impression of scalar processes are created. For a review of the debate over the concept of scale in geography see Legg, S. (2009). Of scales, networks and assemblages: the League of Nations apparatus and the scalar sovereignty of the Government of India, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 34:2, 234253CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 For a discussion and deployment of Malcolm Gladwell's concept of ‘tipping point’ see Sinha, M. (2006). Specters of Mother India: the global restructuring of an Empire Duke University Press, Durham. p. 1.

19 Levine. Rereading the 1890s.

20 Estimated at an average of 25 per cent over the previous 18 years in Madras. Ballhatchet. Race, sex and class under the Raj: imperial attitudes and policies and their critics, 1793–1905, p. 35.

21 Ballhatchet. Race, sex and class under the Raj, p. 40.

22 National State Archives, New Delhi [henceforth NA]/Home(Public)/1869/112–115A/February 20.

23 NA/Home(Public)/1869/112–115A/February 20.

24 NA/Home(Public)/1869/112–115A/February 20.

25 Wald, E. (2009). From begums and bibis to abandoned females and idle women: sexual relationships, venereal disease and redefinition of prostitution in early nineteenth-century India, The Indian Economic and Social History Review 46:1, 525CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 NA/Home(Public)/1869/202–3/March 27. For further examples see Legg, Governing Prostitution in Colonial Delhi.

27 Ballhatchet. Race, sex and class under the Raj: pp. 40–65.

28 NA/Home(Sanitary)/1877/19–35A/November.

29 Ballhatchet. Race, sex and class under the Raj, pp. 68–82.

30 Kaminsky, A. P. (1979). Morality Legislation and British Troops In Late Nineteenth-Century India, Military Affairs 43:2, 7884, p. 82CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

31 Legg, S. (2010). An intimate and imperial feminism: Meliscent Shephard and the regulation of prostitution in colonial India, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28:1, 6894CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Banerjee. Dangerous outcasts.

33 Tambe, A. (2006). Brothels as families: reflections on the history of Bombay's kothas, International journal of politics 8:2, 219242CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 On the shift from viewing prostitution as a problem of surveillance, as in registered and segregated spaces, to one of security and apparatuses throughout broader society, see Howell, P. (2007). ‘Foucault, Sexuality, Geography’, in Crampton, J. and Elden, S.Space, Knowledge, and Power: Foucault and Geography, Ashgate, Aldershot, pp. 291316Google Scholar.

35 Cell, J. W. (1986). Anglo-Indian Medical Theory and the Origins of Segregation in West Africa, The American Historical Review 91:2, 307335CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

36 Arnold, D. (1993). Colonizing the body: state medicine and epidemic disease in nineteenth-century India, University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 12Google Scholar.

37 These rates had risen from 166 admissions per month in 1873 to 409 in 1892, see Ballhatchet. Race, sex and class under the Raj, p. 80.

38 NA/Home(Police)/1910/3B/February.

39 NA/Home(Sanitary)/1898/737–738A/April.

40 NA/Home(Sanitary)/1898/737–738A/April.

41 NA/Home(Sanitary)/1898/737–738A/April.

42 NA/Home(Sanitary)/1899/207–214/October.

43 NA/Home(Sanitary)/1877/19–35A/November.

44 NA/Home(Sanitary)/1899/207–214/October.

45 NA/Home(Municipalities)/1900/15B/May.

46 The Cantonment Code (1899, XIII) Lahore, Civil and Military Gazette, p. 55.

47 NA/Home(Sanitary)/1899/207–214/October.

48 NA/Home(Legislative)/1901/6–9A.

49 NA/Home(Sanitary)/1899/207–214/October.

50 Central Provinces Municipal Act (1889) section 85.

51 The City of Madras Municipal Act (1884) section 413.

52 Punjab Municipal Act (1891) section 204; Burma Municipal Act (1898) section 181.

53 Bengal Municipal Act (1884) section 352.

54 NA/Home(police)/1901/40–41A/December.

55 NA/Home(Police)/1902/20A/June.

56 NA/Home(Juridical)/1901/13–15B.

57 NA/Home(Legislative)/1901/6–9A.

58 NA/Home(Legislative)/1899/1–8A/January.

59 India Office Records, British Library [henceforth IOR]/P/4479/March 1894/123–124. I am indebted to Jonathan Saha for directing me to these Home (Municipal) proceedings.

60 IOR/P/4881/August 1896/71.

61 NA/Home(Legislative)/1901/6–9A.

62 NA/Home(Police)/1920/24–29A/January.

63 NA/Home(Legislative)/1901/6–9A.

67 NA/Home(Legislative)/1902/15–17A.

68 Also see Tambe. Codes of Misconduct, p. 107.

69 NA/Home(Legislative)/1902/15–17A.

70 Tambe. Codes of Misconduct p. 167.

71 Kidambi, P. (2007). The making of an Indian metropolis: colonial governance and public culture in Bombay, 1890–1920, Ashgate, Aldershot. p. 136Google Scholar.

72 NA/Home(Police)/1903/79–82A/March.

74 Ibid.; Risley is discussed at length in Dirks, N. (2001). Castes of mind: colonialism and the making of modern India, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New JerseyGoogle Scholar.

75 NA/Home(Police)/1919/327B.

76 NA/Home(Police)/1903/20–23A/July.

77 NA/Home(Police)/1904/21–23A/February.

79 Agnes, F. (1999). Law and gender inequality: the politics of women's rights in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi. p. 58Google Scholar.

80 DA/CC(General)/1938/694.

81 Delhi State Archives/Chief Commissioner's files (General)/1938/694.

82 NA/Home(Police)/1920/24–29A.

84 Fischer-Tiné, H. (2003). ‘White women degrading themselves to the lowest depths’: European networks of prostitution and colonial anxieties in British India and Ceylon ca. 1880–1914 The Indian Economic and Social History Review 40:2, 163190, especially p. 187CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

85 NA/Home(Police)/1920/24–29A.

86 Women's Library, London [henceforth WL]/3AMS/C/05/03: Alison Neilans, General Secretary of the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, to Meliscent Shephard,16/4/30.

87 O'Malley, P. (1996). Indigenous governance, Economy and Society 25:3, 310326CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

88 Tambe. Codes of Misconduct p. xiii; Peers, D. M. (1998). Privates off Parade: Regimenting Sexuality in the Nineteenth-Century Indian Empire, The International History Review 20:4, 823854, p. 826CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

89 Dirks, N. (2006). The scandal of empire: India and the creation of imperial Britain, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

90 Arnold, D. (1994). ‘Crisis and contradiction in India's public health’, in Porter, D.The history of public health and the modern state, Rodopi, Amsterdam, pp. 335–355, especially p. 335Google Scholar.

91 Rajan, R. S. (2003). The scandal of the state: women, law, and citizenship in postcolonial India, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina. p. 49CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

92 Peers. Privates off Parade, Peers, D. M. (2009). ‘The More the Foul Case Is Stirred, the More Offensive It Becomes: Imperial Authority, Victorian Sentimenality, and the Court Martial of Colonial Crawley’, in Agha, and Kolsky, E.Fringes of Empire: People, Places and Spaces in Colonial India, Oxford University Press, New DelhiGoogle Scholar.

93 Rao, A. and Pierce, S. (2006). ‘Discipline and the other body: humanitarianism, violence, and the colonial exception’, in Discipline and the Other Body: Correction, Corporeality, Colonialism Duke University Press, Durham, pp. 135Google Scholar.

94 Kolsky, E. (2010). Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. p. 195Google Scholar.

95 Sinha. Specters of Mother India,.

96 Sinha, M. (2000). Mapping the imperial social formation: a modest proposal for feminist history, Signs 25:4, 10771082CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

97 See Anderson, B. and McFarlane, C. (2011). Assemblage and geography, Area 43:2, 124127CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

98 Duncan, J. S. (1990). The city as text: the politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan kingdom, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. p. 89Google Scholar.

99 Dalrymple, W. (2006). The last Mughal: the fall of a dynasty, Delhi, 1857, Bloomsbury, LondonGoogle Scholar.

100 Hall, C. (2002). Civilising subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination, 1830–1867 Polity, CambridgeGoogle Scholar.

101 Valeska Huber, ‘The City of Port Said as a Nodal Point in Networks of Crime and Prostitution around 1900’, 8th International Conference on Urban History, Stockholm, 2006. Also see Briggs, L. (2002). Reproducing empire: race, sex, science and US imperialism in Puerto Rico, University of California Press, Berkeley, California. p. 58Google Scholar on the role of scandal in the regulation of Puerto Rican prostitutes.

102 NA/Home(police)/1901/40–41A/December.

103 Joyce, J. (1922 [1986]). Ulysses, Bodley Head, London. p. 266Google Scholar. Many thanks to Gerry Kearns for the ball of string to this quote.

104 On homosexuality and colonialism in India and beyond see Aldrich, R. (2002). Colonialism and homosexuality, Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar; New York; Arondekar, A. (2009). For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India, Duke University Press, DurhamCrossRefGoogle Scholar; Peers. Privates off Parade; and Vanita, R. (2002) Queering India: same-sex love and eroticism in Indian culture and society, New York; London, RoutledgeGoogle Scholar.

105 Foucault, M. (1979). The history of sexuality volume 1: an introduction, Allen Lane, London, p. 43Google Scholar.

106 Hyam, R. (1990). Empire and sexuality: the British experience Manchester University Press, Manchester. p. 123Google Scholar.

107 Bhaskaran, S. (2002). ‘The politics of penetration: section 377 of the Indian Penal Code’, in Vanita, R.Queering India: same-sex love and eroticism in Indian culture and society, New York; London, Routledge. p. 17Google Scholar.

108 Fischer-Tiné. ‘White women degrading themselves to the lowest depths’: European networks of prostitution and colonial anxieties in British India and Ceylon ca. 1880–1914, p. 185.

109 NA/Home(Port Blair)/1914/34A.

110 Peers. Privates off Parade, p. 843.

111 NA/Home(Police)/1920/24–29A.

112 NA/Home(Police)/1920/24–29A/January.

113 NA/Home(Police)/1919/327B.

114 Public prostitution in Rangoon: Report to the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene on brothel-keeping, prostitution, segregation and immoral conditions in Rangoon and other towns and stations in Burma (London: AMSH, 1916), p. 8; WL/3AMS/D/37/02 or IOR/L/P&J/6/1448(2987). Henceforth referred to as Public prostitution in Rangoon.

115 For instance: as the centres of sexual corruption in Bloch, I. (1908). The sexual life of our time in its relations to modern civilization, William Heinemann, London. p. 304Google Scholar; as centres for the ‘. . .arithmetic progress of mutations of sexual intercourse’ in Forel, A. (1908). The sexual question: a scientific, psychological, hygienic and sociological study for the cultured classes, Rebman London; New York. p. 304Google Scholar; and of sites of servitude and entrapment in Ellis, H. (1910 [1925]). Studies in the psychology of sex, vol. VI: sex in relation to society, FA Davis Company, Philadelphia. p. 302CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

116 Neville-Rolfe, S. (1924). ‘The relationship between venereal disease and the regulation of prostitution’, in NCCVD Imperial Social Hygiene Congress, National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases, London, pp. 3655Google Scholar.

117 IOR/L/MIL/7/13902.

118 See Trotter, D. (2008). Dockside Prostitution in South African Ports, History Compass 6:3, 673690CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

119 Fischer-Tiné. ‘White women degrading themselves to the lowest depths’, p. 172.

120 See Legg. Of scales, networks and assemblages: the League of Nations apparatus and the scalar sovereignty of the Government of India; Metzger, B. (2007). ‘Towards an international human rights regime during the interwar years’; the League of Nations’ combat of traffic in women and children’, in Grant, K., Levine, P. and Trentmann, F.Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, Empire and Transnationalism, c.1880–1950, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke; New York, pp. 5479CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

121 On the cosmopolitan and border transgressing nature of Ceylon see Sivasundaram, S. (2010). Ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration in the advent of British Rule to Sri Lanka, American Historical Review 115:2, 428452CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the role of the British in blurring the lines between India and Ceylon, through labour migration, see Duncan, J. S. (2007). In the shadows of the tropics: struggles over bio-power in nineteenth century Ceylon, Ashgate, AldershotGoogle Scholar.

122 NA/Home(Police)/1903/20–23A/July.

123 WL/3AMS/C/4/1 BOX 93.

124 Levine. Prostitution, race and politics Chapter nine; Tambe, A. (2005). The elusive ingénue: a transnational feminist analysis of European prostitutes in colonial Bombay, Gender and Society 19:2, 160179CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fischer-Tiné. ‘White women degrading themselves to the lowest depths’.

125 NA/Home(Judicial)/1913/6–23A/August.

126 Levine, P. (2000). Orientalist sociology and the creation of colonial sexualities, Feminist Review 65:Summer, 521, 11CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

127 See Blunt, A. (2005). Domicile and Diaspora: Anglo-Indian Women and the Spatial Politics of Home, Blackwell, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar, for the anxieties prompted by Anglo-Indians.

128 Kerr, R. (1886). The Social Evil in Calcutta T. S. Smith, CalcuttaGoogle Scholar.

129 Ibid., p. 11.

130 ‘Quean’ originally referred to any woman or female but later came to refer to ‘a bold or impudent woman; a hussy; spec. a prostitute.’ Oxford English Dictionary (OED), draft revision March 2010, accessed online at

131 Spirituel, -elle: ‘Of a highly refined character or nature, esp. in conjunction with liveliness or quickness of mind’ (OED 1989).

132 Anonyma ‘A women of doubtful reputation and social standing, upon the outskirts of ‘society.’ (OED 1989).

133 Drab: ‘1. A dirty and untidy woman; a slut, slattern. 2. A harlot, prostitute, strumpet.’ (OED 1989).

134 Kerr. The social evil in Calcutta, p. 12.

135 Tambe. Codes of Misconduct, p. 67.

136 Copland, I. (1997). The princes of India in the endgame of empire, 1917–1947, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. p. 21CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

137 Chatterjee, P. (1989). ‘The nationalist resolution of the women's question’, in Sangari, K. and Vaid, S.Recasting women: essays in colonial history, Kali for Women, New Delhi, pp. 233253Google Scholar.

138 MacMunn, G. (1935). Turmoil and Tragedy in India, 1914 and after, Jarrolds, London. p. 91Google Scholar.

139 Josh, S. S. (1977). Hindustan Gadar Party: a short history, People's Publishing House, New Delhi. p. 67Google Scholar. I am indebted to Muhammad Ali Raza for directing me to this source.

140 NA/Home(Police)/1914/168–169B/January.

141 For an alternative reading see Nair, J. (2008). ‘Imperial reason’, national honour and new patriarchal compacts in early twentieth-century India, History Workshop Journal 66, 208226CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

142 Ibid.

143 NA/Home(Police)/1912/124B/July.

144 NA/Home(Police)/1914/168–169B/January.

145 Ibid.

146 NA/Home(Judicial)/1913/6–23A/August.

147 For an alternative reading see Tambe, A. (2009). The state as surrogate parent: legislating nonmarital sex in colonial India, 1911–1929, Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 2:3, 393427CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

148 Rule, P. (1987). ‘Prostitution in Calcutta, 1860–1940: the pattern of recruitment’, in Pearson, G. and Manderson, L.Class, ideology and women in Asian society, Asian Research Service, Hong KongGoogle Scholar.

149 Tambe. Codes of Misconduct, Chapter four.

150 Public prostitution in Rangoon,.

151 Schmitt, C. (1932 [2011]). trans. Hannah, Matthew GForms of modern imperialism in international law’, in Legg, S.Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt: Geographies of the Nomos, Routledge, London. p. 2945Google Scholar.