In the Company of Women

As imperial Britain’s cantonments swelled with men raised from across the country, with artillery, with Baker and Brunsfield rifles, they swelled, too, with an army of prostitutes

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"The high-noon of the sepoy army”, one military historian called it. Those decades of the late-18th and early-19th centuries when the East India Company swept aside the Marathas, Mysore, northern India’s princes, the Gurkhas and the Sikhs. Ambala, Delhi, Kanpur, Meerut, Rawalpindi, Sialkot — imperial Britain’s cantonments swelled with men raised from across the country, with artillery, with Baker and Brunsfield rifles. And they swelled, too, with an army of prostitutes. The Queen’s Daughters, historian Ratnabali Chatterjee calls them, housed and medically treated at the government’s expense.

Indian mores were considerably more relaxed than those of sexually-repressed Victorian England. Heterosexual and homosexual relations were open. Concubines were common. The army, perhaps the most regimented of institutions, saw the consequences for its teenage recruits, and responded as only armies could.

 In the Company of Women

A painting showing a sowar of the 6th Madras Light Cavalry, circa 1845. Image for representation only. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Lal Bazaars

In 1850s, there were 75 military districts and in each of these, prostitution was supervised by authorities. The doctors of the Indian Medical Service were responsible for regulating the brothels. All prostitutes had to be registered; none under the age of 15 could be enrolled. The women were provided with living quarters that were regularly inspected. A brothel in Lucknow had 55 rooms.

Young British soldiers, largely volunteers from impoverished sections of England and Ireland, made up the bulk of the demand for Indian prostitutes.  In spite of their prudish Christian ideological leanings, officials conceded access to sex had a bearing on the health and vigour of the soldiers. The awareness became more acute after the 1857 revolt, as a strong British army came to be regarded as the precondition for a stable empire, Chatterjee says.

Women with sexually transmitted diseases were removed till they recovered. The concern for the health of soldiers was a military decision to keep the fighting machine fit to protect colonies. In 1864, the Contagious Diseases Act was passed in Britain; it also applied to other parts of the empire. The Act was also translated into different regional languages. A guide book for prostitutes in Bengali shows the women were instructed to fill out forms; brothel keepers and pimps were brought in as subsidiaries to police this system of prostitution.

Both Indian and European soldiers used these bazaars, but Indian sepoys were discouraged from visiting prostitutes preferred by European soldiers. British soldiers visited prostitutes more often than sepoys. British soldiers were not married, while sepoys were usually married men.

These bazaars were called Lal Bazaars, or the red markets, perhaps a local word for red-light areas.  British regiments spent several years in India and many a times children were born of such relationships.

Going Native

In the 18th and early 19th century, officers married among the local elite. Most Company employees, both civil and military, joined the service at 16. Several factors such as a young age, prolonged stay in India with limited home leave, posting to a far-off station with little contact with Europeans led to complete ‘nativisation’ of some Englishmen.

In late 17th and 18th century, many Europeans had concubines and also married local women. They were kept in a separate house named Bibi Ghar. Some Englishmen retained their religion while others converted to Hinduism or Islam and went native. Some children of such unions straddled the two worlds comfortably while others drifted to one side.

Historian William Dalrymple has documented these ties extensively in his book White Mughals. The British Resident, or ambassador, in Delhi Sir David Ochterlony lived like a nawab. He had 13 Indian consorts, the most famous being Mubarak Begum.

Major General Charles Stuart became, for all practical purposes, a Hindu. Nicknamed Hindu Stuart and General Pandit, Stuart was buried in a Christian cemetery in Calcutta but with his Hindu gods.

Cultural differences sometime plagued such ties. Hercules Skinner, a soldier of fortune, married a Hindu Rajput lady and several children were born to them. The wife, however, committed suicide when Skinner tried to bring their daughters out of purdah to be educated and married to Englishmen.

Their son, James Skinner, raised the famous irregular cavalry regiment Skinners Horse, precursor to India’s senior-most cavalry regiment, the Ist Lancers. James had 14 Hindu and Muslim wives and consorts. He lived like a Muslim but later in life regularly read the Bible and was buried in St. James Church in Delhi.

End of the affair

Evangelical Christian activity and the flow of European ladies to India severely restricted such encounters. By the middle of 19th century, such relationships had all but disappeared.

The British were apprehensive about Indians interacting with English women. This unease was at play during World War I as well. Indian soldiers came in contact with women when they fought on the Western front. Some Indians, especially Sikhs and Pathans, had sexual relations with local French women.  There were marriages as well, alarming the British who didn’t allow the soldiers to bring these women back to India.

Some deserter Pathans, mainly trans-frontier Afridis, married German women and a handful brought back their wives. The Khyber political agent files kept track of such people. There is a record of an Afridi staying back in Germany after the war and running a tobacco shop in a town.

Company’s ‘gender no bar’ policy

Homosexual relations weren’t uncommon — and were quietly accepted.  Lovers of boys got themselves posted to the Piffers, or the Punjab Irregular Frontier Force, which guarded the North-West Frontier, or the scouts. Ethnic-Pashtun culture, like so many others around the world, was not judgmental about homo-erotic relationships, and for gay officers from England, this opened a world of sexual opportunity unavailable at home.

But officers posted to regiments with significant Pathan element or scouts faced unique headaches. There were times where a young recruit would put a bullet in the head of an old subedar to ward off unwanted advances.

Then there was a problem of discipline. A subedar might, for example, extend special favours to his ‘young lad’ by keeping him at the headquarters and giving him easy duties instead of sending him to remote posts. At other times, two young sepoys would insist they be posted together for night patrol or to an outpost where they would be together for days.

Early on, it is often forgotten, race was not an ironclad barrier in the colonial army.  “Large bodies of troops”, John Kaye wrote in his History of the Sepoy War in India, 1857-1858, “were sometimes despatched on hazardous enterprises under the independent command of a native leader, and it was not thought an offence to a European soldier to send him to fight under a black commandant.

The black commandant was then a great man in spite of his colour”“A brave man or a skilful leader”, Kaye concluded, “was honoured for his bravery or skill as much under the folds of a turban or a round hat”.

But the nature of these sexual relationship changed with the status of British in India — from traders and soldiers for hire to rulers.

Hamid Husain is a chronicler of the British Indian Army

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