Thursday, 18 September 2008

Sex, lies and red tape

The Lock Hospitals were part of a system to control the spread of venereal disease amongst troops in India in the latter part of the 19th century.
There are 5 volumes of reports on the working of these hospitals in the Medical History of British India project and they have returned from being filmed and scanned. Of all the collections in the project I find this the most extraordinary, giving lively and unrestrained accounts of the Imperialist implementation of the Indian Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 and 1868.
To protect soldiers from disease prostitutes were encouraged to register and be examined weekly. However, some did not bow to the authorities and continued to ply their trade any way they could: “a woman, believed to have been a source of much mischief, was found in the lines, living in a rum-barrel.” (North-Western Provinces, 1878) Click on the image that accompanies this post to see the full page containing this quote.
The authors of the reports did not disguise their feelings about the native women, many of whom were driven to prostitution through poverty and addiction: “It is worse than useless retaining these hags on the register; they should be turned out of cantonments, and a younger, less repulsive class of women substituted. Until something of this kind happens the Lock Hospital is not likely to prove a success.” (R. M. Edwards, 1877)
Anyone interested in governmentality, colonial medicine and power, history of prostitution and military health will find these reports fascinating. Lock Hospitals were not just used in India; the London Lock Hospital opened in 1747 and as recent as the 1940s there was one on Fantome Island, North Queensland, which treated Aboriginal people.