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Vice, medicine, the military and the making of colonial India, 1780–1867

April 15, 2010

By Erica Wald

Intimately woven into debates about the British army’s effectiveness in India was a very real concern about the incidence of venereal disease and intemperance among the European soldiery. This was no empty rhetoric. While the rate of venereal disease among the men at some stations was as ‘low’ as 10 per cent, at others, it rose to as much as 72 per cent. And 10 per cent of hospital admissions were as a result of drink.

These numbers had serious implications for the East India Company. At any given point, an average of 35 per cent of its European soldiery was in hospital with venereal disease or a drink-related illness. Treatment times varied, but a soldier admitted with primary syphilis could expect to spend no less than a month in hospital. My research explores the ways in which officers and administrators alike viewed these ‘vice’-driven ills and suggests that they were seen as a risk not only to the men’s health and discipline but also to Britain’s ability to maintain its Empire in India. As a result, the control (or attempted control) of both venereal disease and drink was a central feature in military and medical decision making. What resulted was a series of actions that powerfully reshaped not just European relations with India but the very fabric of Indian society itself.

A coalition of surgeons and officers worked together to formulate a system to contain venereal diseases in the early 19th century. The core of the system was constituted by the lock hospitals, where diseased women were sequestered and forcibly ‘treated’ under lock and key. Though the system was never truly successful, it nevertheless proved to be an important blueprint for colonial officials in their dealings with a range of medical threats that followed. I analyse the ways in which the system grew out of a number of concerns and preconceptions: about the cost of the troops, the stability of the East India Company state and the low opinion that officers held of their European troops. This system, and the philosophy that guided it, had a significant impact on Indian society. The repeated failure to control venereal infections among the European soldiery was a source of enormous anxiety and frustration for East India Company officers and surgeons. My research examines how this frustration contributed to the construction of medically influenced conceptions of India, its peoples, gender and, more broadly, race. In addition, it explores the ways in which the rise of professional societies and journals in India provided surgeons with a platform to express their concerns. I suggest that the ebbs and flows of the lock hospital system were critical in moulding commanding officers and surgeons into a powerful lobby. Moreover, the impact of their demands on the colonial state quickly spread beyond military confines to more broadly shape imperial policies.

The reforms and regulations surrounding the issue of ‘vice’ highlight some of the more surprising inconsistencies and vulnerabilities of the Company state. Far from being a monolith, the Company was frequently undermined by its own servants. When it came to the health of the European troops, commanding officers and surgeons pushed their own demands and agendas instead of conforming to the dictates emerging from the Writer’s Building or Government House in Calcutta – and in so doing, often directly contravened ‘civil’ law. Thus, while it has been argued that Indian collaborators undermined the colonial state, in the case of venereal disease control, the Company’s own British servants carried out such subversion. These breaks in the line of control went further still. The fear of the European soldiery that shaped the lock hospital system highlights the precarious control of officers over even (or, perhaps more accurately, especially) their European troops.

My research explores this attempted regulation of ‘vice’ in 19th-century India as a crucial sphere of conjuncture of the lesser-studied anxieties of colonial rule. It argues that the connections between ideas of class, sex, health and control were central to decision making within the colonial state. Moreover, it points to the ways in which the impact of such tensions reverberated not only across India, but in Britain and throughout the Empire.

Erica Wald is a Tutorial Fellow in International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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