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The Working Class in Britain and India

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The Duke of Wellington described the rank and file of the British Army in the nineteenth century as “the scum of the earth”. Throughout the nineteenth century there was tremendous prejudice towards the working class both in Britain and India. This prejudice held such a stronghold over the mindset of British officials, that it resulted in being a key principle when considering the regulation of sexuality between the coloniser and colonised in the operation of the Contagious Diseases Act (C.D.A). However, we cannot deny the fact that there were other, if not more pressing concerns which influenced the regulation of sexuality. This essay will explore significant principles which are detrimental to understanding the regulation of sexuality between coloniser and the colonised in the operation of the C.D.A. Such as, colonial hierarchies regarding gender, race and class in the debates surrounding the C.D.A.

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The C.D.A of 1868 was passed to prevent the spread of Venereal Diseases (VD) after a report by the Royal Commission on the Sanitary State of the Army in India described VD as ‘the scourge of British troops. Class prejudice against working class men is a key principle in understanding the passing of this act. British officers viewed the British rank and file as “drunkards and pickpockets thrown together with the labouring poor”, and it was this stereotyping which greatly influenced the passing of the C.D.A. It was clear that something needed to be done to prevent the spread of VD, but how to regulate it was a topic of great debate. Officials viewed that the rank and file were ruled by their “baser instincts”, but a fear of interrupting these instincts would result in mutiny. As a result of this fear it was decided amongst officials that regulation of sexual activity would be controlled through the regulation of the prostitutes, entrapping them in Lock Hospitals if any were caught having VD. Preventing the soldiers from satisfying their frustrations was certainly not an option to be considered, since it was seen as important in proving a soldier’s masculinity and avoiding worse circumstances such as violence, desertion, increased alcoholism and homosexuality. The fear and prejudice of the working classes reached such a height that it forced officials to find an alternative route to the regulation of sexuality between the coloniser and colonised than to regulate the troops themselves. Prejudice and the belief that working class soldiers were incapable of controlling their desires had a significance influence on the passing of the C.D.A, and instead a regulation of prostitution was preferable to leaving the soldiers to their own devices, or worse, provoking them.

Debates surrounding the C.D.A also reveal that British officials regulated sexuality as a form of control between the coloniser and colonised. According to Hyam, the empire proved to be “an unrivalled field for the maximisation of sexual opportunity and the pursuit of sexual variation”, exploring how the C.D.A was created to regulate sexuality for the enterprise of the British empire and power. Looking at C.D.A itself several clauses, such as clause twelve to fourteen, which specify Local-Government control over hospitals, policing and examinations of Indian women, demonstrate an alternative motive to the C.D.A. It wasn’t purely created to prevent the spread of VD, but also allowed the British government to tighten control over its colonial subjects. In addition, through creating an act which accentuated the social and sanitary between the coloniser and colonised, the British could validate their own sense of superiority over Indian society. As argued by Peers, the Indian cantonments were “a microcosm of colonial rule”, pushing the Indians into submission through the C.D Acts as a form of control. Medical and commanding officers also used the C.D.A to enact control and through the regulation of sexuality. The clauses within the C.D.A enabled military and medical officers to implement a more punitive and controlling regime in and around the cantonments. This enabled British officials to reinforce a colonising mentality over their Indian subjects, which used Indian inferiority to justify their ‘civilising mission’.

In correspondence with control and class prejudice, racial prejudice played a significant role in influencing the creation of the C.D.A as a legislation of morality and prejudice against race. The concept of morality during the nineteenth century was a white one, and any others were ‘less than British’.  

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