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The fight for Bombay’s red-light district

An excerpt from a new book of essays in honour of Australian historian Jim Masselos revisits the early days of Kamathipura in colonial Bombay

Kamathipura was linked to Bombay through causeways in the late 18th century. photographs from alamy
Kamathipura was linked to Bombay through causeways in the late 18th century. photographs from alamy

Bombay was a node in a circuit spanning cities in Asia, South America and Africa. Brothel workers came to the city from Eastern Europe, particularly following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, sometimes proceeding southwards or eastwards towards Cape Town, Colombo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. The large number of British sailors, soldiers and administrators constituted a client base for the city’s European sex trade. Even after brothels were banned in Britain in 1885, the colonial government tolerated them in India (and other colonies) because it viewed sexual recreation for British servicemen and sailors as an imperative. As the number of sailors visiting the city increased, an organised system for directing sailors from ports to licensed brothels emerged, approved by the Chief Medical Officer of Bombay. This system continued into the 1920s, when sailors coming ashore were driven straight to brothels. Brothels even catered to specific shipping lines, assigning pimps to wait at dock gates to escort sailors.

The brothels that were the focal point of Bombay’s reputation as a node in an international sex trade were located in Kamathipura. This part of Bombay developed outside the fortified enclave (‘Fort’) in which Portuguese and then British rulers initially lived and worked. Kamathipura was a part of the delineated native town that lay beyond the northern bounds of the Fort. It was set in a low-lying area of land between Bombay’s original seven islands that was reclaimed in the late 1700s after the construction of the Hornby Vellard causeway connecting the islands. The streets in Kamathipura were laid out in 1803, but major construction of paved roads only began in the 1860s. The area was first settled after its reclamation in the early nineteenth century by artisans and construction workers called Kamathis who had migrated from Hyderabad province. In the 1860s, municipal commissioner Arthur Crawford explicitly directed municipal sweepers to live there….

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

It is clear from the 1864 census that European women had settled in Kamathipura by that time: the area had the second-largest female European population in the city (224 women) after Colaba (408 women). While the concentration of European women in Colaba may be attributed to its army quarters, the large number of European women in Kamathipura can be attributed to brothels set up there. The low caste of Kamathipura’s initial residents—artisans, sweepers and construction workers—made it cheaper to lease to brothel workers. One brothel landlord, who began leasing houses out to Italian and German prostitutes, explained that sweepers led ‘disorderly lives’ and that ‘no respectable person would live there’. In the late 1860s, large numbers of European and Middle Eastern brothel workers started travelling to Bombay after the inauguration of the Suez Canal. European brothels became so conspicuous in the area that by the 1880s, a principal street in Kamathipura called Cursetji Suklaji Street…was described as safed galli (White Lane). By 1917, a guide to the street names of Bombay explained that ‘Kamathipura is commonly used to denote the prostitutes’ quarter’ and that ‘Grant Road … and Suklaji Street [are] names which connote a good deal more than geography’. A Royal Army Medical Corps official noted in 1921 that ‘[e]very subaltern and soldier in the British Army from Cape Wrath to Hong Kong knows of “Grant Road"’ and that ‘it was the first place of interest’ they went to see when visiting Bombay.

There was a specific kind of non-British whiteness that characterised European women in these brothels. Although the term ‘European’ was used in colonial India generically to include Britons, the European women in this context had specifically continental origins. While the state deported British prostitutes, women from other European countries—France, Germany, and Italy, and particularly Poland, Austria, Romania and Russia—were allowed to reside in Bombay. Not only did their involvement in the sex trade place them outside the limits of respectability, their continental and mostly Eastern European origins rendered them foreigners. Many of them were Jewish—Jewish cemeteries appeared in this area in maps from the 1870s: one on Grant Road just south of the numbered streets of Kamathipura, and another at the intersection of Bellasis Road and Duncan Road, an outer corner of the Kamathipura. Administrators frequently highlighted the Jewish background of brothel workers: the police commissioner of Bombay from 1909 to 1917, S.M. Edwardes, highlighted ‘the preponderance of Jewesses in the brothels’ and the ‘Jewish identity of procurers’ in most of his official writing on the subject.

Bombay Before Mumbai—Essays In Honour Of Jim Masselos: Edited by Prashant Kidambi, Manjiri Kamat and Rachel Dwyer, Penguin Random House India, 464 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>999.
Bombay Before Mumbai—Essays In Honour Of Jim Masselos: Edited by Prashant Kidambi, Manjiri Kamat and Rachel Dwyer, Penguin Random House India, 464 pages, 999.

Many of the European women had been brought to the city by networks of agents. Their specific European countries of origin are mentioned in various records: census tables, Contagious Diseases Acts’ enforcement reports from 1880–1887, questionnaires sent out by the citizens’ Prostitution Committee in 1920, and annual anti-trafficking reports sent by the police from 1925–1938. Also revealing are the petitions that prostitutes sent to the police, signed with such names as Polsky, Lukatsky, Puritz, Prevenziano, Greenberg, Erlich, Felman, or Stern, which suggest Polish, Italian, and German origins. Most obvious is a list that the Government of Bombay drew up when the First World War broke out, which identifies German and Austrian prostitutes as ‘enemy’ subjects. These women occupied a liminal identity—valued members of a lucrative international sex trade that appealed to sailors and soldiers, yet simultaneously reviled for their national or religious origins. Their relationships with their Indian neighbours were also frequently messy....

Although its inhabitants embodied a marginal status, Kamathipura was not located at the geographic margins of the city—on the contrary, it was located close to the hub of the city’s commercial life in the Market area. Since Kamathipura performed multiple functions for several communities, its streets were sites of periodic residential conflicts. Several groups vied for control over the character of their neighbourhood. At various points between 1870 and 1890, Indian residents in the area petitioned the police commissioner to drive out European prostitutes from their localities. When doing so, petitioners clearly distinguished these women from Indian women in prostitution. In several instances, they characterised European prostitutes as ‘more disgraceful’ than Indian prostitutes. They complained that European prostitutes were particularly offensive, unlike the Indian prostitutes who catered to working-class men. For example, residents of Girgaum (an area neighbouring Kamathipura) compared them thus: ‘in the case of the native women there was some kind of decency and secrecy observed, which was totally wanting in the character and conduct of the European prostitutes’. There were frequent efforts to reclaim this area for Indians alone, even if the Indians who lived here were not high status.

The best example to illustrate residential pressure to push European women out was the contest over Cursetji Suklaji Street, a major cross street in Kamathipura. In 1872, Cursetjee Suklaji Street was fairly isolated. In the early 1880s, however, Governor James Fergusson decided it was a suitable place to move prostitutes from Duncan Road, which by then had become too ‘public’ a thoroughfare for prostitutes to be tolerated. Within a few years, protests arose from residents of Cursetjee Suklaji Street, particularly from those in the Bohra community, who had a meeting place in the vicinity. The Bohra petitioners complained that European brothel women were seen in the public street ‘going about in a state of semi-nudity’, a stark contrast to their own community’s veiled ‘purdah ladies’. A set of petitioners calling themselves the ‘respectable poor’ residents of Kamathipura complained about ‘noisy sailors who visited European women all through the night’. In deference to such petitioners, especially the Bohra ones, the police commissioner Frank Souter ordered European brothels to stop functioning on Cursetjee Suklaji Street in 1887, arguing that this street had also become a thoroughfare. He did not suggest alternative locations, and brothels soon shifted to a variety of other neighbourhoods.

When the police dispersed European prostitutes across the city to other areas, their action drew a chorus of complaints from residents of those localities. Residents of Fort, Khetwady, and Chowpatty sent petitions to the police commissioner, and complaints were published in newspapers about ‘respectable areas’ now being ‘infested’ by prostitutes. Some European women responded boldly by claiming spaces in Kamathipura as their own. They wrote directly to the Governor in Council complaining about their arbitrary relocation by the police commissioner. It was their neighbours, the women argued, who disturbed them. The women protested against being ‘scatter[ed] over a dozen or more respectable localities’, and ominously warned him that ‘in trying to mitigate an evil… [the Police Commissioner’s] action will multiply it a hundredfold’. They vociferously demanded to stay in an identifiable zone, which was in their interest, since it advertised their location to potential customers more clearly. Their boldness in calling for the police commissioner to move them back to Cursetji Suklaji Street is striking. European brothel workers clearly enjoyed a measure of confidence, which perhaps emerged from crossing class lines in their work: their sexual interactions provided contact with sailors and military men of various status. Perhaps the women understood themselves as vital figures in a trade that the government clearly fostered, and therefore viewed their neighbours’ complaints with disdain.

Excerpted and edited with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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