Have you been tested? Averill and Elizabeth take a look at the British imperial policy of blaming–and locking up–women for outbreaks of syphilis.

Transcript for Locked Up and Poxxed: THE Venereal Disease and Women who Sold Sex in the Victorian British Empire

Written by Averill Earls, PhD

Starring Elizabeth Garner Masarik and Averill Earls

Elizabeth: Warning! We’re talking about syphilis again. There will be some NSFW content

Averill: Unless you’re working in a Lock Hospital, in which case, it’s all in a day’s work!

Elizabeth: This one is best listened to out of earshot of children and bosses. Also, if you were about to eat your lunch, maybe hold off on that too. As it turns out, syphilis is nasty.

[Music introduction] [Welcome to Dig, a History Podcast]

Averill: When syphilis first became endemic in Europe in the 15th century, everyone blamed someone else for it. Italians, Germans and Britons called it the “French pox”; the French called it the Neapolitan disease; the Russians called it the Polish disease, and the Poles called it the German disease. The Danish, Portuguese, and North Africans called it the Spanish disease, and the Turks called it the Christian disease. When it spread eastward, on the ships of the East India Company and in the sailors who colonized the “orient,” Hindus blamed the Muslims, Muslims blamed the Hindus, and everyone (perhaps rightfully) blamed the Europeans. At first it was an “outsider” disease, introduced by some foreign patient zero or invading army. But after several centuries, it was hard to ignore the obvious: however it might’ve started, it had long ago become an internal problem, and European states had to grapple with the “best” way to deal with the spread of the disease. Women, specifically sex workers, tended to bear the brunt of those efforts. From the 16th century to the 20th, as governments–on the local, state, and imperial levels–implemented policies to curb the spread of The Venereal Disease, the “Otherness” of syphilis took on gendered and racialized meanings. Though not limited to the British Empire, these issues are particularly well articulated and broadly conceived in the 19th and 20th century Anglo imperialism in places like India, Ireland, and Australia, and that’s where we will ultimately be focusing on. Picking up where I left off with the GREAT ORIGIN DEBATE of syphilis, we’re returning to gallicus morbus today — with a feminist vengeance.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik

And we’re your historians for this episode of DIG!


[Digging sounds]

Averill: We want to give a big THANK YOU to all of our patreon supporters, but especially our “Auger” and “Excavator” level patrons. Colin, Eric, Peggy, Christopher and Lauren — yall rock, and your good faith and donations help keep this podcast going. Listener, if you are not yet a patron, you can go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more.

[Digging sounds]

Elizabeth: You don’t need to have listened to our earlier episode on syphilis to enjoy this one.

Averill: But please do, it is one of my greatest scientific achievements. In terms of researching and writing on other peoples scientific achievements. But basically a scientific achievement.

Elizabeth: [pause] Suuuure. Anyway, we’ll just give you a brief recap of the basics of that episode to help contextualize today’s. Averill and Marissa focused on the–


Elizabeth: Yes, the so-called “great origin debate,” of the sexually transmitted disease that we today call syphilis. For the scientists who study the origins and mutations of the bacterium, Treponema Pallidum, the specific strain of the treponema family that causes syphilis seems to have appeared in Europe on a wide scale basis around the end of the 15th century. It was at this time that people of that period wrote about it as an epidemic. By the 16th century, early modern European doctors recognized that it was a sexually transmitted disease, but they did not yet differentiate between syphilis and another endemic disease, gonorrhea. Doctors didn’t identify the difference between those two diseases until the end of the 19th century. Up until that point, they tended to lump all the symptoms of gonorrhea and syphilis together, and they called the whole shebang “The Venereal Disease.”

Averill: In terms of symptoms, the two were very similar: both could produce vaginal discharge in women, and painful intercourse might be the result of the gonorrheal infection, or the ulcerated chancres of the syphilis. Without a working germ theory or folks studying the bacteria under a microscope, there wasn’t really a way to identify the core differences of the two. Syphilis, however, was not identified by British doctors as a distinct venereal disease until 1879. So throughout this episode, we will mostly be talking about “The Venereal Disease,” “the French Disease,” or “The Great Pox,” which were all names for the conflation of at least two, possible more, sexually transmitted diseases that started really plaguing Europe in the 1500s. Rather than anachronistically diagnose “syphilis,” we’ll go along with how people thought about Venereal Disease from the 16th through the 19th century. When we get into the post-1879 territory, we’ll be talking more specifically about syphilis again.

Elizabeth: The previous episode is mostly about the various debates about the origins of the disease syphilis, and the ways early modern Europeans thought about the more general “French Disease”. In addition to scientists today still studying the paleobiological origins of syphilis, early modern European doctors debated its origins, and other important questions, like: “which dirty foreigner brought this disease to our pure soil?” And, “we don’t have condoms yet, so what’s going to be the best method of prevention? Washing your penis with lye, and douching with vinegar? Sounds great.”

Averill: And that, friends, is the focus of the previous episode. But in grappling with those fascinating debates, Marissa and I didn’t have time to get into the really interesting stuff: because once everyone had more or less settled down on the blaming of each other for importing the poxiest of poxes, they turned to discussions of how to contain, treat, and deal with the Venereal Disease, which obviously (to them) was not going away any time soon. While I loved diving headfirst into all those sciencey arguments, when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases, what I really love talking about is the sex itself! Whether it was French or Neopolitan or German or Mussleman, syphilis plagued the free and easy sex play of Europeans after the 15th century. It took centuries for doctors to truly understand the four phases of syphilis, let alone differentiate it from gonorrhea. Most treatments before the 20th century were temporary, alleviated symptoms, but did not cure it. Some of those treatments, like mercury vapors and pills, had severe side effects, and long-term, those side-effects were as fatal as the disease itself. So the violence with which ‘the venereal disease’ took Europe, which Europeans then exported to their colonies and contacts around the world, was cause for real concern. Without a cure, local, state, and imperial officials tried to prevent the spread of the disease. Though Europeans continued to pay lip service to the perceived foreign origins of the venereal disease–as “the French Disease” or “Neopolitan Disease” or what have you–by the 16th century, secular and religious authorities identified a range of scapegoats on whom to concentrate their preventative measures. When scapegoats were needed, those targeted reflected systemic gender and racial discriminatory practices already developing or in place.

Elizabeth: Whenever and wherever there were outbreaks of the venereal disease, women who sold sex were targeted and policed. Whether we’re talking about 16th century Venice or 19th century British India, in a world with few to no measures to prevent STD transmission, these women were usually first to be locked up.

The Lock Hospital, Hyde Park Corner, Westminster | Wellcome Images

Averill: And we mean literally locked up. After the Black Plague did its own ravaging of Europe, early modern doctors and public officials decided that the only effective measure to prevent the spread of disease was to quarantine the infected–and those suspected of infection. Hospitals all over Europe built or established outbuildings or completely separate wings that were for quarantining those sick with plague or, by the 16th century, the Great Pox. Whereas most early modern hospitals were in the center of town, and easily accessible for early modern Europeans traveling mostly on foot, these outbuildings, also known as “lock hospitals,” were on the outskirts of town. Those suffering from symptoms of VD could be carted out to the lock hospital, to prevent fraternizing with other hospital patients. Because, of course, the first thing you do when you are laid up sick in a hospital, is to find another sick person with whom to have sex.

Elizabeth: Of course.

Averill: In some cases, lock hospital patients were there voluntarily. In other cases, however, as we’ll get to in a moment, they were effectively imprisoned. Women in particular were more likely to be locked up until their symptoms disappeared or they died of the disease. Some lock hospitals, particularly for those whose patients were there voluntarily, treated the symptoms; some, as in 19th century British India, didn’t bother. Certainly quarantine is a powerful tool in the prevention of the spread of particularly infectious diseases. It is something our public health and medical officials continue to employ today. But, of course, STDs are not transmitted through coughing or handshakes. So there are ethical concerns pulsing around this method of STD prophylaxis, and those were concerns that the doctors who worked with these patients in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries shared. When the policies were so obviously gendered or racialized, they raise further ethical questions — and again, people at the time questioned and fought those policies on the grounds that they were so obviously misogynist or (though less frequently) racially motivated.

Elizabeth: Though a penis could infect a vulva as easily as the other way around, doctors tended to blame women–with their hot, wet, cavernous vaginas–for the spread of the venereal disease. As Laura McGough has shown, European doctors, from as early as Galen of Pergamon, had long associated women’s bodies and disease.[1] In the humoral theory of medicine, which we sketched out in the previous syphilis episode and which we’ve discussed in several episodes, including my episode on Early American Family Limitation, and Marissa’s episode on Pathology, diseases thrived or even originated in hot, wet places. One early modern doctor, Francastoro, who was one of the earliest to map the “new” venereal disease, wrote in 1546 that the “seed” of the French Disease, “was not very readily taken in by the body…hence there was needed a sort of reciprocal heat in two bodies; thus somehow the germs became active, and were able to adhere to something else and to propagate themselves… but this…they could not have done unless they had been heated.”[2] Francastoro comes closest among his early modern peers to preemptively grasping germ theory, by talking about the origination of disease as “seeds” or “germs” (as in germination), but in Italian, he used the word seminaria, which is also the root word for semen — so sex, in Francastoro’s mind, was essential to understanding the promulgation of these kinds of diseases. The viability of the vagina for germinating those seeds was just one ‘scientific’ reason for assigning women’s bodies blame for the spread of the Venereal Disease.

Averill: What’s more, in 1556, Italian doctor Pietro Rostinio published his account of “Patient Zero” for the French Disease epidemic. According to Rostinio, when the French troops invaded Italy in 1494, a beautiful prostitute–per McGough’s translation, the “most beautiful” prostitute in particular–serviced the French troops. She reportedly had a sore at the opening of her womb, and because vaginas are hot, wet, and cavernous, and the friction of sex made it more so, she spread the disease to “this illness began to stain one man, then two, and three, & one hundred, because this woman was a prostitute and most beautiful, and since human nature is desirous of coitus, many women had sexual relations with these men (and became) infected with this illness…all of Italy, France, and throughout all of Europe.”[3]

Elizabeth: Rostinio’s book was pretty popular for a medical treatise; it was reprinted twice, and had fairly impressive circulation around Italy. Doctors up to that point hadn’t really theorized a “Patient Zero” for a disease. There is, of course, no evidence beyond this one old man’s pontificating, but the idea grew roots and entangled with the preexisting European notions about women’s culpability in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Averill: Laura McGough’s piece in the edited collection Sins of the Flesh, helped me in really thinking more broadly about the misogyny of European conceptualizations and treatment of the Venereal Disease. The central narrative of that piece, instructively, is how much more broadly this issue permeated Europe, and in particular Venice, on which she has written widely. In 16th century Venice, for example, it was not just women who sold sex who were locked up to curb the spread of the French Disease. Tracing this line of thinking back to that Rostinio book identifying the “most beautiful” prostitute, McGough shows that any beautiful woman was pinned as being a danger to society. Men would be too tempted by a beautiful young women, so hundreds of Venetian girls aged 12 to 18 were locked away in the Convertite, a convent,and the Zitelle. The Zitelle’s mission was explicitly to prevent beautiful girls from being deflowered (and, by extension, becoming vessels for the mal francese). The entrance records for the girls admitted to the Zitelle only commented on girls rejected for not being pretty enough to be quarantined. It’s absolutely wild. If you’re interested, you should check out McGough’s book, Gender, Sexuality and Syphilis in Early Modern Venice: The Disease that Came to Stay.

Elizabeth: The association of women and disease outlived the bizarre Venetian practice of locking up beautiful women; it even outlived the Galenic humoral theory. One need look no further than the British Contagious Diseases Acts from 1864, 1866, and 1871, and their equivalents as applied in India, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, and in the 20th century, aboriginals in Australia. These legislative acts, controversial among elite white British men and women from the moment they were passed, sought to regulate prostitution and prostitutes as a means to halt the spread of syphilis. While there were doctors, politicians, and military leaders who obviously supported the legislation, there were also doctors, politicians, and military leaders who objected to the CD Acts. Both the 1864 Contagious Diseases Prevention Act, which required prostitutes to voluntarily submit to medical examinations, and the 1866 Contagious Diseases Act, which made those checks mandatory and police-enforced, passed without discussion through Parliament. In 1869, a group of British men formed an anti-CD Acts group to protest and lobby against the demoralizing and unethical legislation, the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Notably, those men excluded women from their organization; in turn, Josephine Butler founded the Ladies National Association, which took up the cause from a woman’s point of view.

Averill: Philippa Levine notes that while these acts targeted women, women were not the reason they existed. Having a strong, disease-free, but also appropriately masculine, aka hetero/sexual, military was essential to 19th-century European empires.[4] In 19th-century France, prostitution was regulated, rather than outlawed. From 1802 onward, the municipal government of Paris established a “dispensary,” where doctors examined Parisian prostitutes on a monthly basis to ensure they were free of disease. Women had to pay three francs to be examined in the early decades, until allegations of immense corruption among the employees of the dispensary led to its absorption into the municipal government in 1828. This was the model the British had adopted when they started implementing regulation systems in their colonies, like Hong Kong, Gibraltar, and Malta, all of which regulated women who sold sex, modeled on the French system, by 1857.

Two young men approached by a skeletal prostitute | Lithograph by JJ Grandville, 1830 | Wellcome Images

Elizabeth: The first Act was written on the recommendations of a committee which had been formed by Parliament in 1862 to inquire into the state of venereal disease among the British troops. During the Crimean War, when Florence Nightingale revolutionized sanitation in military hospitals, officials in the British army were invested in carrying those lessons over to better health and sanitation more generally in the military. Venereal disease had posed a problem among European militaries since the first reports of its outbreak in the French siege of Naples in 1494. In addition to sexual relationships between soldiers, armies attracted “camp followers,” which included people to cook and clean and tend wounded, but also people to attend to the sexual desires of the soldiers. Sexually transmitted diseases could spread like wildfire in these scenarios. As Britain grew its standing army to meet the needs of maintaining an empire on which the sun never set, the major garrison and port cities of the British isles were as infective as any battlefield–perhaps more so, because the men were not distracted by the horrors of war.

Averill: Beyond health and sanitation concerns, venereal disease was, by 1862, a massive problem among the British army in India. After the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, the British completely reorganized their military presence in India. Up to that point, under the rule of the British East India Company, most of the “British” army in India was made up of indigenous soldiers–the “Sepoys”. After those Sepoys rebelled (a topic we will have to come back to another time), the British government took over direct rule, relieving the EIC of their command in India, completely restructured the indigenous troops, and by 1860, they had doubled the number of imperial troops, from 30,000 to 60,000 in total.

Elizabeth: At the same time that the British military leadership was still anxious about Indian resistance to British rule, the increase in white troops was faced with a challenge of its own: VD was much higher among European troops than indigenous troops. According to one report, it was four times as high–with 218 of every 1000 British troops being infected. Being the debilitating disease that it was, that meant thousands of white soldiers were laid up in hospitals at what seemed like the most precarious of moments in imperial history.

Averill: The 1864, 1866, 1868, and 1869 Acts allowed police to arrest women “suspected” of prostitution, who would then be taken to a local hospital to be forcibly inspected for disease. If a doctor found symptoms of venereal disease, that woman would be interned in a lock hospital. The initial legislation allowed for internment up to three months; the 1869 Act allowed for internment up to one year, unless symptoms cleared up before that. These internments did not necessarily include medical treatment–though, as we’ve already noted, treatment was not always better than the disease itself. The 1864 Act limited these liberties to just a few garrison towns in England and Wales; by 1869, the jurisdiction extended to 18 cities around the empire. 

Elizabeth: Though the CD Acts were ostensibly for Britain, most of the major cities impacted by those laws were outside of Britain itself. London, for example, which was rife with prostitution, was not impacted by the Acts. The legislation mostly impacted Ireland, India, South Africa, Australia, the aforementioned Gibraltar, Hong Kong, and Malta, and other British colonies. The repeal organizations, we should say, did not form up in response to the 1857 laws which targeted women in Hong Kong, Malta or Gibraltar. Their concern seemed to stem mostly from the expansion of the laws in the 1860s to include English, Welsh, and Irish cities. Josephine Butler certainly included the indigenous women of India in her repeal efforts, but at least at first the organized resistance was focused on the treatment of (white) British women, prostitute or otherwise. Butler, unlike her male colleagues, continued her crusade even after the 1888 repeal of the British laws, targeting the Cantonment Act of 1897 which formally revived the CD Acts in India.

Averill: Butler in particular was her own breed of activist. She was a feminist to the core. In 1897, she wrote to a meeting of LNA women in response to a House of Lords debate about the Cantonment Act being discussed. Hers is the warrior cry in all of our hearts. “My conviction goes so far as to embrace the necessity of woman having a foremost place in the battle. When our sisters are vilely outraged and oppressed before her eyes, and august assemblies of men promote and praise and recommend that oppression and that outrage as they have just done in the House of Lords, is it a time for women to sit still, and only to urge their men friends to speak for them? No. Women must cry aloud; they must appeal to meetings of other women through the length and breadth of the land; they must be seen and heard, and they will prove again in this matter to be a power in the name of the God of Justice.”[5] While numerous scholars have critiqued the charity work and activism of middle class white women in Britain and the United States, and there is plenty to say about how harmful some of these women’s efforts could be to the women and communities they thought they were “helping,” I like Josephine Butler for being pretty radical and talking the talk of sisterhood.

Elizabeth: One of the core critiques of the Ladies National Association, and very much representative of a growing Victorian feminist movement, was of the “double standard” of the CD Acts, which exclusively subjected women to the demeaning examinations and institutionalizations. 

Averill: Why not men? In the Victorian mind, men, including soldiers, were above such debasement. Dr. T. Graham Balfour, a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), the Inspector-general of hospitals, and the head of the statistical branch of the medical department of the army, wrote that men were “on a different footing from prostitutes who follow a dangerous trade,” and so “that examination is a great hardship to the moral, well conducted men…[and inspections are] a disgusting duty unnecessarily on the medical officers.”[6] Briefly, very briefly, the army tried to have their soldiers get regular STD check ups, but the boys in tan refused. Naturally the administration turned on the more vulnerable. Women who sold sex, particularly indigenous women in places like India, Botswana, or Auckland, had little recourse or other options for gainful employment. They were at the mercy of the imperial system. Their rights and civil liberties were only guaranteed at the pleasure of the imperial state and its representatives.

Elizabeth: As Melissa Bettes notes, both Lord Sandhurst and Sir Richard Airey disagreed with the suggestion that soldiers should be inspected for disease, declaring: “We may at once dispose of this recommendation, so far as it is founded on the principle of putting both parties to the sin of fornication on the same footing by the obvious but not less conclusive reply that there is no comparison to be made between prostitutes and the men who consort with them. With the one sex the offence is committed as a matter of gain; with the other it is an irregular indulgence of a natural impulse.”[7] This sort of thinking–that sex was for men a natural impulse, something that they could not help, and that for women who sold sex, that was evidence of how corrupt and immoral they were–was common in Victorian Britain, particularly in connection with the defenses of the Contagious Diseases Acts. In 1871, Charles Washington Shirley Deakin, the most Englishly-named person ever, read a paper before the Medical Society of University College in London, titled “The Contagious Diseases Acts, 1864, 66, 68 (Ireland), 69, from a Sanitary and Economic Point of View.” In that paper, Deakin insisted that Prostitution was here to stay, because men needed prostitutes to satisfy their ‘natural’ instincts.

Averill: “Prostitution, gentlemen, is no passing evil; from the earliest records of our race even to the present time we find that the daughters of shame have been ever present among men ; kings, philosophers, and priests, the learned and noble, the wise no less than the ignorant, have tasted freely of Circe’s cup in every age and under every clime. And having thus always existed, have we not good reason to fear that the ” great social evil ” will always continue ? Some of our opponents believe that prostitution can be done away with altogether. But the day when not a single prostitute can be found in London even, will not be, I fear, in the time of any of us. Hence, when we say that prostitution is a necessary evil, we imply merely that it will always exist so long as the animal part of his nature preponderates in man, and I believe that this will always be the case among a great number of men. It is a necessary evil only in the same sense that poverty and disease are necessary evils, and it is almost as impossible to eradicate one as the others. Prostitution is a “great and a permanent fact.””

Elizabeth: It funny to think of that being given as part of a paper on economics and sanitation at an academic conference.

Averill: Who doesn’t talk about sipping from Circe’s cup in their conference papers?

Elizabeth: Anyway….The National Association and LNA attacked the CD Acts from every angle, trying to capture those who might’ve had moral qualms about government sanctioned prostitution, but also liberals invested in the concepts of “civil liberties and rights,” and reasonable people who might be swayed by evidence-based objections to a system that had already failed in France. Butler was known for demanding that they stop the “instrumental rape,” a shocking phrase to describe the forced inspection with a speculum to which the suspected prostitutes were subjected. Undoubtedly that kind of gall drew the desired effect. They threw every book they could muster at the Acts.

Averill: Even before the National Association and LNA formed, Dr. Charles Bell Taylor, a physician in Nottingham, objected to the first legislation of 1864, called the law “a gross violation of the liberty of the subject.”[8] He argued that Parliament had “no more right to restrain a prostitute, when diseased, in the practice of her calling, than any man in the same condition.”[9]

Elizabeth: Central to the repeal argument was that the regulation of prostitution was tantamount to the government endorsement of prostitution which, to Victorian sensibilities, was unthinkable. Sedley Wolderstan, Surgeon at the Royal Albert Hospital at Devonport, was quite shocked to find that “The women consider that the Act recognizes them as it were; keeps them clean for the soldiers and sailors, and thus gives them a kind of status. They call themselves ‘Queen’s women.’”[10] Another testimony in the Royal Commission investigating the efficacy of the Contagious Diseases Acts said that “Prostitutes, thinking the State endorsed their trade, referred to themselves as “Queen’s women, Government girls, Government women, and London girls.”

Averill: In a speech to the House of Commons in May 1870, Member of Parliament William Fowler, a member of the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, argued that “The French system has utterly failed, after long experience and full trial; and we are asked to begin the same wretched system by men who, in their evidence before the House of Lords, confessed they knew hardly anything of the working of the plans adopted on the Continent. I ask with confidence, why should we make this beginning, and why should we not rather take warning by the failure of others…. I cannot conceive why we should expect to succeed where others have failed so signally.”[11] Indeed, the French system was problematic. Despite municipalizing the dispensary system in the 1820s, venereal disease was still rampant. It was possible that traditions of demonizing prostitution acted against the potential of the dispensary system; despite the technical legality of prostitution, the morals police still found ways to harass and persecute women who sold sex, which prevented many thousands from operating openly and within the legal framework. Sexually transmitted diseases were ineradicable in a system that worked against itself.

Elizabeth: William Fowler and his associates pointed again and again to the seemingly inherent immortality of the British government approving through regulatory legislation the sale of sex. In 1870, he again decried the unnaturalness of the legislation, insisting that “these Acts offend against common sense, against justice, and against morals; and, therefore… I ask this House to tear from the statute book this disgusting page, and I ask you to… not make provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof.”[12] Three years later, with no progress toward repeal but undeterred, he told his fellow parliamentarians that “Where you have prostitution under the superintendence of the State, you have a degree of immorality existing which is far greater than anything which occurs in England, I mean that it leads to the minds of people being habituated to this sort of thing, so that they fall into sexual excesses of every kind, and of the most revolting nature.”[13]

Averill: After fifteen years of lobbying, during which time the two repeal organizations delivered 17,365 petitions against the acts bearing 2,606,429 signatures, Parliament finally suspended the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1886, and repealed them entirely in 1888. Technically. Technically the CD Acts were repealed throughout the British empire. In India, where doctors writing for the British Medical Journal reported that “the benefit which has accrued from the Acts has been immense” as early as 1871, though the Acts may have been formally repealed, in practice women, particularly indigenous women, were still policed and forced to submit to examinations, and interned in the Lock Hospitals, which were renamed “Cantonment Hospitals” after the 1888 repeal, to disguise the continued practice.

Elizabeth: As the British army attempted to curb the spread of VD among white soldiers and sailors in India, colonial administrators built on racialized tropes of the exotic, dangerous “orient” to warn, cajole, and threaten white men away from Indian women. In 1870 the British army restructured again, shifting away from “career” soldiers to short-term soldier, who would stay in service for only six years. Young men seeking a bit of adventure, but generally also unmarried and poor, flooded into India’s cantonments. At the same time, the British government started heavily discouraging white men from having long-term relationships with native women. For for example, new legislation made it harder or impossible for children of such unions to inherit or be recognized legally. As a result, these short-term soldiers sought mostly short-term encounters with the cheap indigenous female sex workers.

Averill: According to Philippa Levine, the British administration was also really concerned about the presence of white women in India, and what role they could play. As the British constructed a system of white supremacy to prop up their rule, they had to create strict roles of white-over-brown power dynamics. It was acceptable for military officers’ and administrators’ wives to come live in India and oversee a household, but for white women to move to India to be servants, laborers, or–God forbid–prostitutes, and to possibly even have sex with indigenous men, was unthinkable.

Elizabeth: In Levine’s words, the “European prostitute, by her very presence, challenged white supremacy in distinctive and critical ways, which reveal dramatically and vividly the importance of sexual politics in colonial rule…It was with relief that British authorities could report that the greater number of Europeans engaged in prostitution in India were either Roman Catholics or Jewish emigrants from central and eastern Europe, and that even the few English women to be found in the brothels of India were Jews.”[14] By drawing lines around the racial hierarchy, even of whiteness, the British were able to create an artificial buffer zone to justify their continued imperial rule. This, of course, was not limited to British policies and practices in India. This architecture of white supremacy maintained British rule all over the globe, and while certainly not the only illustration of that system, the regulation of prostitution–of sex, citizenship, and white men’s fit and soldierly bodies–is certainly a telling one. In the colonies, women bore the brunt of the CD Acts; but more broadly conceived, for the British colonial officials, it wasn’t just the women who represented the threat. It was the colony as a whole, and all of its people. It was India, or Botswana, or the Outback of Australia, that represented (sexual) danger. As Levine put it: “India was the disease, Indian women the contagion.”[15]

Averill: In a 1905 memorandum to the troops, Herbert Kitchener, a senior British Army officer and colonial administrator, explained in graphic detail how dangerous sexual relations with indigenous women could be. Playing on the trope of the exoctic, dangerous “orient,” he cast the women of the British Asiatic colonies as carriers of a syphilis unlike anything a British man could contract from a good (white) woman. “Syphilis contracted by Europeans from Asiatic women is much more severe than that contracted in England,” Kitchener wrote. “It assumes a horrible, loathsome and often fatal form through which in time, as years pass on the sufferer finds his hair falling off, his skin and the flesh of his body rot, and are eaten away by slow, cankerous and stinking ulcerations; his nose first falls in at the bridge and then rots and falls off; his sight gradually fails and he eventually becomes blind; his voice, first becomes husky and then fades to a hoarse whisper as his throat is eaten away by fetid ulcerations which cause his breath to stink.”[16]

British medical experts in colonial India | Wellcome Images

Elizabeth: These characterizations were not limited to British “Asiatic” colonies either. In Botswana in the 1930s, the Bechuanaland Protectorate Resident Commissioner claimed that 90% of the colony’s population suffered from venereal disease.[17] This claim had no evidence to back it up, but was instead based on a long-standing assumption among British and other Europeans that the peoples of the African continent were “barbaric and naturally diseased.” According to Megan Vaughn and Karen Jochelson, Africans were labeled “reservoirs of infection,” and “disease-rotten natives.” In 1938, a medical officer called one of the traveling dispensaries a “a walking museum of clinical syphilis,” while others called Botswana a “highly syphilized nation.”[18]

Averill: In Queensland, Australia, from 1928 to 1945, Aboriginal people diagnosed–sometimes incorrectly–with syphilis were banished to Fantome Island Lock Hospital. There were two systems of VD control in Australia from 1912 on; one for the white population, and one for the Aboriginal. Fantome Island Lock Hospital–where a 1941 survey showed that very few inmates actually presented symptoms of either syphilis or gonorrhea–was a method of segregation that operated within a larger white supremacist structure of race and sexuality in 20th century Australia.[19]

Elizabeth: In each of these cases, Levine’s words echo powerfully: Africa was the disease, and African women the contagion; Aboriginals were the disease, and Aboriginal women the contagion. Though the nuance of each of these contexts–the settler colonial contexts of Queensland or the Cape Colony, the late-19th century British imperial model employed in African colonies like Botswana or Nigeria or Kenya–the racist and misogynist core of the policies remained. That core shaped the initial Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s, and continued to shape colonial policies in India, Gibraltar, Malta, Hong Kong, Australia, Nigeria, Botswana, etcetera, well into the mid- to late- twentieth century.

Averill: Notably, the prevalence of VD in British troops in India did not subside, despite the continuation of the CD Acts under new “Cantonment” names. As the Viceroy of India wrote to the Secretary of State in 1893: “although the same individual may have been admitted [for treatment of venereal disease] more than once [thereby inflating the total numbers of infected]…the strength of the British Army in India, as a fighting machine, has been impaired by disease.”[20]  Similarly, in the British Medical Journal, a Memorandum from the Army Sanitary Commission from January 1894 plainly stated that “a compulsory lock hospital system–that is, the Contagious Diseases Acts–in India has proved a failure.”[21] While Levine is undoubtedly right, that the CD Acts were created to protect the martial prowess of Britain’s imperial force abroad, their abject failure–and continuation after abject failure–leave one wondering what all the forced examinations, humiliation, internment, and segregation were really for.

If you’re looking to run a class discussion on lock hospitals and syphilis in your class, here are some digitized primary sources that I was able to get pretty easily through a university library:

British Medical Journal, 1871-1897.

Henry Lee, “Statistical Analysis of 166 Cases of Secondary Syphilis, Observed at the Lock Hospital in the Years 1838-39, with Observations,” London Journal of Medicine
Vol. 1, No. 9 (Sep., 1849), pp. 797-816

Frederick W. Lowndes, “The Liverpool Lock Hospital And The Prevalence And Severity Of Constitutional Syphilis In Liverpool,” The British Medical Journal
Vol. 1, No. 1011 (May 15, 1880), pp. 727-729

Alexander Patterson, “Statistics of Glasgow Lock Hospital Since Its Foundation in 1805-With Remarks on the Contagious Diseases Acts, and on Syphilis,” Glasgow medical journal, 18:6 (1882) 401-418

Josephine Butler, “Mrs. Butler on the New Regulation for India,” Vigilance (New York, NY, United States), July 1897, Vol. XII, Issue 3, p.14 (2160 words).


Melissa Bettes, “Queen’s Women: The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1866 and 1869,” M.A. Thesis, University of Central Oklahoma (Spring 2017).

Alain Corbin, Women for hire: Prostitution and sexuality in france after 1850 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press).

Jason Farago, “Courtesans and street walkers: Prostitutes in art,” BBC (Sep 2015)

Anne Hanley, “Syphilization and Its Discontents: Experimental Inoculation against Syphilis at the London Lock Hospital,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Volume 91. Number 1, Spring 2017, pp. 1-32

Jill Harsin,  Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1985).

Elizabeth B. van Heyningen, “The Social Evil in the Cape Colony 1868-1902: Prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 170-197

Stephen Legg, “Stimulation, Segregation and Scandal: Geographies of Prostitution Regulation in British India, between Registration (1888) and Suppression (1923),” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 6 (NOVEMBER 2012), pp. 1459-1505

Philippa Levine, “Rereading the 1890s: Venereal Disease as “Constitutional Crisis” in Britain and British India,” The Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 3 (1996): 585-612.

Philippa Levine, “Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire: The Case of British India,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Apr., 1994), pp. 579-602.

Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire, (New York: Routledge, 2003)

Maria Luddy, “Women and the Contagious Diseases Acts: 1864-1888,” History Ireland 1:1 (Spring 1993)

Meg Parsons, “Fantome Island Lock Hospital and Aboriginal Venereal Disease Sufferers 1928-45,” Health and History Vol. 10, No. 1 (2008), pp. 41-62

Phuthego Phuthego Molosiwa, ““A Walking Museum of Clinical Syphilis?”: Gender, Sexuality,
and Syphilis in the Eastern Bangwato Reserve, 1930s–1950s,” International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 49, No. 2 (2016)

Susannah Riordan, ““A Probable Source of Infection” The Limitations of Venereal Disease Policy, 1943–1951,” in Gender and Medicine in Ireland 1700-1950 (Syracuse University Press, 2012)

Andrew Israel Ross, “Serving Sex: Playing with Prostitution in the Brasseries à femmes of Late Nineteenth-Century Paris,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 24, no. 2 (2015): 288-313

ed. Kevin Siena, Sins of the Flesh: Responding to Sexual Disease in Early Modern Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2005).

Mary Stewart, Joseph Debattista, Lisa Fitzgerald and Owain Williams, “Syphilis, General Paralysis of the Insane, and Queensland Asylums,” Health and History , Vol. 19, No. 1 (2017), pp. 60-79.

W. K. Stratman-Thomas, “Francastoro–and Syphilis,” Cal West Med. 1930 Oct; 33(4): 739–742.

Szu Shen Wong, Thibaut Deviese, Jane Draycott, John Betts and Matthew Johnston, “Syphilis and the use of mercury,” The Pharm

Want More Syphilis? Further Reading

Nancy Boyd, Josephine Butler, Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale: Three Victorian Women Who Changed their World (London: Macmillan, 1982).

Laura Briggs, Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico, (University of California Press, 2002)

Laura Engelstein, “Morality and the Wooden Spoon: Syphilis, Social Class, and Sexual Behavior,” in The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in fin-de-Siecle Russia (Cornell University Press, 1992)

Encarnación Juárez-Almendros, “The Creation of Female Disability: Medical, Prescriptive and Moral Discourses,” in Disabled Bodies in Early Modern Spanish Literature (Liverpool University Press, 2017)

Karen Jochelson, The Colour of Disease: Syphilis and Racism in South Africa, 1880–1950 (New
York: Palgrave, 2001).

Laura McGough, Gender, Sexuality and Syphilis in Early Modern Venice: The Disease that Came to Stay (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Phyllis E. Reske, “Policing the “Wayward Woman”: Eugenics in Wisconsin’s Involuntary Sterilization Program,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 97, No. 1 (AUTUMN 2013), pp. 14-27

Megan Vaughan, Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Cambridge, UK: Polity
Press, 1991).

Nancy Wingfield, “The Enemy Within: Regulating Prostitution and Controlling Venereal Disease in Cisleithanian Austria during the Great War,”  Central European History, Vol. 46, No. 3 (September 2013), pp. 568-598

Karin L. Zipf, “In Defense of the Nation: Syphilis, North Carolina’s “Girl Problem,” and World War I,” The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 89, No. 3 (JULY 2012), pp. 276-300

[1] Laura McGough, “Quarantining Beauty in Early Modern Venice,” in Sins of the Flesh, ed. Kevin Siena, (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2005) 215-216.

[2] Francastoro, De Contagione, p. 153, qtd in McGough, “Quarantining,” 217.

[3] Rostinio, Trattato del Mal Francese, fols. 21 r-v, qtd in McGough, “Quarantining,” 211.

[4] Philippa Levine, “Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire: The Case of British India,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Apr., 1994), pp. 589.

[5] Josephine Butler, “Mrs. Butler on the New Regulation for India,” Vigilance (New York, NY, United States), July 1897, Vol. XII, Issue 3, p.14 (2160 words).

[6] Dr. T. Graham Balfour, FRS, “Report of the Royal Commission,” xlvi, quoted in Melissa Bettes, “Queen’s Women: The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1866 and 1869,” M.A. Thesis, University of Central Oklahoma (Spring 2017).

[7] Report of the Royal Commission, no author, quoted in Bettes, “Queen’s Women.”

[8] Dr. Charles Bell Taylor, Physician at Nottingham, “Report of the Royal Commission,” lvii, quoted in Bettes, “Queen’s Women.”

[9] Reverend Joseph Webster, Wesleyan Chaplain to the forces at Portsmouth, “Report of the Royal Commission,” xxxiii, quoted in quoted in Bettes, “Queen’s Women.”

[10] Sedley Wolferstan 1 Mr. Sedley Wolferstan, Surgeon at the Royal Albert Hospital at Devonport, “Report of the Royal Commission,” x, quoted in Bettes, “Queen’s Women.”

[11] Mr. William Fowler, MP, speech to the House of Commons, 24 May 1870, Parliamentary Debates, Commons, 3d. ser., vol. 201, col. 1304-48, quoted in Bettes, “Queen’s Women.”

[12] Mr. William Fowler, MP, speech to the House of Commons, 24 May 1870, Parliamentary Debates, Commons, 3d. ser., vol. 201, col. 1304-48, quoted in Bettes, “Queen’s Women.”

[13] Mr. William Fowler, MP, speech to the House of Commons, 21 May 1873, Parliamentary Debates, Commons, 3d. ser., vol 216, col. 218-67, quoted in Bettes, “Queen’s Women.”

[14] Levine, “Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire,” 593.

[15] Levine, “Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire,” 599.

[16] Kitchener’s Memorandum to the Troops, 1905. quoted in Bettes, “Queen’s Women.”

[17] Phuthego Phuthego Molosiwa, ““A Walking Museum of Clinical Syphilis?”: Gender, Sexuality,
and Syphilis in the Eastern Bangwato Reserve, 1930s–1950s,” International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 49, No. 2 (2016).

[18] Molosiwa, ““A Walking Museum of Clinical Syphilis?” 179.

[19] Meg Parsons, “Fantome Island Lock Hospital and Aboriginal Venereal Disease Sufferers 1928-45,” Health and History Vol. 10, No. 1 (2008), pp. 41-62.

[20] IOL, L/MIL/7/13845, Lansdowne et al. to Kimberley, November 8, 1893, quoted in Levine, “Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire,” 593.

[21] British Medical Journal, vol 2 No 1860 (22 Aug 1896) p451.


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