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An excerpt from a new book of essays in honour of Australian historian Jim Masselos revisits the early days of Kamathipura in colonial Bombay. 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 , sometimes proceeding southwards or eastwards towards Cape Town, Colombo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. Even after brothels were banned in Britain in , 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 of sailors visiting the city increased, an organised system for directing sailors from ports to d brothels emerged, approved by the Chief Medical Officer of Bombay. This system continued into the s, when sailors coming ashore were driven straight to brothels. Brothels even catered to specific shipping lines, asing pimps to wait at dock gates to escort sailors. Kamathipura was a part of the delineated native town that lay beyond the northern bounds of the Fort.
The streets in Kamathipura were laid out in , but major construction of paved ro only began in the s. 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 s, municipal commissioner Arthur Crawford explicitly directed municipal sweepers to live there….
It is clear from the census that European women had settled in Kamathipura by that time: the area had the second-largest female European population in the city women after Colaba women. While the concentration of European women in Colaba may be attributed to its army quarters, the large of European women in Kamathipura can be attributed to brothels set up there.
In the late s, large s 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 s, a principal street in Kamathipura called Cursetji Suklaji Street…was described as safed galli White Lane. There was a specific kind of non-British whiteness that characterised European women in these brothels.
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 s: one on Grant Road just south of the ed 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 to , S. Many of the European women had been brought to the city by networks of agents. Also revealing are the petitions that prostitutes sent to the police, ed with such names as Polsky, Lukatsky, Puritz, Prevenziano, Greenberg, Erlich, Felman, or Stern, which suggest Polish, Italian, and German origins.
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 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 and , 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.
They complained that European prostitutes were particularly offensive, unlike the Indian prostitutes who catered to working-class men. 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 , Cursetjee Suklaji Street was fairly isolated. 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.
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 , 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.
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. 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. Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!! It'll just take a moment. Looks like you have exceeded the limit to bookmark the image. Remove some to bookmark this image.
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