The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Robin Gibb found out that one of his ancestors had been a soldier in India, who, after winning several good conduct commendations, had ended up demoted and cashiered for drunkenness and disorderliness.  The reason for the moral fall appears to have been boredom. Other than daily drills, there were few opportunities for British military types in India to expend their masculine energies. The ennui and monotony drove many of them to drink and gambling, and many more to prostitutes.

A similar trajectory can be found in one of Billy Connolly's ancestors. A gunner with the Royal Horse Artillery, based in south India during and after the revolt of 1857, Daniel Doyle had started with commendations and good conduct. In the 1860s however he was censured sixteen times and later hospitalised - for alcoholism, dysentery, diarrhoea, and syphilis.

Again, the descent into indiscipline stemmed from lack of constructive activity. In particular, the southern garrisons Doyle was based with didn't see any action at all during 1857, no doubt to the utter frustration of the men.

It turned out that the British Army in India understood that the soldiers would need some release, and while its morality didn't exactly encourage licentiousness, it was happy enough to provide prostitutes for its men. Invariably it would be local indigent women who would service the men, and a typical garrison of a thousand men would be served by about 20 women. Indeed, these women were for the exclusive use of the garrison.

Naturally sexually transmitted disease was rampant - there were some estimates that one in three British soldiers caught the infection. Daniel Doyle had primary syphilis, which presents itself with genital sores. Connolly read out an extract from a contemporary British Medical Journal (given to him by historian Mridula Raman) describing how the military surgeons had to inspect the men.
The health inspection is differently performed in different regiments, according to the custom in the corps, or the views or convenience of the surgeon. In some regiments the men are marched in a body to the hospital, and passed into or through a room, one by one, for individual examination. This is the surest and least offensive mode of performing it; but it necessarily occupies a great deal of time, is wearisome to all parties, and often inconvenient in keeping the men long from their other duties. The more usual plan is to inspect them in their several barrack rooms, the men being drawn up in line, and called to 'attention' as the medical officer enters the room. In some cases, they stand in their ordinary fatigue dress, each man unbuttoning the front of his trousers, and parading his genitals for the inspecting surgeon; this operation generally giving rise to suppressed manifestations of mirth, shame, or indignation, according to the character and temper of individuals; but at all times, to say the least of it, humiliating and disgusting to the surgeon. Sometimes the soldiers are partially or even entirely undressed, or with the shirt on only, the front tail of which is lifted up as the surgeon passes down the line. [1]
The situation for the women was worse, because inevitably they were considered to be the cause of the infection. The Army, keen to contain its spread, would put any of the women found to carry the disease in 'lock hospitals' for examination and quarantine. The women would be locked up for up to three months, and if they were then found to be clean, they'd be brought back to the military brothels to continue their trade.

Lock Hospitals in India were created following the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 and 1868. There is little information on the actual treatment of venereal disease; at most, the hospitals aimed to provide hygiene and cleanliness. The soldiers were absolved of any responsibility in spreading the disease. Instead, the women continued to be blamed, and fined or imprisoned if they didn't present themselves for examination or, driven by starvation or poverty, if they plied their trade without registering with the authorities. [2]


[1] Inspector-General Dartnell, British Medical Journal, April 28, 1860.
[2] Medical History of British India, National Library of Scotland.
[3] William Acton, Prostitution Considered, Routledge, 2012.
[4] Who Do You Think You Are? Billy Connolly, BBC, Series 11, Episode 9.


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