This book tries to show how sexual attitudes and activities influenced the lives of the imperial elite as well as the subjects of empire. It begins with an examination of the nature of sexuality and of its influence on individuals. The book argues that sexual dynamics crucially underpinned the whole operation of British empire and Victorian expansion. Sexual needs can be imperative, and people will go to extraordinary lengths to satisfy them. The book considers the behaviour of members of the imperial ruling elite, and examines their attitude to marriage and the relationship between their private lives and service of the empire. It looks at sexual opportunity in some different types of imperial situation, both formal and informal, in an attempt to see how sexual interaction underpinned the operative structures of British expansion. As the keeping of mistresses was not uncommon in eighteenth-century Britain, the keeping of a mistress in British India became a well-established practice. Europeans in India could flirt outrageously, but they must not fall in love or marry. To keep the women free from disease, Indian prostitutes were admitted to the cantonments, to the lal bazar after medical examination and registration, where they were given periodical checks. Official reaction against sexual opportunism began in earnest with the Purity Campaign launched in 1869, which changed the visible face of British life and attitudes. Undoubtedly there was thereafter more decorum, more chastity, less opportunity and less fun.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in this book. The book begins with an examination of the nature of sexuality and of its influence on individuals, taking as examples those with some connection with the empire. It assesses the extent to which an understanding of sexual issues may enhance our perception of race relations in the British empire. The book focuses upon the attitudes and activities of the men who ran the empire. Repression of the sexual instincts is closely linked to 'sublimation', the psychoanalytic concept most commonly employed by historians. In order to understand the sexual aspects of the history of the British empire, it is essential that the historian should have some grasp, basic, of the dynamics of human sexuality as revealed in the work of sexologists and psychoanalysts.
Ideally, historians should leave the sex lives of public figures in decent obscurity, as they are frequently urged to do, on the argument that such private matters are no part of the historian's business. Sexual needs can be imperative, and people will go to extraordinary lengths to satisfy them. Most people muddle through, without their sexual imperatives actually wrecking their careers. But some there were who suffered major calamities as a direct or indirect result of their sexual activities, notably Charles Stewart Parnell, Sir Hector Macdonald and Roger Casement. Parnell conducted a long-standing, extremely reckless and ultimately fateful liaison with Katharine O'Shea, who had been effectively living apart from her husband for five years. Macdonald was a crofter's son who became a draper's apprentice and then enlisted in the ranks in 1870, serving eight or nine years in India, and becoming a captain in the Egyptian army by 1887.
During the eighteenth century contradictory developments took place in British attitudes towards sexuality. Historically, the sexual practices and attitudes of the British have several peculiarities compared with the rest of the non-European world. The Purity Campaign was extremely comprehensive in its scope, and changed the visible face of British life as well as many of its inner attitudes. The worst result of the late-Victorian campaign was the silence which descended over all aspects of sex, producing the most appalling ignorance. The qualities most unsparingly disparaged by the late-Victorians were sentimentalism and lack of sexual control. They had a horror of sex for the unmarried. The late nineteenth-century cult of manliness became a powerful and pervasive middle-class moral code. The golden age of athleticism was from about 1860 to 1914.
Running the Victorian empire would probably have been intolerable without resort to sexual relaxation. On all plantations, whether worked by slaves or indentured labourers (but especially the former), there was obvious sexual exploitation. Frontier trading posts also articulated regular patterns of sexual interaction, whether under the Royal African Company in the eighteenth century, or the East India Company in India and on the China coast to the 1830s. All historians are agreed that sex between men flourished in the convict settlements, even if it did not leave much definite evidence. In South Africa, Africans believed that black maids in European houses would be seduced by their employers. The longer a place remained unexposed to the scrutiny of the memsahibs and the reformed officials the longer would persist the traditional solution to the problems of loneliness and sexual deprivation.
The requirements of ruling the Raj seemed to demand ever more aloofness between ruler and ruled as the nineteenth century wore on. In Viceroy Curzon's 1890s cosmology the Indian princes formed a peculiar threat to 'social distance'. Racial, social and sexual jealousies were involved here. Between the mid-1850s and 1888 a system was in operation under which regulated prostitution was available in seventy-five cantonments where the Indian army was stationed. The aim was to keep the women free from disease. Two sexual confessions by Indian army officers from the early twentieth century survive. One, in manuscript form, is by Captain Kenneth Searight; the other, published as one of Havelock Ellis's case histories, is by an officer known only as 'G. R. Quaife'. G.R. believed the application of Indian love-making techniques was an especial liberation for British women.
In America in 1858 Dr W. Sanger believed that a good half of New York prostitutes entered the profession attracted by the way of life, by the need to combat loneliness: many were immigrants. In Africa, John Iliffe observes, 'prostitution was certainly not a one-way ticket to poverty'. Recent studies of prostitutes in Western Australia and South Australia also emphasise the positive self-image many prostitutes held of themselves, and reject the old stereotypes about 'pariah sisterhoods of shame'. Chinese and Japanese prostitution operated mainly on a contractual basis. In the geography of white slavery the main route was from Europe to Latin America, especially to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Official reaction against sexual opportunism began in earnest with the Purity Campaign launched in 1869 by Josephine Butler, which was perhaps bound to be exported overseas.
In 1909 a sexual directive was issued to members of the Colonial Service which for the first time laid down a general rule to discourage concubinage, warning of the severe penalties that could be expected. This change of official attitude was one of the few tangible elements differentiating the post-Edwardian empire from what had gone before. Hubert Silberrad was an assistant district commissioner at Nyeri, near Fort Hall in central Kenya. The Times carried several letters commenting on the Silberrad case, together with an editorial on 26 December. In Northern Rhodesia, however, the situation remained unchecked until 1909-10, when the sexual activities of three men attracted attention: C. J. Macnamara, R. L. Harrison and R. A. Osborne. Macnamara, Native Commissioner of Guimbi sub-district in Northwestern Rhodesia, admitted concubinage with an African woman from December 1906 until September 1907.
Victorian missionaries seldom stopped to enquire what structural function the practices they objected to so often performed in ensuring the cohesion of traditional societies. Mission work in Africa grew rapidly from the 1850s. From the start, the issue of polygyny was of central importance, and it remained at the heart of the battle for an African Christianity. Insistence on monogamy forms a long, difficult backdrop to the missionary penetration of Africa. Missionaries the world over, whether Catholic or Protestant, have always consistently targeted anal intercourse as one of the first traditional practices to be eliminated. For the churches, what happened in Buganda in the 1880s was a chastening experience. Systematic teaching by missionaries in Kenya against clitoridectomy began in 1906, by the controllers of the CSM hospital in Kikuyu, notably by Dr J. W. Arthur, who became head of the mission station there.
The chronology of British changing attitudes towards sex fits this general pattern closely. While race relations in general were relatively relaxed, sex across the colour-line persisted, but as racial attitudes became more tense and problematic, so these sexual relationships were more and more frowned upon. The missionary invasion of indigenous sexual practices was forced into a less aggressive gradualism. Fortunately, the significance of sexual factors in running the empire, viewed as a general system, is less problematic than in tracing their influence upon individual cases. The thoughts of soldiers and sailors regularly turned to sex as a result in part of the assumption of service authorities that they would inevitably seek out prostitutes. In their empire, the French rejected the British assumption that an end to interracial sex was desirable anyway. They continued to encourage concubinage for their administrators.