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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility
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Colonies and Cordons Sanitaires

In the medical context of the late nineteenth century, colonies constituted a terrain of viral toxicity, dirt and contagion, always threatening to halt civilizational progress and to infect the “body politic” of the colonizing countries (Levine 2003: 9). In fact, in the Manual of Venereal Disease (1907), co-edited by director-general of the Army Medical Service, Sir Alfred Keogh, dirt and venereal diseases are brought together: “Venereal diseases are propagated, in fact, in filthy surroundings, and it may be regarded as an axiom that the chances of avoiding infection are in direct proportion to the extent to which cleanliness and personal hygiene are practiced” (2-3). In this context, the soldier’s body was regarded as equally susceptible to dirt and to venereal disease. Military memoranda warned against free ‘exchange’ with local populations, who, allegedly, were a source of infection that would invariably wreak havoc on men’s bodies. In his 1905 memorandum, Lord Kitchener warned the troops:

Syphilis contracted by Europeans from Asiatic women is much more severe than that contracted in England. 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 foetid ulcerations which cause his breath to stink. (qtd. in Levine 1994: 591).

In the course of this narrative, which also links syphilis to consumption, the soldier gradually loses his sensorial functions (the failing sight, the changing voice, the rotting nose) and disintegrates into the disease itself: his body is described in terms used to delineate the symptoms of the disease (for example, “foetid ulcerations” and stinking breath). With the loss of his bodily functions, and with a gradual disappearance of his voice, the soldier loses his identity and becomes a cesspool of putrid flesh.

Highlighting this dramatic rhetoric of identity loss, Levine argues that Kitchener’s description supports a much larger argument, namely, that British soldiers were endangered not only by physical diseases but also “by a whole grim process of orientalization” (1994: 591). Statistical tables in military reports give credence to Kitchener’s warnings, showing, year after year, the numbers of men incapacitated by the disease. Notwithstanding its lack of accuracy, statistical information was often used as an effective rhetorical device evincing the urgency of a systematized regulation of venereal disease in the colonies. Military reports underscored the importance of the problem as they outlined the ravages of syphilis on the “strength and efficiency of the British Army” and the alarmingly frequent “wanton waste of good material,” which became worthless to the country.10 Attacking the body of the troops, venereal disease was portrayed as undermining the stability of the whole colonial state (Howell 2009: 200).

Preventive measures aiming to ensure soldier’s health consisted of a diversified politics of spatial enclosure. Although visibility underscored imperial sexual politics, it in fact produced porous spaces of tentative

(in)visibility, which became both arenas of racial, class and gender segregation, and potential sites of resistance against the newly implemented rules. Assuming a fusion of the concepts of the empire and Britishness, Levine highlights the separatist politics of Great Britain at a time when “empire itself was not a single site” and the evolving idea(l)s of nationality had to be stabilized (2003: 4).11 This stabilization required a constant control of contact zones, which, while signalling colonialist progress, continued to be regarded as virulent sites of possible unrest and degeneration. Since Britain was constructed in opposition to its colonies, unremitting efforts at girdling and rigidify- ing these borders were undertaken to ensure the stability of this division (299). Sexual practices of the British troops were one of the major targets of this politics. Operative in almost all colonies, various regimes of spatialization and isolation emerged as a combination of pragmatism, centralized directives and local politics.12 Even the legislatively unregulated spaces bore the marks of this regimen of confinement.13 Although greatly differing from place to place, the CD Ordinances and Cantonment Acts primarily targeted local prostitutes in an attempt to protect soldiers’ constitutions. Yet, while intended to combat venereal infection, they scarcely undermined the operations of the sex market (Levine 2003: 38).

Managing the sites of prostitution aimed at the maintenance of a “cordon sanitaire,” whose aim it was to ensure a degree of separation between indigenous and colonial populations, maintain hierarchies among brothel-goers and warrant spatial differentiation between healthy and ill bodies (Levine 2003: 307). Domesticating prostitution and making it visible and public facilitated its control. Local regulational practices involved such strategies as “zoning of vice districts” and licensing of brothels, control of public spaces and various technologies of moral policing as well as the identification, registration, regular inspection and detention of women suspected of prostitution (Howell 2009: 323). Further strategies encompassed photographing and ticketing of the prostitutes, writing their names on the walls of the establishment or numbering them and the rooms of their operation.14

The proximity of the brothels was also licensed: placed within the easy reach of soldiers in the cantonment, they were nonetheless often relegated to its margins. Reconstructed by M. Satish Kumar (2005), Lucknow and Peshawar cantonments demonstrate the extent of this confinement and show that orderliness was a prerequisite to what was regarded as a successful means of prostitution control. In contrast to these orderly, conceived spaces, the perceived space of the chakla was a nauseating, claustrophobic site of sexual trade. It was subject to various abuses on the side of the clients who, drunk and violent, marked the prostitutes’ bodies like the British Government marked their abode (Howell 2005: 167). Importantly, the technology of isolation also dictated the hierarchies of the brothels’ inhabitants and clientele and policed the flow of bodies within cantonments’ confines. In Madras, where hospitalization was not the preferred means of management of diseased prostitutes, every woman found suffering from venereal disease had her hair shaved off and was expelled from the vicinity of the cantonment (Levine 2003: 39). In other colonies, their mobility was highly policed.15 A hierarchical (class, caste and racial) exclusivity of brothels was the major aim of such activities. Colonial mechanisms of spatialization were similar to home technologies of “containment” and “localization,” which aimed at situating brothels in well demarcated and easy-to-police districts (Howell 2009: 93). In the whole of the British Empire, albeit with considerable local differences, regulationist policies, as part of “disciplinary modernity,” relied on spatial regimes of surveillance (Howell 2009: 11). And yet none of these spaces was unambiguous as they generated an uneasy tension between visibility and invisibility:

The moral element of spatiality created a dilemma about who exactly could or should see and track who. The too-visible brothel invited even while it could be watched and disinfected. Sex, though it had to be represented as marginal, was in fact central to colonial rule. The marketplace of colonial sex had to be maintained but how to achieve that, and still preserve the hard geographical boundaries by which “civilized” morality was defined, recognized, and sustained proved inevitably an impossible endeavor. (Levine 2003: 322)

This tension between the visible and invisible proved an impossible obstacle to overcome and invited a myriad of resistance strategies. Nonetheless, the official propaganda continued to hail orderliness and salubriousness as the major components of home and colonial prophylactic schemes.

In contrast to the discourses of government officials and local legislators, abolitionists’ use of spatial rhetorics turned the same sites into godless terrains of sanctioned vice, degradation and moral degeneration. Famously, Alfred Dyer, evangelical reformer and founder of The

Sentinel: The Organ of the Social Purity Movement, compared Sitapur, one of the places in India where Cantonment Acts were in operation, to a “licensed market of sin” (1888b: 2). The three bazaars of the city were, according to him, public fairs of carnality, debauchery and corruption, with soldiers, accompanied by prostitutes, “going in and out [ ... ] without any appearance of shame” (1888a: 25). In Bombay, he reported, major thoroughfares had been transformed into a stage on which the spectacle of soliciting women, displayed in open windows of houses ablaze with light and lust, was served out to gaping soldiers, natives and passers-by (1888b: 2).

The map of India that Alfred Dyer drew in one of his reports teems with governmentally licensed sites of corruption. It is an integral part of his anti-governmental rhetoric. His cognitive mind map of Bareilly (Fig. 5.1), likewise instantiates his fears of the centrality and visibility

Alfred Dyer’s maps of the Empire, The Sentinel, 1888. Image published and produced with permission of ProQuest as part of British Periodicals

Fig. 5.1 Alfred Dyer’s maps of the Empire, The Sentinel, 1888. Image published and produced with permission of ProQuest as part of British Periodicals

of “tents of licensed harlots” to the morale of the troops: “It is an illustration and sample of how lust is forced upon the British soldier, and how the native population is corrupted, by the British Government in India” (A. Dyer 1888a: 26). The regularity of the regiment tents is juxtaposed with the even rows of prostitutes’ abodes. Highlighted through shading and bold captions, indicated by a manicule, they occupy the central position: they are situated in between the church, native and private dwellings and shops. Set in plain view of military tents, they “confront the troops from morning to night, separated [... ] only by a public thoroughfare, without any buildings or trees intervening” (26). The map is built on oppositions: the central space of licensed sexual traffic is juxtaposed with the marginal site of reformation, instantiated by the “temperance tent.” With their marked difference, the prostitutes’ quarters are regarded as dangerous to all surrounding sites. The apparent orderliness of the map testifies to the legislative centralization of sin and corruption.16 Due to its cross-continental diffusion, Dyer’s visualization of the contiguity of these sites had tangible political effects. As Phillips has shown, the abolition of governmental regulation projects in India was partly attributed to the influence of his powerful geographical imagination (2006).17

As a synecdoche of the colony, then, the brothel and its positioning in the (proximity of the) cantonment, was an ambiguous space; a space that curiously mirrored, questioned and reversed knowledge-power relations in the cantonment and in the colony. It was the colony’s own heterotopia: a territory that put to plain view the illusory character of the colony itself (Levine 2003). Dyer’s mind-maps of the British legislative ‘colonization’ of India throw into strong relief the isolationist principles of various regulations of venereal disease but also show to what extent they were inherently unstable and destined to fail.

Cocooned in the imperfect, often incoherent and porous cordon sani- taire, the soldier’s body nonetheless retained its permeable character. Further disciplinary regimes aimed to shape it into an armour-like piece of machinery that would resist the attacks of the enemy, be that fiendish troops or infectious diseases. The fitness of the British troops and sailors signalled imperial power. Despite a marked improvement of the army’s reputation, it was the navy that continued to constitute the prime object of national pride (Padfield 1981: 4).18 Soldiers were presented as “wholesome and brave defender[s] of the motherland,” which helped to boost nationalism and functioned as an effective recruiting strategy

(Levine 2003: 268). Yet one could also sense public concern: depicted as “sacrificial lambs,” the rank and file of the British army was conceived of as passive victims of larger forces (269).

There was a discrepancy between the depiction of soldiers for mass consumption and their presentation in military writings. Joseph A. Kestner notes the extent to which military imagery both constructed and continually questioned dominant fictions around the British Army, its hegemony and the valiantness of its soldiers (1995: 190). On the one hand, it perpetually phallicized the male body, turning it into “the signifier of empowered masculinity” and “cultural Caucasian superiority” (194), on the other hand, it also often portrayed its vulnerability, for instance in the defeat scenes (204). Through its heightened circulation, such imagery expanded the sites where military masculinity could be negotiated and its inner conflicts revealed (222). At the same time, popular newspapers such as The Illustrated London News or The Graphic lauded the heroism of the Victorian soldier and romanticized army combat (Manning 2009: 10-12). Despite popular extolment, soldiers (and their bodies) continued to be regarded as potentially unruly, although not to the extent that was characteristic of the early nineteenth century: the rank and file was seen both as “modest men of sensitivity and as sly fornicators skilled at hiding their symptoms” (Levine 2003: 278). Both of these attitudes betray continuous fears concerning the state of soldiers’ moral and physical fitness and their potential to corrupt the whole nation.

Through a combination of moral and physical teaching, the army officials attempted to ensure the strength of the British troops. This, however, chiefly affected the women in the cantonment and their mobility. Built on this double standard, the CD and Cantonment Acts failed to exert the same sort of restriction on soldiers. An expensive article, the average Tommy would seldom be punished for his crimes against proper conduct. Mostly a working-class man, he would be targeted by moral education and the exemplary behaviour of higher rank officers. In this context, ideals of gentlemanly masculinity (bravery, autonomy, self-control), which “served to shape the contours of imperialism” were presented as worthy of emulation (Levine 2003: 258). Temperance was a hot currency. Keogh et al. expressed hope that soldiers would recognize the shame and loss of vital powers brought by incontinence so that “in time it may be considered no more manly to be incontinent, than it is manly to get drunk” (1907: 31). Such lectures aside, punitive and preventive measures, which were often used to harness prostitution, were seldom employed to target men (potentially) suffering from syphilis. Although there were periods when corporeal inspection was conducted among English troops, with processions of naked men as its most visible marker, these measures were altogether very infrequent. Cutting wages of soldiers who entered military hospitals on grounds of venereal infection was often criticized as conductive to the concealment of illness.19

Sanitary reform, along with the emphasis on physical and moral fitness, were the major preventive practices targeting soldiers. The Crimean War (1853-56), apart from being a military disaster, brought in its wake various sanitary measures as well as being an incentive for a number of disciplinary reforms. The Indian Mutiny (1857-59) also contributed to the reforms in the army. As Ken Hendrickson has argued, it was in this post-war climate that the exercises in “moral discipline” of the British troops began to yield practical results (1996: 21). The virtues of the middle classes began to be implemented in the military context (21). It was a time which, according to Douglas M. Peers, brought a “transformation of the British soldier from ‘scum of the earth’ to Christian martyr” (1999: 25). In his capacity as the secretary of state (1868-74), Edward T. Cardwell initiated an administrative reform of the Victorian army.20 Shorter periods of service and early marriage were some of the proposals that were to facilitate moral and physical health. Sanitary facilities, such as common washrooms, were planned to ensure a degree of individual hygiene; physical exercise and competitive sports were often implemented with the hope that physical exertion would distract men from less healthy pastimes. “Nothing counteracts so strongly the irregularities of the imagination and sensual affections consequent upon a lazy, sedentary life, accompanied with overfeeding and luxury,” Keogh wrote, “than bodily exertion and methodical, pleasant physical exercise. It develops force of character and energy, which are useful for all purposes in life, and ability to act; in short, a well- trained body is not compatible with drink or sexual excess” (1907: 32). Physical exercise and gentlemanly values were regarded as prerequisites to moral fortitude.

In the environment of the colonies, which were perceived as sources of physical and moral degeneration, various material-discursive measures were employed to ensure the health of the troops. Spatial politics of segregation, confinement of diseased prostitutes, ghettoizing of cantonments and city districts and training of men’s resilience were the most common ways of ensuring their fitness. These disciplinary regimes targeted men’s environment to create a cordon sanitaire that would buffer the ‘poisonous tang’ of the colony and strengthened the contours of their body boundaries. These practices, however, also created spaces of resistance: the borders of the colony, the cantonment and the soldiers’ corporeality were always in danger of dissolution. As heterotopias, cantonments spotlighted the inefficacy of the values of temperance, gentlemanly conduct and self-control and mocked their application in the colonial context. They also highlighted the impossibility of ensuring impermeable borderlands and thus undermined the success of Britain’s colonial project. Like the colonies and cantonments, male bodies continued to pose an unrelenting threat of contagion. That is why their mobility had to be policed.

 
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