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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 number of sailors visiting the city increased, an organised system for directing sailors from ports to licensed 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, assigning 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 roads 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 number of European women in Kamathipura can be attributed to brothels set up there.
In the late s, large numbers 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.