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Heterogeneous Imperialism and the Regulation of Sexuality in British West Africa
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Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.3 (2005) 291-315



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Heterogeneous Imperialism and the Regulation of Sexuality in British West Africa

University of Liverpool

Unpacking and applying to the imperial field Michel Foucault's analysis of sexuality as "an especially dense transfer point for relations of power," historians of sexuality and postcolonial critics have identified close, mutually constitutive relationships between sexualities and political and economic contexts, including those structured by imperialism.1 In this context much attention has been paid to relationships between British imperialism and the regulation of prostitution: historical researchers have identified patterns that suggest an overall imperial logic to regulation. This essay asks how and why British Africa (excepting the Cape Colony and Egypt) escaped regulation, concentrating on one particular colony: the small West African settlement of Sierra Leone. The experience of Sierra Leone points toward a more general unevenness in geographies of regulation, which implies that European sexualities and regulatory systems were not simply or uniformly imposed. On the contrary, they were produced in those spaces, where they were shaped by race relations and the imperial state, by local conditions and local people, and by external relations and interactions, particularly but not only with the mother country, with implications for ways in which relationships between imperialism and sexuality and the imperial logic of regulation are understood.

Imperialism and the Regulation of Sexuality

"The expansion of Europe," as the libertarian historian Ronald Hyam approvingly put it, "was not only a matter of Christianity and commerce, it was also a matter of copulation and concubinage." He illustrated how their active sex lives helped Europeans through months and years in penal colonies and resource frontiers, military camps, and farming settlements. [End Page 291] For Hyam these were "essentially harmless pleasures," but others have been less relativistic.2 For Josephine Butler, the sexual activity of empire spoke of power and of a morally bankrupt imperial order.3 One does not need to share Butler's moral stance to see the connections between sexuality and imperial power. It was widely recognized—tacitly or explicitly by family members, medical workers, schoolteachers, owners and employees of plantations or mines, and governments—that sex was important not only for the pleasure (for some) but also for the business of empire. Colonization schemes were organized around sexual arrangements. The heterosexual nuclear family was chosen as the building block for the agricultural colonization of large parts of the world in the nineteenth century, namely, the family farm.4 The unmarried man was the vehicle for other imperial projects. Though likely to be sexually frustrated and emotionally lonely, he was also conveniently mobile and affordable, an effective soldier or plantation worker.5 Prostitutes were deployed within the same projects, serving armies and frontier settlements. As Philippa Levine argues, "Prostitution was a critical artefact of colonial authority, a trade deemed vital to governance but urgently in need of control."6 Colonial authorities made sex a central plank of what Lenore Manderson calls the "moral logic of colonialism."7 Legal critics Kristin Mann and Richard Roberts generalize that "colonialism sought to impose a new moral as well as political order, founded on loyalty to metropolitan and colonial states and on discipline, order, and regularity in work, leisure and bodily habits. By regulating such things as health, sanitation, leisure, and public conduct, law played a vital role in moral education and discipline."8

In the British Empire in the Victorian period regulation took a number of forms and addressed a number of areas, none more prominent than the contagious diseases (CD) acts. The CD acts and ordinances regulated prostitution in designated areas. Their provisions varied over time and between places, but generally these laws required female prostitutes to submit to medical inspections and confined those diagnosed with syphilis or gonorrhea [End Page 292] to detention wards of "lock hospitals."9 The CD acts, like other forms of moral regulation, were both immediately functional as an imperial strategy and also symbolic of the wider political order. Richard Rathbone argues that English law was...