Sex and the British-Indian Army

From Dr Hamid Hussain.

Some have asked questions about sexuality during the Raj as related to the army.  Enjoy.


When British arrived in India, India was sexually more liberal than Europe. Heterosexual and homosexual relations were common, open and celebrated in poetry and paintings.  Concubines were a common phenomenon practiced by all religious and ethnic groups.  In contrast, there was quite strict sexual repression in Victorian England.  There are two aspects of sexual relations; one relating to British soldiers and second British officers. In eighteenth and nineteenth century India, prostitution was legal and well-regulated in British controlled India.  In 1850s, there were seventy five military districts and in every district prostitution was supervised by authorities.  Doctors of Indian Medical Service (IMS) were responsible for regulating brothels.  All prostitutes were registered, minimum age for prostitutes was fifteen and women were provided with their own living quarters or tents that were regularly inspected.  Some establishments were quite large and brothel in Lucknow had fifty five rooms.  Prostitutes infected with sexually transmitted diseases were removed and not allowed to practice their trade until recovered.  Both native and European soldiers used these bazaars; however sepoys were discouraged to visit those prostitutes preferred by European soldiers.  Most British soldiers were from lower strata of the society and were not held to the standard of a British officer.  British soldiers visited prostitutes more often than sepoys.  One reason was that British soldiers were not married while sepoys were usually married men.   These bazaars were called ‘lal bazaars’ (red streets).  Both heterosexual and homosexual relations were common.  British regiments spent several years in India and many a times children were born of such relationships.  Special houses and schools were assigned as early as eighteenth century for these children. As far British officers were concerned, the phenomenon was common in 18th and early 19th century.  However, nature of sexual relations was different.  Officers married among the elite of India.  Most Company employees both civil and military joined the service at the age of sixteen.  Several factors such as very young age, prolonged stay of decades in India with very limited home leave, posting to a far off station with very little contact with Europeans and influence of native consorts and wives resulted in complete ‘nativization’ of some of these Englishmen.  In late seventeenth and eighteenth century, many Europeans kept native concubines as well as legally married local women both Muslim and Hindu.  These women were kept in a separate house named Bibi Ghar.  The practice was common enough that surviving wills from Bengal in the years 1780-85 show that one in three record bequest to Indian wives and companions.  Some Englishmen retained their own religion and culture while others converted to Hinduism or Islam and became completely ‘native’.  Some children of such unions roamed in two worlds comfortably while others drifted to one side.  Some were educated in England and finally settled there while others grew up as natives in India.  Few of the off springs of these unions even became celebrated poets and scholars of Urdu and Persian (Farasu, Shaiq, Sufi etc.).

William Darlymple has documented these liasions in detail in his excellent works.  British Resident in Delhi Sir David Ochterlony lived like an oriental nawab and had thirteen native consorts; the most famous one being Mubarak Begum.  British Resident to the court of Marhattas in Pune General William Palmer married Begum Fayze Bakhsh of a prominent Delhi family.  British Resident at Hyderabad Lieutenant Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick married Khair un Nissa; great niece of the Prime Minister of Hyderabad.  James’s half- brother William lived with his consort named Dhoolaury Bibi.

Major General Charles Stuart had practically became a Hindu and lived with his Hindu wife.  He was nicknamed ‘Hindu Stuart’ and ‘General Pandit’.  He was buried in Christian cemetery in Calcutta but with his Hindu gods.  The commander of British troops in Hyderabad Lieutenant Colonel James Darlymple married the daughter of Nawab of Masulipatam; Mooti Begum.  William Linnaeus Gardner married the daughter of Nawab of Cambay Begum Mah Manzel un Nissa.  After freelance service with Marhattas and Nizam of Hyderabad, he raised irregular cavalry regiment named Gardner’s Horse for East Company.  This regiment still survives as 2nd Lancers of Indian army.  Gardner lived happily on his wife’s estate near Agra (Mah Manzal was adopted daughter of Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II).  His son James married Begum Malka Humanee; a niece of Mughal Emperor (she was also sister in law of Nawab of Lucknow).  William’s granddaughter was married to a Mughal prince Mirza Anjum Shikoh Bahadar.  Another soldier of fortune Hercules Skinner married a Hindu Rajput lady and several children were born from this union (she committed suicide when Skinner tried to take their daughters out of purdah to be educated and married to Englishmen).  Their son James Skinner raised the famous irregular cavalry regiment Skinners Horse nick named ‘Yellow Boys’.  This is now the senior most cavalry regiment of Indian army; Ist Lancers.  James had fourteen Hindu and Muslim wives and consorts.  He lived like a Muslim but later in life regularly read Bible and buried in St. James Church in Delhi.

Near the end of eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, Company laws, rise of Evangelical Christian activity and steady flow of European ladies in India severely restricted such encounters and by the middle of nineteenth century, it was a rare phenomenon.  By the middle of nineteenth century, this trend had almost died down.

One of the last story of such love affair is Colonel Robert Warburton of Bengal Artillery and Shah Jahan Begum; a niece of Amir Dost Muhammad Khan of Afghanistan.  Warburton fought in First Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42) and was captured by Afghans.  He fell in love with Shah Jahan Begum and married her.  The offspring of this union was Robert Warburton; born in a fort near Gandamak in 1842 when his mother was on the run. He was fluent in English, Persian and Pushtu and served as Political Agent of Khyber Agency for eighteen years.  In a strange irony, Warburton senior was born in Ireland and buried in Christian Cemetery of Peshawar while Warburton Junior was born in Afghanistan and buried in Brompton cemetery near London.

British were apprehensive about Indians interacting with English women.  In late 1800 and early 1900s when qualified Indian doctors were admitted to Indian Medical Service (IMS), British were uncomfortable posting them to positions where they had to examine English women.

The issue of relationship of Indians with English women rose during Great War.  In Great War, Indian soldiers came in contact with European society when they fought on Western front.  Some Indians especailly Sikhs and Pathans had sexual relations with local French women; including formal marriage.  British were alarmed and they were not allowed to bring these women back to India.  My sister-in-law’s grandfather Khan Zaman Khan Babar IDSM; a Pathan married a French lady when he was in France.  Family joke is that there may be some lost cousins roaming around in France.  Some Pathans (mainly trans-frontier Afridis) who deserted to Germans married German women and a handful brought back these women to tribal areas.  Khyber political Agent files kept track of these folks.  One Afridi stayed back in Germany after the war and was running a tobacco shop in a German town.

Nomadic Suleman Khel powindas took their camels to Australia for laying telegraph, railway and roads. Some came back with Australian women.  One such indomitable Australian lady became the head of the miri (large roaming settlements that traveled between Central Asia and India) after the death of her husband.  She would be sitting on the camel in front of the caravan and greeting British scout officers in heavy Australian accent on entering the tribal territory.

Some Indian princes had married English women in 20th century.  Indianization of officer corps increased social contact with English society.  In mid 1930s when English women started to use swimming pools, presence of Indian officers in clubs watching scantily clad Englishwomen was not welcome.  Second issue was related to dancing.  Formal dancing was part of officialdom.  Very few Indian officers were Anglicized as well as good at ballroom dancing to ask Englishwomen for a dance.  General ‘Timmy’ Thimayya (4/19 Hyderabad Regt) was probably an exception in this regard.

The problem with Indian officers was that they wanted equal treatment including right to attend exclusive clubs and swim and dance with Englishwomen if they agreed but not willing to bring their own women.  A number of Indian officers kept their women in ‘purdah’.  This applied to both Muslim and non-Muslim officers especially high caste Rajput officers.  Even the most liberal Indian officers with educated wives were not comfortable with dancing as the couple may not be good at it or aware of getting chastised by their own communities for allowing their women to dance with English officers.  Around Second World War, both societies have seen significant changes where many Indian officers married Englishwomen.

Lovers of boys got themselves posted to PIFFERs and scouts to share Pathan passion of homosexual liaison.  Officers posted to regiments with significant Pathan element or scouts faced unique headaches.  There may be a case where a young recruit would put a bullet in the head of a randy old Subedar for unwanted advances.  Discipline problem when Subedar giving special favors to his ‘young lad’ by keeping him at headquarters rather than sending him to remote posts and giving him easy duties and giving him excuse from fatigue duties.  At other time, two young sepoys would insist that they should be posted together for night sentry duty or to an outpost where they would be together for days.

Hamid Hussain

03 December 2018

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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Syed Sharfuddin
Syed Sharfuddin
5 years ago

A fascinating account. However the topic is a vast one and requires further additions about how the children of these mixed marriages were educated and trained; the fate of wives who were left behind in India when the Company Officers were posted back to England or retired; the love stores or family tragedies where the families of the mixed couple behaved indifferently to a native wife or a gora husband, the cocktail of faiths and cultures; the real story behind the Anglicised landed families in India and Pakistan who were granted land for loyalty or perhaps due to some old marital or blood connections. This is a large subject not followed up by historians.

Brown Pundits