As some here may remember, back in January Heretic TOC ran the first two parts of a promised imperial trilogy. The first was a humorous reflection on this blog’s global reach from its UK base, titled British Empire re-conquers America; the second was much more serious, looking at the mistreatment of women in a highly patriarchal part of Britain’s old empire, India: No wonder women turn against ‘teasing’. Now, better late, I hope, than never, this third part goes back in time with a question about the sexual adventurers of the imperial adventure – the men who ran the administration and enterprises of far-flung colonies, many of whom, freed from the stifling moral code of Victorian England, found they could have a whale of a time with the “natives”, including boys and girls.

The question is this: was it just scandalous exploitation, like so much else in the history of empires everywhere? Was it just an expression of rampant, unchecked patriarchal power, or is there another side to the story? In 1990 the historian Ronald Hyam focused on the lives and loves of these men in Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience, a book packed with colourful revelations.

Before the 1880s, when “social purity” campaigners scored their first successes, prostitution had been rife in Victorian England. But the numerous brothels, some of which in London accepted clients as young as ten, were not such an organized and literally regimented affair as they became in the empire. At one time there were 2,600 registered brothels in Hong Kong alone, while all over India the British Army ran a huge network of official regimental brothels – one in Lucknow had 55 rooms.  Only senior officers were allowed to marry, so such establishments were accepted as a practical necessity, at least for men of relatively regular tastes: they provided girls down to age 12.

Enthusiasts for boys, on the other hand, were catered for by indigenous boy brothels, although here too the purity movement eventually began to make inroads. The first attempt to close these places was undertaken by General Sir Charles Napier, worried about the corrupting effect on his troops of the boy brothels in Karachi. There is an irony here, as one of his direct descendants turned out to be a boy-lover. How do I know? Because he became treasurer of the Paedophile Information Exchange when I was also on the committee in the 1970s!

Hyam doesn’t dwell on what the locals thought of all these soldiers and civilian officials (also mainly single men) relieving the frustrations of the bachelor life in this way, but William Dalrymple gives us that side of the story in a new book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, which examines the dismal British record in that country at the time of the First Afghan War and its aftermath in the mid-nineteenth century. Beaten by the Afghans, the British fucked their way to revenge. The natives thought the Brits wanted to “turn the whole country into a brothel”, going out of their way to abuse and dishonour the women. Ahead of a rebellion against the occupation, jihadist warrior Mirza ‘Ata Mohammad vividly proclaimed, “…we have to put a stop right here and now, otherwise these English will ride the donkey of their desires into the field of stupidity.”

Mirza ‘Ata’s language was colourful and so was the behaviour of many imperial figures, including the eminent and famous, although not necessarily with the vengeful viciousness that prevailed in Afghanistan. General Sir Hector Macdonald, for instance, who had become a national hero following his role in the victorious Battle of Omdurman in 1898, was finally defeated not by thousands of enemy warriors but by a scandal involving, if not thousands, then possibly scores of small boys in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka of course). It had already been known that while in South Africa he had been “given to quaint practices…love making to quite young girls”, according to a letter from the colonial Governor of Ceylon, “but this must be something much worse”. He was caught in flagrante with four boys, no less, in a railway carriage in Kandy. The many boys he and his pals were involved with turned out to include “sons of the best known men in the colony, English and native”. This was in 1903, by which time loose practices that came to light were no longer tolerated as before. With a trial in the offing McDonald shot himself.

McDonald had certainly ridden the donkey of his desires to a disastrous field, but not necessarily one of stupidity or evil. As Hyam generously notes, the community of boys he had been involved with were “interesting and very active” – the sons of senior leading Englishmen in Ceylon were clearly not vulnerable to exploitation based on poverty, and the natives too were McDonald’s friends. The local Sinhalese culture, with its tradition of dancing boys, was relaxed on boy-love, and even the Burghers (mixed race descendents of former colonists, mainly Portuguese and Dutch and mostly still Christian) had gone native in that respect.

Likewise in Africa and elsewhere, the British often found themselves in cultures with a tradition of an early start to sexual life, where they may have been regarded as glamorous outsiders rather than oppressive ones, just as American soldiers were often admired and sought after by British women during the Second World War. And their early start could be very early. According to Sir Harry Johnston, who was no sexual libertarian himself, “almost every girl in east-central Africa ceased to be a virgin well before puberty” (my emphasis).

Even Dalrymple, whose Return of a King draws parallels between Britain’s ill-fated 19th century invasion of Afghanistan and the present venture there, which he predicts will end badly, does not see Britain’s global seed-squirting as necessarily negative. In an earlier book, White Mughals, he drew attention to the fact that the British abroad had not always seen themselves as superior, with a mission to dominate. Many were cultured people, interested in poetry and painting, who were happy to take native mistresses whom they respected and from whom they learned the local languages and customs. Those who were allowed to, the senior officers and administrators, often married a local wife abroad.

And Hyam reminds us that it is not just imperial invaders who can behave badly. It was colonial administrators who fought against practices such as widow-burning (sati) in India, Chinese foot binding, and African female genital mutilation. As for the present epidemic of baby rape (yes, baby rape) in South Africa, it has burgeoned as a supposed “cure” for HIV/AIDS, and owes nothing either to paedophilia or the legacy of colonialism. Sati (or suttee) in particular was suppressed by the British administration but has re-emerged in recent years in independent India as bride-burning when dowry deals fall through, as may be remembered from part two of this trilogy. It is worth noting that Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta in the 17th century, had three children by a Hindu mistress he had rescued from a sati funeral pyre.

Nor were the ranks of these noble humanitarians confined to those of “respectable” sexual tastes. Sir Roger Casement, unjustly hanged as a traitor in 1916 after turning against the overall record of British imperialism and supporting Irish independence, had frequent resort to rent boys, and recorded his exploits in what have become known to history as his Black Diaries. Yet much of his career was taken up with successful campaigns against slavery, notably in the Congo and Brazil. The cruel abuses he exposed and prevented make any exploitation he may have committed seem trivial by comparison. Indeed, having “relaxation” in his own way was probably a condition of his humanitarian success: without it, he could not have functioned in his work. Freud’s notion of sublimation is doubtless correct in its assertion that civilization and culture depend on suppressing the sexual instinct in its most selfish and abusive potential manifestations, but it goes too far when interpreted against the gentler deviations.

What seems to have happened, actually, in broad historical terms, is that the early British presence abroad, notably that of the British East India Company from the 17th century onwards, was marked by relaxed sexual interactions and a respectful appreciation of local culture. The British only became high-handed and disdainful of the natives much later, on account of several key developments, one of which was the Industrial Revolution. Britain’s resulting wealth and technical superiority became so overwhelming by the middle of the 19th century that it became increasingly difficult not to feel this success must have owed something to racial superiority, especially at a time when Darwinism was entering the public consciousness with its key “survival of the fittest” theme.

The arrogance of such views was then compounded by the aloofness to which new social arrangements gave rise. I alluded above to the “social purity” movement. Its first successes were on the home front, when the age of consent was raised to 16 in England in 1885, the highest in the world at the time (in many states of the U.S.A. it was 10; in Delaware it was seven and some states had no age of consent at all). Boosted by this and other “achievements”, including Josephine Butler’s successful campaign against hygienically controlled prostitution, the moralists took their work overseas. Instead of sending young men abroad to serve the empire with only prostitutes or native concubines to keep them happy in their often lonely and uncomfortable postings, they were now encouraged to marry English girls, who would join them to set up a household abroad, with a proper family life. That was fine except that the “memsahib” would change everything. Typically, she would know nothing of the local culture and would often take a pride in her ignorance: the “inferior” races were to be kept at a distance – especially the female ones, and especially from her husband. As a result, the husbands too would gradually become more withdrawn, and more inflexibly British in their dress and habits. It was not a good recipe for mutual respect and understanding.

An Australian poet and academic, James McAuley, put it well when he rejected the later imperial venture as sterile. Telling us why, he said:

 Why? Perhaps the simple answer is: the white woman. While European men went out to Asia and Africa and the Pacific without wife and family, they entered into a different sort of relationship, social and sexually, with the people. When the white wife came out all was inevitably different… the white woman is perhaps the real ruin of empires. If New Guinea had become a mulatto society it would be a slatternly, but more colourful and easy-going society, with the minor vices of concubinage and sloth, rather than the major respectable vices of cold-heartedness and hypocrisy.

Now, here’s the really interesting bit. What sort of chap was best placed to resist this trend, even into the early 20th century? Who among the imperial legions might continue to maintain an intimate and sympathetic relationship with the locals? Why, those of unconventional sexuality of course – precisely the ones least likely to marry a conventional Englishwoman. They include chaps like the colonial-era British boy-lover sympathetically portrayed by Arundhati Roy in her Booker Prize winning novel The God of Small Things. Roy is an Indian woman and, like Dalrymple, a vehement opponent of the neo-imperialist ventures played out in recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. She also has a strong track-record of opposition to the Indian government’s own oppressive record towards its poorest citizens, the despised “tribal” peoples who are being steadily pushed off their land by commercial interests. This sensitivity towards the oppressed has enabled her, remarkably, to embrace the cause of the boy-lover too. Good for her.

One such colonial boy-lover was David Grove, a cultured individual, an Oxford-educated man who served as an assistant district commissioner in Nigeria from the 1920s. I knew him – lovely chap, very gentle, kind and courteous. Well, as you may know, I am quite old, but I wasn’t actually there at the time. No, like my acquaintance with that descendant of Sir Charles Napier I mentioned earlier, my encounter with David was in London, where I worked with him in the 1970s when he too served on PIE’s executive committee, producing a magazine on children’s rights. Like me, he was indicted on a charge of conspiracy to corrupt public morals and would have been tried alongside me and others at the Old Bailey but for the fact that he was gravely ill by then and died before the trial began.

Old David used to talk with great affection about the boys in Africa – hordes of little kids who were not banned from his verandah, nor from his heart or his life. He loved them dearly and they, I am sure, would have loved him. He was that sort of guy. If he could be said to have ridden the donkey of his desires he – unlike Sir Hector McDonald – was never unsaddled by scandal, nor did he deserve to be. It’s the stubborn donkeys we should worry about: the ones who refuse to move, the ones who deny the positivity that lies latent in erotic diversity.