On November 27, 1869, ten days after the Suez Canal had been inaugurated in Egypt, disaster struck the first ship headed to India laden with cargo. The Bombay Guardian reported mournfully that a ship called the Noel from Bordeaux had sunk in the Red Sea. “The barque came through the Suez Canal…bound for Bombay, with a cargo of wines,” the newspaper noted.

But that didn’t put a crimp on operations. The opening of the Suez Canal – connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea – revolutionised trade between Europe and India by cutting travel time from England to the subcontinent from more than three months to four or five weeks. Before this, ships had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

Shortly after, a steamer from Glasgow called The Stirling en route to Mumbai made the passage through the canal in under 16 hours.

Since March 23, when a 400-metre-long shipping container called the Ever Given ran aground in the channel, blocking movement, the world has been reminded of the continuing importance of the Suez Canal.

The disaster has also been the opportunity to recall the excitement that greeted the opening of the canal just over 150 years ago – and how it shaped the city of Mumbai.

The Gateway of India

Mumbai, with the most developed harbour on the west coast of the subcontinent, became the preferred destination for ships from Europe and was transformed into the Gateway of India.

An expanding network of railway lines connected the growing metropolis with the rest of the country.

The canal and the establishment of the Indo-European telegraph two years later mean that “India’s products could move much more rapidly into consumption overseas and they could also be bought and sold on the basis of closed spot and forward contracts”, said a report of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “The quicker movement of goods and the rising tempo of east-west trade mean there were valuable openings for the ancillaries of commerce – banking, insurance and shipping.”

As travel between the continents became quicker and much more comfortable, among the spheres of Mumbai life that changed was sex work.

“Before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the foreign prostitute from eastern Europe was practically unknown in Bombay, and such immorality as existed was confined to women of Eurasian or Indian parentage,” grumbled civil servant SM Edwards in his book The Bombay City Police, published in 1929.

But “once…the large European shipping-companies had established regular steamer-communication with India, and Port Said [in Egypt] had become a port of call and an asylum for the riff-raff of Europe”, India was included in the orbit of the global sex trade, he said.

“The women usually arrive unaccompanied and of their own choice, and they are well over the age of majority before they first set foot on the Bombay bandar,” Edwards wrote. “The ‘mistress’ of the brothel, who is herself a time-expired prostitute and has sometimes paid a heavy sum to her predecessor for the good-will of the house, feeds and houses the women in return for 50 per cent of their daily earnings.”

By the end of the 19th century, Mumbai had the largest number of European sex workers of all Indian cities, writes Ashwini Tambe in her book Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay. “Women as far away as Poland came to work in its brothels,” she noted.

A 19th-century Bombay cotton merchant. Credit: Francis Frith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Safed gully’

Many of the European women worked in brothels in Tardeo, Grant Road and Byculla, where a section of Shuklaji Street came to be known as “Safed gully” or “white lane”.

“Preserving racial purity and preventing miscegenation became a crucial political project,” Tambe writes.

The existence of European brothels, Tambe noted, was driven by “three distinct imperatives for colonial administrators: providing sexual recreation for British soldiers and sailors, preventing interracial sex and preserving British national prestige”.

She explained, “Although British administrators condoned brothels, they tried to ensure that brothel workers were not British as that could reflect badly on British womanhood.”