Gomastahs, Peons, and Chowdranies: The Role of Indian Subordinates in the functioning of the lock hospitals and the Indian Contagious Diseases Act, Madras Presidency (1805-1880s)

Divya Gopalakrishnan

University of Melbourne, Australia

Recent scholarship on the social history of health and medicine has moved beyond enclavist or hegemonic aspects of imperial medicine and has rather focused on the role of Indian intermediaries and the fractured nature of the colonial hegemony. Drawing inspiration from this scholarship, I will highlight the significance of the Indian subordinates in the lock hospital system in the nineteenth century Madras Presidency. Although, the exploitative nature of Indian subordinates working for the lock hospitals and the Indian Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, has been discussed by number of scholars such as Kenneth Ballhatchet, Erica Wald and Ashwini Tambe. I focus on a class of Indian subordinates called the ‘gomastah’. I shall also highlight the role of other Indian and non-Indian subordinates such as Dhais, Chowdranies and Matrons, in particular the ways in which they became indispensable for the smoother operation of the Contagious Diseases Act. I also emphasise how Indian subordinates were able to bring in class and caste biases within colonial governmentality, adding another layer to the colonial prejudices and xenophobia against the Indian population. In that sense, I underline the fact that there was not a one-way appropriation or facilitation of the coloniser’s knowledge or biases by the colonised intermediaries, but rather an interaction between them, and highlight the complexities of caste hierarchies and prejudice within the colonial governmentality. Moreover, I focus on the consequent chaos and inherent power struggle between different factions of colonial staff.


Divya Rama Gopalakrishnan is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examines the control of venereal disease and sexual surveillance in colonial South India. She did her Bachelor and Master’s in history from University of Delhi. Her M. Phil dissertation (University of Delhi) was on “Lock Hospitals, Cantonment and Venereal Diseases in Nineteenth Century Madras Presidency.”


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