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Provost's Imagine Fund for Arts and Humanities

Biopolitics and Rights in Liverpool and Bombay

In 1897 British soldiers went house to house in Bombay to search for plague victims, and bodily inspected them on the street. Two British officials were assassinated by Indian nationalists affronted at this violation of their bodies. In Liverpool, police closed down pubs where prostitutes supposedly drank; radicals protested that these were ordinary working women who had a right to refreshment. In the 1890s, governments and reformers surveilled, identified, and confined people seen as infected morally or physically; this has been termed biopolitics, the management of populations for greater efficiency and health. They wanted to limit alcohol sales, prohibit women from dangerous work, examine sex workers for venereal disease, and require vaccinations. New Liberals, Fabian socialists, and imperialists asserted that the state's mission overrode individual rights to refuse these requirements. In response, some feminists, Indian nationalists, Christian socialists, and libertarians argued that humans (and sometimes animals) had a right to bodily integrity. They defended prostitutes, prisoners, plague victims, laboratory animals, and drinkers from what they perceived as forcible state compulsion. This project will compare biopolitical interventions in two port towns, Liverpool and Bombay, and analyze the debates among Indian nationalists, feminists and socialists over state protection versus compulsion. The debates of the 1890s illuminate our own dilemmas between the need for governments and NGOS to protect health and social discipline and the rights of individuals to bodily integrity. This will be a chapter in a book on human rights in the British Empire.

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Twin Cities