Aden's Shadows: Addressing the Nightlife and Law in the Early 1900s

Let's wind back the clock to Aden at the start of the 20th century. Now, prostitution wasn't exactly frowned upon back then, or at least, not in the way you might think. It wasn't illegal – well, there was a bit of a grey area. There were what you'd call 'Public Prostitutes', ladies whose names were well known to the police and were, let's say, officially registered in their unique profession. They mostly stuck together, renting out blocks of houses, free from the control of any pimps.

It was a different story for the 'Private Prostitutes', though. They were the ones working quietly under the protection of their landlord, sometimes even under the watchful eye of their own husbands who played the role of the pimp. This side of the coin was illegal, and if caught, these women faced the courts, and repeat offenders were often shown the door – deported, that is.

In Sheikh Othman, things were getting a bit out of hand by 1907. The public ladies of the night weren’t confined to any particular area, which was a thorn in the side of the authorities. Major General de Brath, the Resident at the time, reckoned that just like in every bustling bazaar in India, there should be a dedicated neighbourhood for these women in Sheikh Othman. He wasn't just about segregating them; he wanted more control over the whole affair. He voiced his concerns in April, and, as if on cue, the next month the Principal Medical Officer flagged an alarm – venereal disease was rife in Sheikh Othman, with a good number of prostitutes under medical care. By May 18th, the whole area was declared off-limits to British troops.

Lieutenant Meek, the chap in charge of Sheikh Othman, wasn't one for sitting on his hands. He got his act together and had two blocks in Section D of the 'village' cleared out, moving in all the public prostitutes – some 35 at last count. He even had a list of 29 private ones that he was eyeing for deportation. Then there was Abdulla Abdul Hamza, who had the bright idea of building two blocks for the private prostitutes at his own expense. However, that plan hit a wall as the land he had his eyes on could only be offered with no strings attached.

Meek took to managing a register of all the public prostitutes in Sheikh Othman. It wasn't just a list of names; it detailed their race, country of origin, age, and how long they’d been around. He kept it meticulous, regularly sending it back to the Residency.

But Sheikh Othman wasn’t the only place with its fair share of the night business. Crater, Maalla, and Tawahi had their own lines, and Tawahi had a unique issue – a handful of European prostitutes were stirring the pot. In 1905, there were four of them, including a pair of Italians. They'd been around Aden for a couple of years and had set up shop in some discreet houses in Tawahi. They catered to a specific clientele – European military, sailors, and some local Italian businessmen. The problem was the commotion they caused, with their customers often knocking on the wrong doors at the most unholy hours. They were given a clear choice: move to the established lines in Tawahi, shift to Crater, or pack their bags and leave Aden.

Fast forward to 1911, and Manserjee Muncherjee was griping that the block he bought in Tawahi to house European prostitutes was near empty. He blamed the police for being too strict at the port, not letting the women through because they didn't have enough dough on them, as per the rules. He argued that they'd make their fortune soon enough if they were let in.

The saga continued – in 1909, an Italian lady accidentally gave a gunner syphilis. By the time they traced her, she had skipped town to Massaua. The police were on high alert to keep her out if she tried to return. In 1912, another Italian was suspected of having syphilis but refused to stay put in the hospital. They ordered her deportation, but she managed to get a clean bill of health from Colonel Pratt, the PMO, and avoided being shipped off.

Back in the day, the Bombay Act III of 1867 had a few things to say about the profession. It asked for registration and dedicated areas for the women to live and work. By 1877, there were 19 on the books, but the actual numbers were probably higher. Interestingly, the impact on public health seemed minimal, with a tiny percentage of European troops admitted to hospital for related diseases in 1875.

In the mid-late 1800s, most of the ladies were Somalis, with a sprinkle of Arabs. They had to cough up daily rent for the works – housing, furniture, clothes, you name it. And a fair few had a penchant for the bottle.

By 1915, things took a serious turn with an outbreak of venereal disease among the Indian Troops. The higher-ups, in their wisdom, recommended deportation for the infected women – a harsh reminder of the times.

Navigating the underbelly of Aden's history reveals a complex weave of societal norms, health crises, and the authorities' attempts to maintain order amidst the chaos of changing times.