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«Jean-Michel Chaumont The white slave trade affair (1880-1881) : a scandal specific to Brussels? Translation: Jane Corrigan Between 1880 and 1881, ...»

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the e-journal for academic research on Brussels

Issue 46, 24 January 2011. ISSN 2031-0293


Jean-Michel Chaumont

The white slave trade affair (1880-1881) :

a scandal specific to Brussels?

Translation: Jane Corrigan

Between 1880 and 1881, Brussels was the scene of the first ‘white slave trade’ affair,

which had international repercussions: approximately fifty Belgian and foreign underage women – British in particular – had been admitted since 1878 into some of the officially recognised brothels in the city. A handful of them had been brought there against their will. After several trials, fifteen or so shady individuals were sentenced, but those who were truly responsible for the abuse were members of the police. There is no reason to deduce from this that the Brussels police were particularly corrupt: in truth, the system for the regulation of prostitution placed the police in an objective position as the protectors of the brothel keepers’ interests. The same effects were invariably seen wherever this system was implemented.

Jean-Michel Chaumont is a qualified FNRS researcher and member of the Hoover Chair of Economic and Social Ethics at UCL. He recently published Le mythe de la traite des blanches.

Enquête sur la fabrication d'un fléau, Paris, La Découverte, 2009.

Contacts :

Jean-Michel Chaumont, jean-michel.chaumont@uclouvain.be Christophe Mincke (Senior Editor), +32(0)2 211 78 22 / +32(0)473 21 02 65 Brussels Studies is published thanks to the support of the ISRIB (Institute for the mincke@fusl.ac.be encouragement of Scientific Research and Innovation of Brussels - Brussels-Capital Region) Brussels Studies the e-journal for academic research on Brussels Introduction For almost two years – between January 1880 and July 1881 – Brussels was accused by certain newspapers – British for the most part – of being the headquarters of an abominable moral scandal. In Belgian courts it was called ‘the white slave trade affair’, and fifteen or so brothel keepers and other shady individuals were finally sentenced for incitement of minors to immoral behaviour. A trial regarding trafcking in women had never had so much international attention. When governments tackled the problem in 1899, it was still referred to by some as Belgian Traffic and, fifty years later, when the experts from the League of Nations presented their historical report on the state of trafficking in women throughout the world, they referred to the events in Brussels to mark the beginning of their fight. The Belgian expert Isidore Maus thus reminded his colleagues in February 1927 that ‘in Brussels, there was a terrible dispute. A police commissioner was dismissed. The mayor of Brussels was forced to resign. We cannot imagine the upheaval which took place. We must not undermine these facts and the truly heroic era which they portrayed’ (quoted by Chaumont, 2009, 25). It is especially interesting to note what Isidore Maus remembers first of all, i.e. that a police officer was dismissed and a mayor was forced to resign. His memory was good and his selection was judicious: as we shall see now, the true scandal indeed lay in the action of the authorities much more than in the behaviour of those who were sentenced.

In the collective work which was recently devoted to this memorable affair (Chaumont and Machiels, 2009), the authors tried to get to the bottom of it by considering different points of view: that of the victims, the judicial authorities, militant abolitionists, the British authorities, etc. Here, I shall examine in particular the point of view of the police officers. Secondly, I shall ask the question as to the specificity of the scandal: was it the symptom of a pathology specific to Brussels or, as the expression Belgian Traffic suggests, to the country as a whole? We shall see that there are good reasons not to yield to the song of the culturalist (or even ethnicist) sirens and to lay the blame on a system instead – that of the regulation of prostitution – which regularly led to the corruption of its agents in Belgium, France and wherever it was applied, and continued to do so for several decades.

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1. The scandal: the regulation of prostitution in Brussels The affair referred to as the white slave trade is unintelligible when taken out of the general context of the regulatory policy adhered to by the Brussels municipal authorities since 1844 in the continuation of the measures adopted on the Belgian territory by France and the Netherlands. Based on the premise according to which prostitution is a necessary evil which should be controlled for reasons of public health and public order, the ‘French system’ – spread throughout Europe during the Napoleonic Wars – provided for the obligatory registration of prostitutes and their subsequent subjection to the finicky dictates of a regulation whose application in Belgium was entrusted entirely to the municipal police. Whether it was part of the national police as it was in France or of the municipal police as it was in Brussels, the vice squad oversaw compliance with regulations and was the only authority in charge of sanctions in the case of an offence: regardless of the most basic constitutional protection, the police were thus authorised to judge and imprison prostitutes without the slightest intervention on behalf of the judiciary. They also ensured that the prostitutes who were found to be ill during the twice-weekly compulsory medical inspections went to the ‘venereal diseases police unit’ at Saint Pierre’s Hospital and were forced to stay there until the doctors declared them to be fit for work once again. In order for supervision to be as tight as possible from all points of view, the regulatory system strongly encouraged brothels. From the point of view of police officers, brothels also had the major advantage of being a breeding ground of extremely useful information regarding the regular clientele (who were sometimes very anxious not to be discovered, such as clergymen) as well as the underworld. Following his dismissal, no less than two thousand personal records were found in the private home of Lenaers, the Brussels police commissioner (Keunings, 2009, 41).

In Brussels, regulation was even stricter than in Paris, which is why certain historians (Huberty and Keunings, 1987) have used the term ‘hyper-regulation’ whilst referring to it. It was used as a model by the many medical and police delegations which came from abroad to study it and directly inspired the authorities of the city of Buenos Aires. 1 However, in 1856, whilst those in charge were very pleased with the effectiveness of the system, the situation was different twenty years later: the number of officially recognised brothels continued to decrease, whereas illegal prostitution – the nightmare of those in support of regulating it – increased. According to the calculations made by Sophie de Schaepdrijver (1986, 108), 2nd and 3rd class brothels disappeared by 1867, and in 1876 only a dozen 1st class brothels remained.

With all categories considered, there were three quarters less than in 1856.

1 Since before the independence of Belgium, the Société des Sciences naturelles et médicales de Bruxelles played a significant role in the international promotion of regulation. In his preface to the translation of the work by Abraham Flexner in 1919, H. Minod states that ‘the effectiveness of the regime was part of the creed of administrators and doctors: regulation was not discussed or studied – one simply believed in it. However, later, it was clear that all was not for the best; but nobody imagined that there could be a remedy other than an intensification of administrative measures. Medical associations attributed the failure of the regime to the lack of uniform provisions, and started a campaign to obtain international regulation. In 1825, the Société belge des Sciences naturelles et médicales [in reality the Société des Sciences naturelles et médicales de Bruxelles, JMC] tested the ground with the aim to propose the extension of the system to cover all of Europe’ (Minod, 1919, VII).

–  –  –

In order to prevent this decline, Lenaers, police commissioner of Brussels, proposed a reform of the regulations to the municipal council, which was adopted in August

1877. According to what was revealed three years later by the scandal, alongside the official modifications aimed at cracking down on illegal prostitution and at lightening the obligations of brothel keepers, certain provisions were introduced unofficially. As reported by Lenaers, the owners of officially recognised brothels complained bitterly about unfair competition from illegal brothels: not only did they – by definition – evade the regulations, but they employed underage prostitutes, i.e.

young women under 21. Whilst the regulations – and the customs – of 1844 allowed the registration of underage women as prostitutes, they were only authorised to work in the streets (as so-called ‘street girls’) and not as ‘brothel girls’. Lenaers suggested to the municipal councillors to lift this ban – which could legitimately be considered as being rather incoherent – and he obtained their approval. As public prosecutor Janssens declared in 1881 in court, ‘when it has been established that an underage girl makes her living from prostitution, is registered and bears as it were the official stamp, what does it matter if she does her miserable work in the streets or in the lounges of a brothel?’ (quoted in Chaumont and Machiels, 2009, p. 63).

Indeed, what does it matter? And many big cities – beginning with Paris – therefore authorised not only the registration of underage women as prostitutes, but also their admission in brothels.

Just one restriction seems to have been observed – at least in France – since the 18th century in accordance with an informal agreement between brothel keepers and police officers: underage women who were not experienced prostitutes would not be allowed into brothels. This is how Louis-Sébastien Mercier described it almost exactly one century before the events in Brussels: ‘There are tacit police regulations which forbid all of these brothel keepers to employ virgins: they must be deowered before entering the place; and if they are not, the detective constable is informed at once. One may laugh at this last sentence, but I am being serious.

There was a desire to establish a certain order within the disorder, ward off excessive abuse, protect innocence and weakness, and prevent unbridled debauchery from destroying the civil bond and sacred ties of families. Fathers do not have any complaints to make; the loose behaviour of their daughters never begins in this type of suspicious place’ (quoted by Benabou, 1987, 49). It is precisely these ‘tacit regulations’ – nevertheless renewed by Lenaers – which were not respected in Brussels in the case of a young British woman. We shall examine how and above all why this happened.

According to the many declarations and pieces of information which accompanied the public revelation of the fact that approximately forty underage Belgian and foreign women began working in brothels in Brussels between January 1878 – the date of the implementation of the new regulations – and the eruption of the scandal in January 1880, it is patently obvious that the underage prostitutes who ‘wished’ to be admitted into a brothel had to provide proof of former experience as a prostitute.

For young Belgian women or for those from the neighbouring regulatory countries such as France, Germany or the Netherlands, this did not create any particular difficulties: they just had to confirm that they had worked as a registered prostitute, either as a ‘street girl’ or as a ‘brothel girl’, and as it involved an official administrative procedure, there were written traces. But in the case of young British women, the situation was much more complicated: in the United Kingdom – which was gen

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