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The Travelling Commission of Enquiry into Traffic in Women and Children in the East

by Pierre-Etienne Bourneuf on 2023-01-31T10:12:00+01:00 | 0 Comments


by Nils Holm



With the digitization of the League of Nations Archives we are presented with an overwhelming amount of archival material, suddenly accessible from the comfort of our own home. This new accessibility enables a much larger public to scrutinize the archive’s holdings which can pave the way for new questions. We know that the archives contains an interwar political history of internationalism and disarmament and more recently, a new focus has been centered on the League’s technical work, showing that the League did succeed in promoting international technical cooperation. With the digital opening of the archives, we can look at the archives from new angles and ask what kinds of histories we can access through the archives?

This blogpost in two parts will present a partial story of the Travelling Commission of Enquiry into Traffic in Women and Children in the East. The first part will describe the objectives of the Travelling Commission and its method of work. The second part will dig deeper into some of the archival material and suggest a social history accessible through the League of Nations Archives in Geneva.

In 1930, the League of Nations sent out a Travelling Commission with the object of researching traffic in women and children in the East. The Commission was a continuation of an effort to limit the international trafficking of women and children, and followed a format developed in the 1920s, where a body of experts during the years 1924-26 gathered information on trafficking in Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, and the Americas by interviewing a variety of relevant witnesses such as the police, local authorities, social workers and also representatives of various religious communities, as well as pimps, prostitutes and traffickers.

On the basis of a resolution passed by the Traffic in Women Committee (April 26th, 1929), the League of Nations Council (June 12th, 1929) directed the Secretary General to contact the governments in the Near, Middle and Far East and obtain confirmation that they were willing to cooperate with a travelling commission. And by a generous grant of 125,000 dollars from the Bureau of Social Hygiene at New York, the enquiry was ready to commence.

The Council appointed the following persons as members of the Travelling Commission of Enquiry: Mr. Bascom Johnson (United States of America), Director of the Legal Section of the American Association for Social Hygiene, became the chairman; Madame Dr. Alma Sundquist (Sweden), Physician, became a member; Mr. Karol Pindor (Poland), Counsellor of Legation, became the last member. The three members would spend the next 1,5 years travelling around the Eastern Hemisphere to fulfill the object of the enquiry: "The object of the present enquiry is to establish the facts concerning international traffic in women and children in the East. This would include, in addition to prostitutes, certain cases of taking women as entertainers and artistes to foreign countries for the purpose of exploiting them by prostitution." (1)

Although the object stresses the international aspect of the enquiry, earlier experiences had shown that a narrow focus on only international trafficking was not fruitful. The Commission of Enquiry into Traffic in Women and Children in the East drew on this insight and acknowledged that certain internal conditions could not simply be left completely out of consideration. The result was a commission with an international focus that was sensible to the relevance of local factors and sought to “establish the facts”.

The Travelling Commission followed a dizzying itinerary. It left Marseilles by steamer on October 10th 1930 for Bangkok via Singapore, where it arrived on November 6th. It then left for Cambodia and continued into Vietnam where it visited Pnom-Penh, Saigon, Cholon, Hanoi and Haiphong. Afterwards, it left for Hong Kong, and continued to Macao, and went on to Manila where it arrived February 10th 1931. It then spent the next 6 months travelling through China, the Korean Peninsula, and Japan, visiting Shanghai, Nanking, Chefoo, Tientsin, Peking, Mukden, Harbin, Dairen, Keijo (Seoul), Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe and Nagasaki. After visiting the Netherland Indies (modern day Indonesia) and Penang, the Travelling Commission spent 6 weeks in Sumatra to arrange the documentation collected and begin the drafting of its rapport, before leaving for India on October 29th. It then went on to travel to Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and finished its enquiry in Jerusalem.

The scope of the travels is impressing in itself, but it is also a testament to the amount of information collected and the complications in this regard. The point of departure of the Commission’s work was its questionnaire sent out in advance to the places where the enquiry was held (2).


The questionnaire asks several questions about the nature of trafficking and prostitution in the area, including but not limited to the laws, administrative orders and regulations on prostitution and their effect, the hotspots of prostitution and trafficking, and the governments future plans to combat prostitution. Furthermore, it asked the local authorities to provide all statistical and legal material on the subject, as well as a list of local associations and individuals who were concerned with the problems of trafficking. The questionnaire design shows that the Travelling Commission was mostly interested in understanding and combatting trafficking through a legal scope. Local organizations of interest were interviewed, but the majority of witnesses were representatives of different branches of government. The end goal of the Travelling Commissions was to establish the facts of international trafficking and coordinate a joint international effort to limit it. But following the legal scope of the questionnaire, it is clear that the effort would be centered around international law and mobilization of the local authorities.

By looking at the final report and the documentation produced by the Commission during its travels, we find a rich material describing the mechanisms of international trafficking in the interwar period, showing the broadness of the League of Nations Archives. In the second part of this blogpost, I will highlight some of the material describing under which circumstances women became prostitutes according to the Inquiry. This material shows that the archives of the League of Nations not only holds the framework for an international political history but can also provide a social history of the lived lives of prostitutes in the East.



(1): Commission of Enquiry into Traffic in Women and Children in the East – Report to Council (1933)

(2): COL-118-97-1

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