The Fishing Fleet Husband-Hunting in the Raj

Bookworm Issue 168 Nov, 2015

The Fishing Fleet that sailed from Britain to colonial India in the 19th and early 20th century was not after fish. Rather, it consisted entirely of eligible British girls seeking husbands from among the many British men in service to the Raj as colonial civil servants or soldiers. 

“By the 19th century,” the author writes, “India was seen as a marriage market for girls neither pretty nor rich enough to make at home what was known as ‘a good match’, the aim of all respectable young women. In India, where European men greatly outnumbered European women, they would be besieged by suitors, many of whom would be richer or have more prospects than anyone they could meet in England.” Marriage in India “was often undertaken with the sort of rapidity usually confined to spotting a business opportunity and pouncing on it..., the girls because they did not wish to go home to probable spinsterhood and the men in case someone else seized the prize.”

The author compares it to speed dating. It sometimes happened aboard ship on the way out to India or within days of arrival. “Often, minds were made up and a lifelong commitment to another human being promised after only a few meetings…” And, upon the untimely death of a spouse, some widows received proposals to remarry on the steps of the church after the funeral.

The book is a matrimonial tour de force, based largely on diaries, backed by well documented descriptions of the colonial social scene. Before Crown rule was established in India in 1858 during East India Company times, European men often chose spouses from among the local Indian women. But, once the Raj was established, that practice stopped and an ‘us and them’ attitude prevailed, with “unquestioning acceptance of the need to maintain purity of blood and links with the motherland.”

When young British women, girls really, disembarked at Bombay, the chase was on, both ways. In India they encountered a glamorous, adventurous and often challenging lifestyle. After marriage and as soon as their children were school age, the youngsters were sent home to boarding schools in the UK. Then, when they came of age, many boys sought service back in India, and the girls would return to rejoin their parents and begin fishing for a husband for themselves.

The chapter titles, each a quotation from someone’s diary, are telling. For example: ‘Happy Hunting-Ground of the Single Girl’, describes the women who went out. ‘Kisses on the Boat Deck’ reveals love at sea. ‘A Hell of a Heat’ reminds us of the oppressive summer climate that drove the Brits up to cool Himalayan hill stations like Shimla, summer headquarters of Raj.

One chapter describes ‘Parties, parties, parties’. Another is all about viceregal entertaining, which the author says “was of a glamour unknown [in England]..., thanks to the size and vistas of the viceregal palaces, the plethora of servants in their scarlet and gold uniforms moving noiseless and impassive among the guests, the scents of the flowers, the brilliance of the light and, above all, the presence of the princes” -– the Indian maharajas, rajahs, ranas, nizams, gaekwars and nawabs.

There are also descriptions of the men’s lives and diversions. The popular writer, John Masters, an ex-Gurkha officer, has written from his India experience that “It is useless to pretend that our life was a normal one. Ours was a one-sexed society, with women hanging on to the edges. Married or unmarried, their status was really that of camp followers.” To cope with loneliness before marriage, some of the men poured their energies into polo, or hunting (especially tigers), and some, he says, “buried themselves in their work and …became unmitigated nuisances through the narrowness of their conversation.”

‘The Fishing Fleet’ is a satisfying read, one that I found hard to put down. I especially enjoyed the personal accounts taken from some of the women’s detailed and sometimes spicy and mischievous memoirs.