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A courtly man hunt

From the early 19th century to the first half of the 20th, unmarried women travelled to India to escape Britain  and find a husband, writes Juliet Townsend

14 July 2012

6:00 AM

14 July 2012

6:00 AM

The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj Anne de Courcy

Orion, pp.352, 20

In ‘He Fell Among Thieves’ Henry Newbolt describes a young man’s voyage to service in India:

He watch’d the liner’s stem ploughing the foam.
He felt her trembling speed and the thrash of her screw;
He heard the passengers’ voices talking of home.
He saw the flag she flew.

And, with any luck, as ‘the moon made a silver path over the smooth sea’, he would find himself on the boat deck with his arm round the shoulders of an attractive girl and the prospect of an enjoyable shipboard romance ahead. The playfully nicknamed ‘Fishing Fleet’ was at sea with its cargo of girls in search of a husband in India or Ceylon, and men returning from leave in England on the lookout for a wife. It was not surprising that the opening salvoes in this campaign were often fired on the journey out: some disembarked in Colombo or Bombay already engaged and tied the knot only days after arrival.

The Fishing Fleet originated in the days of the East India Company, when carefully selected potential wives would be sent out for the Company’s employees, those who failed to find a match being sent home under the rather unkind title of ‘returned empties’. Anne de Courcy follows the fortunes of the girls of the Fishing Fleet over 150 years, from the early 1800s to the outbreak of the second world war. What happened to them when they had landed their man is perhaps the most interesting side of this lively and well researched book. To all of them, escaping from the narrow world they knew, and travelling thousands of miles to an exotic and unfamiliar destination, it must have seemed a great adventure. As Thomas Hood wrote on their behalf in 1842:

My heart is full — my trucks as well;
My mind and caps made up,
My corsets shap’d by Mrs Bell,
Are promised ere I sup.
With boots and shoes, Rivarta’s best,
And dresses by Ducé,
And a special licence in my chest —
I’m going to Bombay!

Later however, in the days of the Raj, the annual invasion — at the end of the English summer season and the beginning of the Indian cold weather — was a much more varied affair. Many of the girls travelling out were the daughters of families long-established in India, where they had spent their early childhood before being sent to England for an often miserable experience of boarding school, unkind guardians and a grey cheerless climate. For these, their return to the land of their birth and to their long-separated families promised nothing but pleasure. For others, on a desperate last-chance search for a husband, the outlook was more daunting. Although, through most of the period dealt with in this book, men in the English community in India outnumbered the women by about four to one, by no means all of them were available for matrimony. In the Indian Civil Service, the so-called ‘Incorruptibles’ responsible for administering a subcontinent, marriage before the age of 30 was severely frowned upon. In the army, the rule of thumb was: ‘A subaltern cannot marry, a captain may marry, a major should marry, a colonel must marry.’


Every matchmaking mama longed to find a bridegroom for her daughter in the elite ranks of the ICS — ‘the turbot and halibut of the matrimonial net’ — but this was not easily achieved. In 1859, the ideal district officer was described as:

A hard active man in boots and breeches, who almost lived in the saddle, worked all day and nearly all night and had no family ties, no wife or children to hamper him; whose establishment consisted of a camp bed, an odd table and chair and a small box of clothes such as could be slung on a camel.  

India was full of such enforced bachelors. As one wrote: ‘I live in a world populated by one sex. This is unnatural and abnormal.’ In the early days of the British in India, it was accepted that men who might not return home for 20 or 30 years should take Indian mistresses and often wives, and in families established in the country for several generations, there was often a trace of Indian blood (betrayed, according to Kipling, by ‘the little opal-tinted onyx at the base of the finger nails’). A toast in the days of the East India Company was a corruption of the saying ‘Alas and alack-a-day’ into ‘A lass and a lakh-a-day.’ In other words, an Indian mistress and 100,000 rupees.

After the Mutiny of 1857 and the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, the ruthless march eastward of the memsahib swept all this away and any sexual relationship across the race divide spelt social suicide and the probable end of a career. Discouraged from marrying, and from any other forms of sexual satisfaction, the hordes of energetic young men in their twenties were supposed to sublimate their desires through a programme of non-stop sport — polo, pig-sticking, shooting, tennis, gymkhanas and tiger hunting—between which they were expected to be totally devoted to their work. No wonder many of them waited eagerly for the appearance of the Fishing Fleet and eyed the new arrivals at a dance at the Club with all the keenness and discrimination of a farmer surveying the latest draft of cattle on their appearance at market. It was as well to be first in the field to bag the best of the bunch. One new arrival on the Fleet of 1916 wrote of a dance: ‘Had two with James and he was ripping and there was a full moon and altogether everything was tophole.’ Marriage followed rapidly.

The maidens of the Fishing Fleet may have journeyed together on their matrimonial quest but their fate on arrival was varied. For those who settled in the cities, there was a busy social life centred on luxurious clubs, like the Tollygunge in Calcutta. Military wives faced the life of the cantonment, which could be lively and sociable, but which might equally be a remote dusty outpost with little company and the prospect of loneliness and boredom. The most isolated were those who married men whose work lay in the mofussil — remote areas far from towns or other settlements, peopled by tea planters, policemen, doctors, forestry experts and missionaries — whose work might take them away for days on end, leaving a disconsolate bride to while away the time as best she could.

Perhaps the luckiest were those sent up from the plains to the hill stations at the height of the hot weather. There, in the bracing air of the foothills of the Himalayas or, in the case of Ootacamund, the Nilgiri Hills, the young brides discovered new energy and, with their husbands often left behind, for much of the time, cast caution to the winds. As John Masters wrote:

Perhaps it was the mountain air that caused so many women to cast aside their inhibitions. Perhaps the friendly unfamiliar wood fires warmed their blood and made them think with fervour of romps on tiger-skin divans. Perhaps it was human nature. The fact was, hill stations presented an unusual picture of a race supposed to be frigid.

 The queen of the hill stations was, of course, Simla, seat of government for half the year and with the social cachet of the viceroy and vicereine, the commander in chief and the governor of the Punjab. Anne de Courcy describes the life, with its intense round of picnics, amateur theatricals and balls as being ‘relentlessly unintellectual’. Certainly it was famous for flirtations; a place where, as Lady Reading put it, ‘every Jack has someone else’s Jill.’ Sometimes this erupted into outright scandal. One cuckold husband, finding his wife in bed with a cavalry officer, walloped him with a poker. The guilty pair had to flee Simla and the erring cavalry officer was relegated to remounts, which argued a sense of humour among the authorities.

A sense of humou
r was also required of the Viceroy when, at a ball in Viceregal Lodge in Delhi, he sent his aide-de-camp to ask the bandmaster the title of a half-familiar tune. The aide-de-camp returned and waited until silence had settled on the ballroom, then leaned forward and gazing at the Viceroy announced with deplorable clarity: ‘I will remember yourkisses, your excellency, when you have forgotten mine.’


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