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The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj

By Rosie Llewellyn-Jones | Posted 2nd January 2013, 15:00
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The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj
Anne de Courcy
Weidenfeld & Nicolson   336pp   £20

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For more than 200 years one of the most curious exports to India from Britain was the so-called ‘Fishing Fleet’; not sturdy men in search of exotic new hunting grounds, but something much more serious: women seeking husbands. Many eligible British men had already made the journey overseas to serve in the East India Company. After 1858, when the company was abolished, more government administrators were needed, as well as military officers and troops. Some men found their brides during ‘home leave’ in Britain, but competition was great, so it seemed logical to ship marriageable women out to India, where they could ‘fish’ for a suitable partner. They went out for the winter season, into a whirl of Christmas camping parties, dances at governors’ mansions, visits to maharajas’ palaces, tiger-hunting expeditions and, if very lucky, an invitation to the viceroy’s own splendid house in Calcutta.

Anne de Courcy’s entertaining book is mainly concerned with the upper echelons of British society. Not only did the ‘fleet’ need a considerable outlay on the journey itself and a large wardrobe including white gloves, evening dresses and hats, but also the right connections. Every woman needed a chaperone and a willing brother, married sister or aunt to stay with, so a network of relatives already in India was essential. It was not all plain sailing, of course, sometimes literally so – ships sank, accidents happened and before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the voyage could take up to six months, with days of seasickness only mitigated by ‘chloroform taken in water’ or champagne.

New brides, eagerly snatched up in the marriage market, found that once the parties were over, they were often isolated in remote rural postings, far away from the convenience and society of large towns. Their husbands had districts to tour, justice to administer, tea estates to run and duties that kept them busy all day, while their wives had no occupation other than to deal with the servants and support their menfolk. Frequent postings meant it was hard to put down roots. Then there were particular problems like tropical illnesses, when the nearest European doctor was miles away, and natural disasters including earthquakes and landslips. The old cemeteries have sad records of British children dying in infancy and women dying in childbirth, too. Where children did survive there came the inevitable moment when they had to be sent ‘Home’ for education, and the wife had to decide to go with them, or remain with her husband.

De Courcy has interviewed those of the fishing fleet still alive, and their descendants, making good use of letters, diaries and reminiscences published during the last three decades. Perhaps inevitably the stories that they tell merge into a social history of the Raj itself, familiar to those who know Charles Allen’s Plain Tales from the Raj (1975) and similar books. Indians do not get much of a look in, unless they were maharajas or loyal servants. The wives seldom learnt more than ‘kitchen Hindustani’ or bothered much about political events. Plenty of criticism has been poured on the heads of these women, who became memsahibs.

This book is not one of them and does not set out to be, but it may prove perhaps the last of a kind, a nostalgic, non-judgemental look back. And what happened to those unlucky enough not to catch a husband? They went home at the end of the season, unkindly nicknamed ‘returned empties’. You only got one shot at the game.

Rosie Llewellyn-Jones is the author of The Great Uprising in India, 1857-58: Untold Stories, Indian and British (Boydell, 2007)


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