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The Fishing Fleet

Husband-Hunting in the Raj

by Anne de Courcy

In the days of sail, employees of East India Company rarely got leave to go back to England - a trip of several months each way round the Cape of Good Hope. So the Company paid for the passage of suitable women to go to India, and maintained them for a year, during which time they were expected to have found a mate. If they failed, they went back to England as 'Returned Empties'.

Victorian England gave an unmarried woman few choices. Marriage gave her social status, financial security and a household. Women could not vote, sue, own property or a bank account, or even take charge of their own money. The corollary of that was that a man needed a reasonable income to be able to afford a family - if their income was too low they stayed bachelors, further depleting the pool of eligible males.

In early days of East India Company, lack of white women meant marriages with Indian women tolerated. Children sent to England to be educated. Lord Liverpool, PM England 1812-27, had an Indian grandmother. But from 1773 on, changed the rules, making the children ineligble for govt jobs and forbidding them being sent 'Home' for schooling.

But that didn't apply to planters and merchants, who were often too isolated or to far down the pecking order to get one of the Fishing Fleet women. Their half-caste children often emigrated to Australia, where they could produce evidence of white ancestry.

The early 'get-rich-quick' ethos was replaced by a sense of mission - a responsibility to the people they governed.

Extreme heat of parts of India. Travelling by train in 50 degree C an ordeal, despite three layers of glass and venetian blinds. Start with a 80 lb block of ice in each compartment, dip your towel in the ice water and tie around your head. And change your clothes twice a day because the dust and soot from engine penetrated everywhere.

Yet, even well into the C20, the English insisted on wearing heavy flannel, on the basis that it was better at wicking perspiration away from the body.

(London Times)

From the 19th century until the second world war, a young woman of good family who had not secured a suitable husband could elect to take part in the imperial version of Blind Date and join the 'fishing fleet'. This was the nickname given to the convoys of young females who went out to India every year, hoping to find a mate among the hordes of unattached administrators, officers, planters and businessmen of the British Raj, where men outnumbered women by roughly four to one.

Often the romances would begin on board the ships, which could take up to three months to reach India. My grandmother, who sailed to India in 1931 to get married in Bombay, said that quite a few of the onboard flirtations started 'before we had reached the Needles'. Lilah Wingfield, who sailed out in 1911, confided to her diary that, 'The Comte de Madre had informed Lady Strafford that he considered there were more opportunities on board ship for getting to know a girl well than in any other place, and he particularly wished for an English wife and did not want a very young girl — no Miss of 18 — so he had set his selection on me! But I would rather marry the black boy who prepares my bath!'

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The daughter of a lord, Lilah could afford to be choosy, but less socially secure girls such as Enid ­Shillingford, whose Eurasian father was a tea planter, took what was on offer - she fell in love on board and agreed to marry when the boat reached Colombo. Two days before the wedding she learnt that her fiance was married and fled back to England.

The boats carrying the fishing fleet were met by squads of sex-starved bachelors. The 'griffins', as the men in the Indian Civil Service were called, weren't allowed to marry until they were 30, and had no home leave for eight years. Relationships with Indian women were no longer socially acceptable. So when the fishing fleet arrived, engagements tended to follow in short order. Honor Penrose, an Irish girl who had been sent to India to find a husband, was proposed to on top of an elephant during a tiger shoot. Other men took advantage of the ­kalajuggahs, the so-called dark places set up at the endless dances.

Generally, though, unmarried girls were strictly chaperoned and sexually naive. On the morning of her wedding, one bride remembers her brother-in-law coming to her room and saying, 'Whatever Ralph may do tonight, remember it's all right.' And that was all the preparation I had for married life. I wondered what on earth he could mean!' Sexual intrigue was reserved for married women - the hill ­stations, such as Simla, full of grass widows during the hot summer months, were, as Lady Reading put it, a place 'where every Jack has someone else's Jill'. One girl wrote about riding in Simla: 'Mrs Crowe was there with her own young man. Everyone sports an 'own young man'. And she has such a dull little husband I suppose it's necessary for her to have a change now and then.'

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Completely off limits to the fishing fleet, though, were the Indians. 'Anybody, however old and decrepit, bald or dull, was a possible husband,' wrote one woman, 'as long as he was white. But anybody with the slightest touch of colour wasn't.' Even glamorous and fabulously rich Indian princes were forbidden. When the Maharajah of Patiala fell in love with an English girl called Florrie Bryan, the viceroy wrote to protest that he would not 'in any way countenance this marriage'. The maharajah went ahead, but the marriage was a disaster - poor Florrie was spurned by both the Patiala nobility and the British. She died three years later.

Life in the Raj had many material advantages over life at home, as the novelist Maud Diver pointed out in the early 1900s. 'There were no gas pipes to leak, no water pipes to freeze, no boilers to burst, no windows to clean, no grates to polish - and many more servants to do the minimal housework.' Every bedroom had its own bathroom, a luxury that was unheard of in Britain at the time. The flip side was the intense heat - which was compounded by the fact that until well into the 1920s no well brought-up woman would have dreamt of going out without wearing flannel next to her skin.

Even more stifling was the rigidly stratified nature of Raj society, which was every bit as ossified as the Indian caste system. A wife's social status was dependent on her husband's position in the hierarchy. When Violet Hanson got engaged, she wrote that her mother was not as ecstatic as she might have been. 'She thought I might have done better than a young officer in an Indian cavalry regiment.' Women who married '­junglies' (men who worked in the ­Forest Service) could find themselves living in places so remote that a journey to the dentist for toothache involved a three-week round trip costing a month's salary.

The Fishing Fleet is an entertaining, richly detailed account of a world that vanished overnight in 1947 with independence. As you would expect from the author of Debs at War and 1939: The Last Season, de Courcy revels in the details of durbars, tiger hunts and maharajahs dripping with jewels, but for me the most telling quote in the book is the acid recollection by a planter's wife: 'If there is a hell for me it will be an endless day in a club in Assam; a day of staring through dazzling white dust at men galloping about on polo grounds; of sitting in sterile circles drinking gin with their wives; of bouncing stickily around an unsprung dance floor, clutched to their soggy shirts, of finally being driven home at night by one of them peering woozily over the wheel, tipping old villagers in bullock carts into the ditch.' Despite the moonlit trips to the Taj Mahal and the jasmine-scented night air, life in the jewel of the crown could be as desperate as it was glittering.

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