The British Empire expanded into India in the mid-1800’s, taking over from the East India Company and setting up their own government, military, and commercial enterprises. The British Raj, made up of only about 50,000 people at its height, yet managed to rule over millions of natives and set in place a lasting memory of grandeur, convention, chivalry and of course – polo. Anne de Courcy’s book, Fishing Fleet – Husband Hunting in the Raj is an examination of the way that young women, fresh from boarding school in England, would sail or steam to India in the hopes of finding a husband.
At the time, there were few eligible men left in England as the Empire was stretching to cover the globe. The best of the young men were abroad, whether in government, military or civil duties, and did not have the time to sit around and court women. Moreover there were just so many women in England that only the wealthiest, or most beautiful, could hope to snag an eligible young man. And in India, the practice of taking native wives which was encouraged by the trading firms, was completely quashed by the British, for whom mixed blood was one of the greatest sins against the Empire. So the Fishing Fleet was born. In the early days, these young women would set sail from England and head around the Cape of Good Hope on a months-long journey to get to this most exotic of lands. Later, after the Suez Canal was opened, the journey might take only a few weeks, but by boat, train, carriage and road – all of which would get hotter and dustier and drier the closer they drew to the subcontinent. Taken together, all these boatloads of women over the years are collectively referred to as the “Fishing Fleet”, a term first used in the time of the Raj for that very purpose.
Once there, the young women could be swamped by suitors. The ratio of men to women was between four and five to one, so women really could have their pick. And wealth and status besides. For in the strict hierarchy of the Raj, even the lowliest of the British had a household with servants to look after their needs – which were plentiful as there were always dinner parties, drinks parties, tennis parties, dances, and any number of excuses for dressing up in between. The Raj was the pinnacle of British convention, more Victorian than England in some cases. Anne de Courcy’s account is filled with extracts from diaries and letters written by both the women of the Fishing Fleet and the men who courted them. The women would be swept up in balls and parties, before hopefully landing that prize – a husband – then becoming a wife of the Raj with all the corresponding triumphs and difficulties. There was still disease, dust, extreme heat and cold, and fearsome distances to travel through dangerous jungle. But for the wives of the Raj the trials were well worth it.
Anne de Courcy’s book paints a clear picture of the experiences of the girls of the Fishing Fleet and, coupled with well placed photographs and diary extracts, makes fascinating reading.
Available now: Hachette RRP$32.99