Writer and journalist Anne de Courcy tells Nona Walia about the Imperial marriage market, when virgin British brides would migrate to India to fish for a husband.
It wasn’t just a figment of Jane Austen’s imagination. Husband hunting was serious business in Victorian England. In her book, Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj, British writer, journalist and book reviewer Anne de Courcy tells the untold story of the “the fishing fleet” — large number of single women, who flocked to India to bag a groom. “It is difficult for us to realise today, but there was an inexorable pressure for women in those days to get married by a certain age. A girl without fortune or great beauty became a nonperson if she did not marry, at that time,” says de Courcy, as she explains why the pressure to be a memsahib in India was immense.
“A girl’s ambition in those days was to have a waist measurement no higher than her age. Once here, the most beautiful ones were pampered and pursued alike by eligible British bachelors and the Indian royalty,” she says. In this interview, the author explains why the Fishing Fleet’sjourney to India makes for such a fascinating story.
Was this annual migration of young women really such a vast phenomenon?
Quite big, I’d say. The Fishing Fleet began in a very small way, in the mid-1600s, when the East India Company would send out the odd shipload of young women (all volunteers) to India, in order to provide wives for the Company men working in India. They were mostly orphans or penniless — girls unlikely to find a husband in England. As they were known to be going out to ‘fish for a husband’ they became known as the ‘Fishing Fleet’ and the name stuck through the years. The Company would feed and clothe these girls for a year, during which they were supposed to find a mate.
Those who were too plain or too unpleasant for even the most desperate of Company men were sent home at the end of a year and known as ‘Returned Empties’. Their numbers only increased with time.
What was it like, hitching a man in that era?
A number of girls were told that men don’t like clever women. There was a lot of focus on good etiquette, but potential wives didn’t have to learn etiquette so much as to obey the rules of society at that time.
Was there any preparation that went into learning how to live in India?
No, there was very little preparation, except in the way of clothes. Girls were advised to bring at least six evening dresses — everyone changed for dinner, and then for an evening dance.
What attracted these women to India?
In Victorian times, an unmarried woman with little money had a dreadful future. So, they came to India, where men outnumbered women by a ratio of 4:1. Also, life in India offered adventure — exotic locations, a hectic social life, servants, and dreams of young men wooing them. You have to understand that until World War II, most young women in Britain were sexually ignorant. It was a taboo subject. A faraway exotic land held a lot of promise…
Was it easy being a memsahib to these men, when they got married?
They found life as memsahibs much easier than we would find it today! Women those days were brought up to believe that women were the subordinate sex.
It couldn’t have been a rosy life…
No, it wasn’t. The worst pain for most of these women was the separation from their children. Medical opinion held that the climate of India was unhealthy for children above the age of eight or so. Boys and girls at that age were sent back to England for schooling; they often didn’t see their parents for years. Trips to India were too expensive for most Raj parents.
Was adultery common in times of the Raj? It’s easy to be tempted when you are bored…
Adultery was frowned upon in the days of the Raj. It was a very close-knit society, almost like a regiment. But of course, human nature is human nature, and from time to time, affairs outside marriage did happen. The love affairs were mostly between married women and single men, and Simla was the hotbed of such transgressions.
Most women used to head for the hills to escape the Indian summer. And young men, who dashed up to the hills, would find these “merry grass widows” fascinating.
What charm did India hold for women from England?
For Fishing Fleet girls, India was a place of exoticism and glamour. Almost all of them talked of the beauty of the country. And of course, they loved the social life they led in the Indian winter — with its moonlight picnics, paper chases, cocktail parties, dancing at the clubs, rides at dawn… Some lucky ones had the marvellous fortune Caption of Caption being asked Caption to stay in a princely state. This invariably made an indelible impression on them: their journals speak of the beauty of the palaces and gardens, the splendour of traditional dresses and the startling beauty of expensive Indian jewels.
Did the honeymoon last long?
Not for everyone. Life was most difficult for the women who led a very isolated life. Boredom and loneliness were big enemies. One girl I wrote about, who married a tea planter in the Anamalais (in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu) led this sort of life.