British soldiers, traders and administrators had been travelling to India for a very long time. But in the later C19th, events were changing.
Firstly the India Act enhanced Parliament's control over the East India Company i.e the British government now ruled the colony, rather than a company of traders. Later Governors General were faced with the very real task of governance. Legislation after legislation back in London ensured that British rule reformed India’s law, commerce and education. In 1858 the British formally exiled the last Moghul ruler to Burma, ending the Moghul Empire. Clearly many more young British men were going to be needed to run the country.
Secondly transport was improving rapidly. The Suez Canal design was published in December 1858 and work started on the shore of the future Port Said almost immediately. The canal formally opened to shipping in November 1869. And inventions that improved ship engines soon made steam-shipping between Britain and India economically viable. The long and risky journey around South Africa could be avoided.
Thirdly British soldiers and administrators were no longer allowed to mix with Indian women, let alone marry them. Men were warned that a strong connection with the motherland should guide their choice of a mate. And since most officers in India almost never visited Britain until their retirement, who were they to marry? The level of sexual frustration must have been intense, and seems to have been diverted into tiger hunting and polo playing.
Between 1850-1910, a third of young middle class women in Britain were unmarried. If a woman could not find a husband by her early 20s, she was doomed to a life of spinsterdom. These “surplus to requirement” women would have been advised to think of moving to a target-rich environment in the Empire, especially India. Single British men, with reliable incomes, were located all over India, starved for family life, sex and fun; these men were very keen to find eligible women to marry. British women who were not attractive or too poor to find a husband at home would expect to succeed beautifully in India.
Surpringly (to me) the British men in India were fitter, more sporty, more handsome in their uniforms and more sex-starved than their male friends in Britain. The fishing fleet and the fishermen were onto a win-win situation.
And there was another thing. A young married couple in India would expect to live more comfortable and exciting lives than they could at home, with as many servants as they needed, good quality housing and vice regal parties for every occasion.
The newly arrived women had plenty of opportunities to be seen. A hectic social scene was on offer in British India, with dances, hunting parties, cinemas and theatres, picnics, tennis games and royal or vice regal invitation.
And, with single men greatly outnumbering single women, each man had to move quickly. If he wanted to catch a woman before another man made a move, the romance had to be pursued very quickly, followed by a short engagement and a lovely wedding. Courtships that might have lasted a year or two in Britain were completed within a month in India. The fishing metaphor was useful again – women were snapped up out of the bridal pool as fast as possible.
Photo credit: The Guardian Newspaper
Naturally the new wives were ranked according to their husband's position. I was particularly struck by the idea of the Warrant of Precedence that showed the exact status of everyone working for the crown. Protocol was clear.
De Courcy allowed the women themselves to describe the colourful world in which they found themselves. The very evocative writing often came from those courageous fishing fleet women who left their letters and diaries to following generations.
Would I have travelled there myself, had I not found a husband at home? My tolerance for heat ends at 36c; I have zero tolerance for humidity; and I am terrified of spiders and scorpions. Worst still I would not have allowed my children to be taken to boarding school 10,000 ks from home. But I would also not have liked seeing my mother’s disappointment every day of her life, had I remained single. So while women who travelled were too young and too virginal, I really do understand why their mothers believed they were looking after their daughters by sending them away. The pressure to marry was relentless.
At the end of a year’s fishing, the would-be brides who failed to land a husband had to be shipped home as “returned empties”. Readers will have to be old enough to remember milk being sold in glass bottles to understand this appalling metaphor.