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November 9, 2012updated 10 Jan 2016 3:47pm

Review: The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy

By Spear's

THE FISHING FLEET: Husband-hunting in the Raj

Anne de Courcy
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 336pp

The introduction of India into the British Empire was a long, drawn-out affair: trade came first and governance only some time afterwards. The 18th-century British merchant adventurers who came to seek their fortunes in the East were initially content to take native wives, who were treated as equals and in several cases went on to found Anglo-Indian dynasties.

Caste or colour consciousness only really came in with the early Victorians, when the East India Company officially relinquished control of the subcontinent to the British Crown, and more specifically after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which opened, henceforth, an unbridgeable moral abyss between ruler and ruled.

That left a problem. Supposing they wanted to get married (and most did), those doughty imperial administrators — soldiers, district officers, plantation owners — isolated, often, in remote outposts (my own great-grandfather was one of them): how could they expect to meet an appropriate pool of marriage partners?

Home leave was one answer, avidly pursued. Another was to encourage a sufficient quantity of adventurous, or perhaps merely desperate, girls and young women to make the arduous journey out to India. The annual incursion of these ‘women-in-search-of-a-husband-in-the-East’ was known by all and sundry, somewhat derisively, as the Fishing Fleet.

Anne de Courcy has unearthed the previously unpublished diaries and letters of a number of the women who attempted this odyssey, and in doing so has opened up a fascinating corner of British social history. Usually (but not always) with the people involved, there had been some connection with the Raj in the first place. Yet whatever the circumstances, it required a kind of mental and physical toughness to undertake the expedition.

First there were the perils of the voyage, seasickness above all, described in these diaries in horribly graphic detail. Then there was the gradually encroaching tropical heat, not made any more endurable by a rigidly obtuse female dress code. Finally, of course, there was the whole metaphysical uncertainty of the enterprise. What if they didn’t find a husband? Girls who returned without having snared a catch were known, unceremoniously, as ‘returned empties’.

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Potentially, though, the place was teeming with dashing young swains — all of them ambitious, some of them wealthy, and most of them thinking about the thing that you were thinking about. And a girl who was lucky enough to ‘fit in’ with the aims and mentality of the Raj was practically guaranteed a good time: constant male attendance, exotic mingling in the courts and palaces of the Maharajahs, even, occasionally, the chance to join in a tiger hunt.

The twenty or so women whose diaries and letters form the backbone of Anne de Courcy’s investigation had different stores of moral resilience, but their survival could only have been helped by innocently sharing the prejudices of the time. This is not the sort of book the reader will consult in order to find the Indian, or even Anglo-Indian, point of view.

Those particular voices (the voices of the ruled) are absent almost by definition. None of the women whose lives are examined here questioned the right to be in India, doing the sort of privileged things they were doing.

It is hard not to like them nonetheless. They were a proud, handsome lot, to judge from their photographs. Here is the Hon Lilah Wingfield, just arrived in India for the Coronation Durbar of 1903, a striking figure as she crosses the street in tailored ankle-length suit, topi and dust veil. Another photo shows Bessie Bruce, timid and pretty, seated beside a man who must have been an eminently suitable catch, the Viceroy’s aide-de-camp (it helped that she was the same Viceroy’s daughter).

Bethea Field, aged nineteen, and Katherine Welford are enchanting beauties. Marian Atkins, on her horse Kitty, looks every inch the competent, elegant memsahib. (Alas, we are not vouched the name of the yak ridden by Leila Blackwell.)

De Courcy provides us with these women’s stories, along with a mass of other interesting if sometimes inconsequential historical information. The author is not, perhaps, the deepest of psychologists, but the book is lively and full of idiosyncratic judgement. Eschewing academic dryness and, along with it, the rigours of ‘real’ scholarship, it falls fairly and squarely, I think, under the heading of ‘a jolly good read’.

Buy The Fishing Fleet in the Spear’s/Amazon store

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