The East India company's supply line of wives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 10:26am


The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj

by Anne de Courcy


Jad Adams

The "fishing fleet" existed from the late 17th century when the East India Company first shipped women out to India to become brides for its officers. As India's reputation grew as a place with a huge disproportion of men to available women, where even the plainest girl could find a mate, the company realised there was a business opportunity.

British families were so desperate to unload "superfluous women" that rather than paying them to go to India, the company could actually charge those husband-seekers who were neither pretty nor rich enough to make a good match at home.

A series of racially based orders at the end of the 18th century that discriminated against mixed-race children promoted a "them and us" attitude in India, which meant the free and easy relations British officers enjoyed with Indian women became covert relations. Blood purity and connection with the motherland were now the guiding principles. The shipping of women accelerated after the establishment of the Raj in 1858 and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which made the passage to India shorter and less hazardous. This was the real heyday of the fishing fleet, when girls would sail off to "see the Rock, the Grand Harbour, the Taj by moonlight and find a husband".

This book is highly evocative, and Anne de Courcy takes the reader through an enchanted world.

The 20th century saw a loosening of racial segregation. "There was something about their being very rich that overrode the colour thing," one girl let on, having visited an Indian prince. She was treated to a dish of peacock, complete with tails, and chicken pilau sprinkled with gold dust.

The book glitters with quotes from the women themselves, but unfortunately they are not referenced, so often we must guess whether the recollections are from letters, diaries, memoirs or personal interviews with elderly ladies.

Still, this is a fine picture of a lost world - mercifully lost.

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