Remembering the women from England who came out to make a home in India as far back as the 17th century.
The post box at my gate seems to be filled only with marketing pamphlets these days. As I tossed them into the bin, one caught my eye. It announced the onset of the wedding season and offered a significant reduction on jewellery making charges. Weddings are big business anywhere in the world.There’s so much connected to saying `yes’…isn’t it? The promise of a soul mate…possibilities of true love, companionship…and so on…don’t you think? But while the romantics paint matrimony in rose tinted hues, every part of the process, from `seeing the girl’ to finding the perfect mate to creating the event of the season is often not just a union of two souls but also a commercial venture. As it happens, I came upon a review of historian Anne de- Courcy’s book “The Fishing Fleet. Husband- Hunting in the Raj’ a few days later and discovered that while facilitating matrimony is a lucrative business today, it wasn’t so different back then either. What’s more, the process also received official endorsement.
When the East India Company set up home and office in the sub-continent, the rules for those employed in the Company’s services were strict. British women were not permitted at stations initially, home leave was granted sparingly and one was allowed to be married only after the age of 30. Many men therefore resorted to marrying local ladies or falling prey to dubious diseases acquired during trysts with courtesans in the `native’ bazaars. As a counter-measure, de Courcy writes, that way back in 1671 the East India Company put 20 single young women on a ship to Bombay and despatched them with a 300 pound allowance, new clothes and strict instructions to find a husband-with company approval. They had one year to accomplish this mission.The idea turned out to be a huge success and aew business opportunity was created in the bargain. Hopeful young women unable to find a suitable match in England began to pool their limited resources together and stand in line for a ticket to India.
In exchange for the social approval that matrimony provided, they dutifully supported their husband’s careers and raised children at military stations across the country, while struggling with hostile weather, death and disease, rigid social hierarchies and loneliness in an alien environment.
In the years that followed, the `Fishing Fleets’ or the `Bibi Line’ as they were called, made the run from Liverpool to India with a passenger list of young ladies on board who all hoped to head out into the world and leave a much dreaded spinsterhood behind. With almost six months of rough journey by sea via the southern tip of Africa, it was a courageous leap into the unknown. All that kept them going perhaps, was the hope that they would find no need to return.With an estimated man-woman ratio of 3:1, perhaps this would be a one way trip after all.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the advent of steamships shortened travel time considerably. Many of these eastbound steamers were owned by the historic Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. Young English women of limited means stepped aboard in climate unfriendly but socially appropriate corsets, flannel underwear and voluminous hooped skirts (or sometimes a daring, attention seeking wardrobe) to arrive in exotic India around autumn. Many secretly hoped to hook a big fish. Indian Civil Servants and senior army officers dominated the check list. Soldiers, followed by traders and merchants, were next in line.
If you were young and pretty with a fairly decent education, the right attire and a modest demeanour, chances are the hectic whirl of socialising at port cities and Cantonments meant you might soon land a `catch’. If not, you would have to journey further inland to remote towns and hill stations by train or cart, and sometimes even an elephant. And though de Courcy says the ratio of men to women was heavily skewed in a woman’s favour, there was a distinct possibility that all these efforts could come to naught. The bond of 200 pounds would be forfeited and the anglers sent back to England in disgrace, as `Returning Empties’. Sigh.
The compact C&M Station in Bengaluru too witnessed its fair share of `checking out’ activities. The 19th century built South Parade (now MG Road) with its libraries and dance halls, movie theatres, clubs and shopping establishments offered countless opportunities for strictly chaperoned young ladies who had got off the boat at Madras. `Taking in the air’ in Cubbon Park was also considered advantageous especially when the handsome Hussars in their dashing uniforms rode by. Being invited to a Polo Match in the Cantonment was helpful, as was being involved in social work and church activities.
But the young women on the fishing fleets were not the only ones who travelled far out to India. I often spend time reading the poignant memorial plaques at Bengaluru’s Trinity Church, St. Andrews Kirk and St. Mark’s Cathedral. Their commemorative messages are a sad but visible reminder of many other dutiful women who accompanied their husbands and fathers to hot, dusty India, only to end their days in a British Cantonment, so far away from home.
This story was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror on September 27th, 2015.Read it here.
Buy the Book:Anne De Courcy, The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj.