Sunday, November 4, 2012

From Miss to Memsahib

Book: The Fishing Fleet - Husband-hunting in the Raj
Author: Anne de Courcy
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicholson (Orion Publishing)
Pages: 335
Price: Rs 750 (hard-bound)
In 1822, Stuart Corbett, a young officer of the East India Company, wrote a letter to his father in England about his impending marriage to one Charlotte Britten. “I shall be able by this step to lead a regular and steady life which I have not been able to do for the last 4 months, the Officers of the 2nd Battn (Battalion) being all single and fond of sitting up till 3 or 4 in the morning which I do not like and still as a single man am not able to avoid it,” he wrote. Britten happened to be one of the girls then known as the Fishing Fleet - young women who travelled out to India in search of a husband.

“The story of Charlotte Britten and Stuart Corbett,” Anne de Courcy writes, “is typical of how the Fishing Fleet became an established phenomenon and of the magnetic pull exercised by India. It also shows the courage and adventurous readiness to take risks then inherent in the British character. How many parents these days would send a sixteen-year-old daughter on a six-month voyage that might easily end in death by disease and drowning to a country from which she might never return, even though the golden apple at the end of the journey was that essential commodity, a husband? And how many daughters would consent to go?"

Rarely do we find references to these brave women (gold-diggers, yes, but brave, nonetheless) in books on the British Raj. The Raj was entirely run by men. Many of them were brilliant administrators (belonging to the Indian Civil Service or ICS), military officials and businessmen, but would they have continued for long in a foreign country without the company of the fairer sex of their own race? Once they had formed liaisons with Indian beauties but by Corbett’s time these days were past. In the Victorian era, mixed-race marriages were frowned upon and children of mixed blood shunned by both British and Indians. In fact, some of the deep caste and class prejudices of the Indians were imbibed into the British hierarchy.

Against this backdrop, with a growing number of young bachelors, the need was felt to bring some white women in India. At first, the British East India Company sent them out from England. But gradually, as the reputation of India as a place where even the plainest could find a mate grew, so did the number of women travelling out there. In England, a land where women outnumbered marriageable men, a girl without beauty, money or grand relations had little hope of making a good match. In India, she was showered with immediate proposals. And those who did not manage to find a mate in India, were back home as “returned empties”, a label, they would find hard to shake off.     

With the help of the memoirs of the Fishing Fleet girls, de Courcy strings up a narrative that takes you through their journeys, the excitement of their arrival in India, how they dealt with the heat and the dust and dangers from snakes and diseases, the parties they were invited to, the dances, the hunts, the sports, the races, the courtships and the proposals, grand weddings and finally how they settled down in a land very unlike their own after getting married. The transformation from a Miss to a memsahib, was quite rapid (sometimes, it was just a matter of weeks), for the ratio of men to women in the Raj was roughly four to one. "So, for both parties, marriage was not so much about passion and romance but a matter-of-fact life choice sealed by contract, that had to be arrived at briskly or the prize would be lost to someone who was quicker off the mark," the author writes.

This well-researched book transports you to a world of steamships, jungles, tiger-hunts, viceroys, maharajas, colonial houses and ballroom dances. It also delves on the attitudes of British men of the period towards their women, of how they wanted brides who were less intelligent and good at managing the household, needlework and throwing parties. Unfortunately for women who lived outside the presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay, there was precious little to do, since the servants would do the domestic chores. Life under the Raj post-marriage could be rather boring and lonely, since the men played sports and hunted whenever they had any free time. And the most difficult time for the women was when they were forced to choose between their children who would be sent back to England for schooling and their husbands, who would remain in India. 

Much has changed in India and Britain since the demise of the Raj in 1947; still some of its remnants are still intact and most notable of them is the bureaucracy. While the book is mainly about the plight of these young Fishing Fleet girls, it also throws light upon the evolution of the ICS in India, the need for it and why it became so rigid and patriarchical over the years. It became so rigid that it was alright to have the Queen in England, but a woman for the post of the Viceroy of India was unthinkable.

Interesting and insightful, de Courcy’s The Fishing Fleet is a good read. If you have the time, you don't want to miss this one. 

1 comment:

Rohit Pansare said...

Seems very interesting indeed! Thank you for the great review!