In the history of the East India Company and the British Raj, they don’t merit even a footnote. Yet it’s worth wondering if the men who ran the Empire would have lasted three centuries on the subcontinent if they hadn’t found mates who shared their spunk and spirit. In The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj, Anne de Courcy tries to do the right thing by the British women who made India their home with fortitude and grace. At the end of it, however, the reader may find themselves agreeing with the oversight, instead of questioning it.
That is not to undermine these young women, first inveigled to India with annual allowances of £300 in the late 17th century, and then—as word spread that there were four eligible English men for each English woman in the subcontinent—forced to pay a premium of £200 for each passage. Anyone daring to make the epic sea journey in search of a home in a strange country is worth more than passing respect. However, by aligning her own lens to their personal perspective as husband-hunters, De Courcy creates a sweeping narrative that mostly showcases easily accessed stories and exotic superficiality, while sacrificing possible gains in serious insight and accuracy.
The principal source material for the book is the vivid memoirs penned by many members of the fishing-for-a-husband fleet. The result is a mass of fascinating trivia. Did you know that all English people wore flannel undergarments, even in 40-degree summers, under doctors’ orders? Or that, in god-forsaken outposts, a girl could keep her date only on camel-back? Or that, alongside the hectic parties, the magnificent dinners at the local maharaja’s, the endless tiger hunts, the Calcutta-Simla-Calcutta rounds, the only constant of life in an English bubble was boredom?
The unrelenting focus on froth makes The Fishing Fleet play out like an elaborate comedy of manners in a faux England. While Raj life was impossibly regimented and possibly preoccupied with appearances, De Courcy doesn’t delve beneath the diary descriptions to explore the subtle engagements of these Englishwomen with their environment or their employees.
The soft legacy of the Raj was evident in Anglo-Indian cuisine, the social responsibility of the ICS wives (inherited by the likes of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay), in strains of music and art, even in women’s fashion and sport. De Courcy devotes exactly three bracketed lines to “cooks working in primitive conditions and with no knowledge of what a dish should taste like” to explain the Curzons’ “largely English” table, and a paragraph to three women who pushed the Raj envelope. Since the cooks are unlikely to have had a natural-born acquaintance with iced soups and filet de boeuf a la banquantine, it’s tough to see why De Courcy doesn’t explore the domestic dissemination of women power.
Equally, there’s no mention of the rampant promiscuity of lonely memsahibs (hardly the stuff of memoirs, though one such dalliance with an Indian sweeper allegedly influenced the opposition to the Ilbert Bill), or of the English ‘underclasses’ of milliners, hairdressers and embroiderers, who also made their way to India on ship.
After some 300 pages, the author asks: “Did the Fishing Fleet girls have any real influence on the conduct of affairs in this vast country?.... The short answer is no.” The reader may be tempted to agree, but that verdict would be more a reflection on this incomplete book than on the Fishing Fleet itself.
The print version of this article stated "Curzons’ “largely English” cuisine" which has been corrected online to "Curzons’ “largely English” table"