Do you know what “The Fishing Fleet” was? We’re not talking about sou’westers and cod here. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, young Englishwomen who had trouble finding husbands at home often traveled to India in search of an eligible mate. And because of their enormous numerical advantage, girls who were overlooked on London dance floors could have their pick of suitors in Delhi or Calcutta or Simla.
Anne de Courcy has written several solid biographies or group biographies, focusing on England’s upper classes in the last 150 years. She was, for example, Lord Snowdon’s official biographer. The Fishing Fleet is something of a departure in that it looks further back in time than most of her previous books but the hallmarks of her work are present here: thorough research, sympathetic narration, and a gift for explaining social context.
For instance, I’ve always taken for granted the English presence in India, but de Courcy spells out precisely what the various services did, how they were staffed, and what life was like during the near-century of the British Raj. In 1861, the British population of India was around 125,000, about a third civilian and two-thirds attached to the armed forces. Of course India was crucial for British prosperity during this time, so the investment of manpower made sense.
I’ve known about “the Fishing Fleet” for years; Joanna Trollope wrote a couple of good historical novels as Caroline Harvey that focus on Fishing Fleet characters. So I was thrilled to receive the paperback of this book from England, where it was a best seller.
Figuring out how to organize the book must have been a challenge, because de Courcy uses material from diaries, memoirs, journals and letters, published and not. Dozens of women are mentioned and indeed come briefly to life. Cleverly, de Courcy takes a rough chronological approach following the career of an average fishing-fleet girl. Chapters cover the voyage, arrival, the climate, the characters, the interplay between the British and the Indians, engagements and marriages. She highlights the careers of several women for whom, presumably, she had especially good material. (These women also appear in the inserts of photographs, especially fascinating.)
And what an adventure it was! One girl was met at dockside by “a tall fierce-looking Indian” who had been dispatched by her hostess with a letter that said, ‘”My personal bearer, Dost Mahommed, will escort you on the journey. He speaks adequate English and you can trust him with your life.’… in no time my status was transformed from buffeted nonentity to veritable princess.’”
Everything was bigger and brighter in India, from the crowds to the natural settings to the colors of the clothes, the size of the insects, the maharajahs’ jewels, the houses, the distances, the military uniforms. The dangers, especially of illness, were greater, too. For women who married planters or men whose work took them “up country,” life was as harsh as for any American pioneer. And as de Courcy points out, the great grief at the heart of these marriages was that children were always sent back to England to be educated. Thousands of mothers put their five- to ten-year-old children on board ship, knowing they would not see them again for years. Some “Raj orphans” went to extended family but some were treated very badly indeed. Yet many returned to India, to perpetuate the cycle — and de Courcy helps us see why.