BOOK REVIEW: The lengths some women went to, to score a husband! From the beginning of the 19th to the mid-20th Century, British colonial India became a marriage market for young women considered to be neither attractive or affluent enough to be bride material at home. Young British men stationed there were desperate for sex and female company – in fact men outnumbered women by four to one.
Girls who took the plunge travelled for the first time in their lives, sailing far from home to find a husband and secure their status as respectable women.
British author Anne de Courcy explores the fate of these brides in a book which is also fascinating for its richly-detailed picture of the Indian and British colonial relationship and the social politics. She had access to unpublished memoirs, letters and diaries rescued from dusty attics. What a treasure trove.
The ships which took the women to India were known as the Fishing Fleet. Each prospective bride was divided into “gentlewomen” and “others” and the deal included paying for their life in India for 12 months. During that time they were expected to have found a husband, or they would be returned to Britain, labelled “Returned Empties”. Charming.
To the British, India had always been compellingly exotic – a land of light and heat, fiery spices, decorated elephants, steamy and sensual, filled with dazzling silks and jewels, and a whiff of dangerous adventure. The Indian caste system meant locals understood the British class system, and rarely questioned it.
Brutal realities included infectious diseases such as malaria, cholera, polio and bubonic plague, as well as primitive sanitation, an extreme climate and unimaginable poverty suffered by the masses. Whiskey became an acceptable drink for British women, as water was often undrinkable.
Prospective bride Desiree Hart wrote: “At last I was cleared by the doctors and immigration officials and descended the gangway clutching my small luggage to find myself surrounded by hordes of beggars showing stumps where hands and feet should have been… many were children with fly-encrusted eyes.”
Maintaining decorum with prim English clothing was a wretched business. Thick flannel underwear was a heat trap, and women also wore corsets, several layers of petticoats and long-sleeved day dresses. Lighter tea gowns became acceptable by 1896.
Some women got engaged within days of disembarking, while others had an extended stay on the meat market. After the rigid social protocol of the Victorian era, the early 20th Century became a more relaxed social whirl of dances, tennis parties, polo, picnics with perhaps a tiger shoot thrown in or dinner at a maharajah’s palace.
Often without the presence of their families, young brides felt ill-prepared. As Magda Hall sat in the bedroom on her wedding day, waiting for her wedding dress to be brought, her brother-in-law rushed in. “Whatever Ralph may do tonight,” he said, “remember – it’s all right!”
“That was all the preparation I had for married life”, she wrote.
After marriage, new wives were often dispatched with their husbands to lonely outposts, where social contact might be a weekly thing at best. Girls who married into this life had to be tough, resourceful and in food health. Some loved it. Fishing Fleet wife Veronica Bamfield: “I was one of the lucky few on whom India lays a dark, jewelled hand, the warmth of whose touch never grows cold to those who have felt it.”
These tenacious women had little lasting legacy. The British Empire in the sub-continent was dominated by men and it’s their names in the history books. Until now.
The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj by Anne de Courcy, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $29.95
*Images of the Taj Mahal, including the cover pic of the Temple of Love, courtesy of TravMedia