Two of my reading groups are dedicated to reading fiction but the third occasionally adds a non-fiction book to the list, to leaven the load as it were, and so this month we’ve been reading Anne de Courcy’s book, The Fishing Fleet, an account of the women who travelled to India (and I use her words) husband-hunting in the Raj.
I am uneasy about this description because I think it makes these women out to be more mercenary than was the case. Yes, for many of those concerned, the primary reason for undertaking the trip was the hope of finding a good marriage and indeed some of them were packed off by their families with that as the stated expectation, but when you consider the alternatives that faced so many women in a society where to be single was considered a failure, then I find it difficult to take what seems to me to be such a damning view.
It becomes even more difficult when you read about the hardships that these women, many not out of their teens, had to face. While I actually found the chapters dedicated to particular individuals the most interesting to read, those which detailed particular aspects of life in the Raj over the years of Empire were often the most descriptive in terms of the harrowing life the women endured. As well as extremes of climate, which meant that depending on your husband’s posting you could find yourself sweltering in the appalling heat and humidity of the hot season or preparing to be snowed in for months at a time, there was also the threat of illnesses that struck so fast a person could be well at breakfast and yet dead before the evening meal.
Between the mid 1880s and the early 1920s India were struck by a series of major epidemics. As well as malaria and cholera, both endemic, there was Spanish flu and bubonic plague.
Inevitably the young were the most vulnerable and many families left the graves of children behind when they finally returned to Britain.
Then there were the pleasures of rats and snakes to be dealt with, not to mention the possibility of earthquakes, floods and landslides. And, above all, for those who did not live in the major centres of population but who found themselves instead isolated on a small plantation or rural army posting, there was the sheer boredom. They might not see another British family from one month’s end to the next and not only were they without the paid occupation that kept their husbands busy they were also without those entertainments that we now take for granted. There was no radio, no television, very little in the way of cinema and (gird your loins for this revelation) very few books. Books were not only cumbersome to take with you on a hazardous journey from one posting to the next that could often take over a week, sometimes on camel back, but they were also unlikely to survive the ravages of mildew and the often fatal attacks of the local insect population. This is one instance where an e-reader would have been a life saver, except, of course, no internet – no electricity!
The hardship that de Courcy writes about most movingly, however, is that of separation. For many wives of the Raj, as their children reached school age, there was the decision to be made as to whether they returned home with their sons and daughters when they were sent back to Britain for their education or whether they stayed in India with their husbands. At a time when the journey between the two countries could take anything up to two months and when, at best, the men would be granted leave only once every four years (and often less frequently) this was a decision which they all had to make.
To be a Fishing Fleet girl who married into the Raj was to face this appalling, inescapable burden: separation from either husband or children sent home at a tender age to England for their education. ‘Early or late the cruel wrench must come – the crueler, the longer deferred,’ wrote Maud Diver. ‘One after one the babies grow into companionable children; one after one England claims them, till the mother’s heart and house are left unto her desolate.’
In her epilogue de Courcy asks
[d]id the Fishing Fleet girls have any real influence on the conduct of affairs in this vast country that was home to so many of them during the time of the Raj?
The short answer is no. The Raj was entirely run by men…the role of the British female was as wife, helpmeet and mother
While on one level that is clearly true, on another it is surely the case that without the women to keep their lives on an even keel many of those men would not have succeeded in the roles to which they were assigned. Discouraged from marriage until they had reached an age (usually around thirty) or rank where they could afford to support a family, the men lived either in army quarters or in ‘chummeries’ where several bachelors together shared the expenses of a household. As might be imagined, this did not necessarily lead to a settled life style.
Writing to his father about his forthcoming marriage, Lieutenant Stuart Corbett says:
I shall be able by this step [his marriage] 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 being all single and fond of sitting up till 3 and 4 in the morning which I do not like and still as a single man am not able to avoid it. … I really think I shall be much more comfortable and be able to lead a life more after the manner in which I have been brought up and be better able to take care of my health which is one of the most important considerations in the world.
Unfortuately, de Courcy doesn’t tell us whether or not this marriage was a success but almost everything she does tell us pays tribute to the fact that those women who went out to India as part of the Fishing Fleet were in every way remarkable and as responsible for the success (or otherwise, depending on your point of view) of the British Raj as the men they so ably supported.