Tag: British Army

The Matrimonial Fishing Fleet

In the early days of the Indian Raj, mixed marriages were encouraged in the hopes of improving relations between the two cultures. Young British soldiers and civil servants spent years away from home, and the majority took up with Indian prostitutes, mistresses or wives.

East India House in Leadenhall Street was the ...
East India House in Leadenhall Street was the London headquarters of the East India Company. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Lord Cornwallis came to power as Governor General of Bengal in the 1780s, things began to change. Cornwallis rapidly initiated a number of divisive reforms that drove a gradual wedge between the British and Indians. Children of mixed race were banned from education in England, and were unable to procure employment with the East India Company.

With each subsequent reform, sexual relations with native women became a greater taboo. Of course, the young EIC employees were soon seriously frustrated. Many still frequented brothels, leading to regular outbreaks of venereal disease in the garrisons.

In order to remedy the problem, the authorities turned their sights on the wealth of British girls back home. At the time, a full third of British women aged 25-35 were unmarried. Parents of these unmarried girls saw India as prime husband-hunting ground, and happily sent them off in pursuit of marriage. Meanwhile, the EIC felt that paying to ship the girls over was a worthwhile investment in keeping the men happy.

Thus, the girls of the “Fishing Fleet” began to arrive. Each was offered an allowance of £300 a year for life if they were able to find a husband within a year. While there were plenty of prospective husbands, the Company kept the girls to a strict set of rules. If a girl misbehaved in any way, she would be put on a bread and water diet and shipped home. If a girl was unable to secure a husband within a year, she would be sent home, disgraced as a “returned empty.”

Symbols on East India Company Coin: 1791 Half Pice
Symbols on East India Company Coin: 1791 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, this put an enormous pressure on the girls to find a husband right away. Some girls were snapped up while still on the voyage. Others began courtships within days of landfall. With each ship’s arrival, eligible British bachelors were invited to dinner on board – to look over the “cargo” as it were.

The prettiest girls of the lot were always married off quickly, and they often secured husbands in good social standing. The lucky ones would soon find themselves comfortably settled in a breezy bungalow with a bevy of servants. The plainer girls would often have to look further afield, ‘up country’, where life was tough and comforts were few.

Nonetheless, the girls of the Fishing Fleet continued to flock to India. Throughout the late 1800s, the number of unmarried women in Britain continued to rise. For many, India was the perfect solution. After all, that’s where the men were.

Despite the hardships, sickness and struggles that India presented, many of the Fishing Fleet girls fell in love with the country and the culture. They were intoxicated by the breathtaking beauty and the exotic thrills. Those who returned to England upon their husband’s retirement keenly felt the loss and longed for the country that had become their home.

The King’s German Legion

From the time George I ascended the throne of England in 1714 until the end of the reign of William IV in 1837, the Kings of England also ruled as Electorates over Hanover in Germany. In 1803, however, Hanover was occupied by Napoleonic troops. Though the German States had no quarrel with the French at the time, Napoleon justified his occupation of Hanover by pointing out that since it was under British rule, it was fair game.

English: A Sergeant 2nd Btn. (Light infantry) ...
A Sergeant 2nd Btn. (Light infantry) King’s German Legion, British Army, Waterloo (1815). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Due to extreme apathy on the part of the Hanoverian government, little importance had been placed on military strength in the electorate. The nominal strength of the armed forces, including infantry, cavalry, artillery and engineers was counted at 15,546. In reality, more than a third of these men were on furlough, leaving the real force at around ten thousand men. There were numerous vacancies throughout the regiments, leaving a dearth of both officers and soldiers. Fortresses had been neglected, and military discipline had relaxed almost to the point of being non-existent. Thus, when the Electorship of Hanover was overrun by French troops, the army of Hanover posed little opposition and quickly surrendered. This led to the signing of the Convention of Elbe, which formally dissolved the Electorate of Hanover.

George III refused to recognize the Convention of Elbe, however. He quickly sent off a letter to Colonel Friedrich von der Decken commanding him to raise a corps of soldiers to be called “The King’s German Legion.” In August of 1803, thousands of soldiers from the former electorate army emigrated to England to become part of the King’s legion. By December of 1803, the King’s German Legion was officially established and placed under the command of His Royal Highness Adolphus Frederick, Duke of Cambridge.

So many soldiers answered the call that they exceeded the original plans for a light corps. The King’s German Legion incorporated soldiers in all positions, including horse and foot artillery, light and heavy cavalry, light and line infantry, as well as a corps of engineers.

Though they had come from the rather undisciplined ranks of the Electoral army, the King’s German Legion became known for its outstanding discipline and fearsome fighting skills. Its cavalry ranked as one of the highest in the British army, and according to historian Alessandro Barbero, the Legion “had such a high degree of professionalism that it was considered equal in every way to the best British units.”

Edmund Wheatly, who procured a commission in the KGL in 1813 was duly impressed and noted that, “The Germans bear excessive fatigues wonderfully well, and … will march over six leagues (18 miles) while an Englishman pants and perspires beneath the labour of twelve miles.”

Though the Legion never fought on their own, they participated in numerous campaigns, lending their strength to the bulk of the British troops. They fought alongside the British in Hanover, Pomerania, Copenhagen, and Walcheren under General Sir John Moore. They then went on to serve under the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular Campaign, fighting in the battles of Bussaco, Barrosa, Fuentes de Onoro, Albuera, Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca, Garcia Hernandez, Burgos, Venta del Pozo, Vittoria, San Sebastian, Nivelle, and Sicily, as well as throughout eastern Spain and Northern Germany.


Possibly the most famous, however, was their participation in the Battle of Waterloo. The 2nd Light Battalion, along with members of the 1st Light and 5th Line Battalions, dug in to defend the road at “La Haye Sainte.” Reinforcements were cut off before they arrived, and the KGL battalion was forced to defend the road and farmhouse for six hours without ammunition or reinforcement. Eventually, however, they had no choice but to retreat and abandon the farm.

After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Hanover once again came under British rule and was re-founded as the Kingdom of Hanover. A new Hanoverian army was formed, and some officers and soldiers of the Legion were integrated into its ranks. Others settled in England – particularly in Bexhill, where parish records show quite a number of marriages between KGL soldiers and local girls.

At its strongest point, the King’s German Legion employed approximately 14,000 soldiers and officers, though over the 13 years of its existence, the King’s German Legion counted as many as 28,000 men in its service at one time or another.


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