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.
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.”
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.