The Fishing Fleet: British Debutantes Searching for Love in India

Here’s a look at the stories of hopeful debutantes, “returned empties,” and the search for love in the British Raj.

Apr 27, 2023By Kelsey Spicuzza, BA History
british raj debutantes sir auckland colvin family simla
Sir Auckland Colvin and Family, Simla by Lala Deen Dayal, 1885-87, from The Hugh Huxley Collection, London, via Map Academy


In the latter half of the 19th century, life in India had everything a British officer or civil servant could possibly desire: a promising career in an exciting locale, exotic hunting opportunities, and more servants and luxury than he could ever have dreamed of affording at home in England.


The only thing missing from this idyllic scene – a little Britain carved forcefully into the Indian countryside, complete with cold drinks and cigars at the Club – was women. That is, British women. An unlikely solution to this century-old problem presented itself in the form of waves of hopeful debutantes crossing the ocean in hopes of securing a husband.


The Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire

Grand Duke Alexander of Russia & Companions After Cheetah Hunt in March 1891 by Lala Deen Dayal, 1891, via the Samaya Archive, India


British rule in India spanned the better part of two centuries, rent violently in half by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Prior to this uprising, British influence in India belonged primarily to the East India Company, a British charter corporation that catapulted England into the spice trade. The Company raised its own massive army, with which they methodically took control of large swathes of the Indian subcontinent over the course of the 18th century, subsequently placing Company merchants in positions of civil authority.


During this period, relationships between British men and Indian women were commonplace, if not flaunted. Stints in the East India Company army regularly stretched for 20 years, and suitable (read: white) women were in short supply. These Indian “bibis,” as they would come to be known, were more wives than mistresses, and many Company men enjoyed loving, long-term relationships, fathering children with Indian women. Still, most would eventually return to England, leaving their Indian families behind in pursuit of a traditional British wife.


Marital Regulations of the Raj

Group Portrait of Sir Elijah and Lady Impey by Johann Zoffany, 1783-84, via the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

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In the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny, during which native East India Company soldiers – and later, civilians – rose up against their British superiors across the subcontinent, the British crown intervened. The East India Company was swiftly dismantled, the remainder of its soldiers rolled into the new British Indian Army, and the era of the British Raj began.


The establishment of the Raj cemented the British Crown’s intention to remain in India for the long haul. A Wild West of young, private army soldiers and their bibis may have been acceptable under East India Company rule, but it would not do for Queen Victoria. Anti-Indian sentiment and a rise in evangelical missions in the wake of the uprising made such relationships taboo almost overnight.


Marrying young was considered devastating for long-term career prospects on both the military and civilian sides, and those higher up in the ranks did their best to prevent it. Conversely, higher-ranking officials were expected to be married. Likewise, a bachelor could not expect to hold a position of authority in the Indian Civil Service, the governing body of the British Raj.


Married men were perceived as more serious, more respectable, more invested in their careers, and more likely to stay in India long-term. Holding office also came with significant social obligations traditionally managed by a wife. This left British men in a tight spot. Where were they supposed to find one?


A Uniquely Long Engagement

Madras Landing by C. Hunt and J.B. East, 1837, via the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London


Tours of duty in the East India Company were notoriously brutal; soldiers might return home once over 20 years, and the journey took six months each way. Under the Raj, British Indian Army soldiers could expect a six to eight-month leave every few years. By now, the prevalence of steamships had cut the journey “home” in half, making trips back to Britain more realistic.


Many British officers used this opportunity to find, meet, woo, and propose to a potential future wife. Given that the roundtrip sailing time took up much of their leave, however, courtships were brief, proposals prompt, and farewells swift. For a typically sheltered Victorian debutante, the romance of a whirlwind proposal and a marriage abroad would have been particularly exciting.


Preparation for a new life overseas was daunting; thankfully, would-be wives had plenty of time. Officers would often propose years before they were actually permitted to marry, returning to India to further their careers in the meantime. Their intended wives would join them later on under the supervision of a female traveling companion.


Some engagements would inevitably fall apart due to time, distance, family pressures, or fears about living overseas. Prior to 1870, it could take over a year for letters from England to reach India, so couples did not usually correspond more than once or twice in the protracted engagement period, if at all. For those couples who remained steadfast, it was not uncommon that they failed to recognize each other upon arrival.


Fancy Dress Parties along the Suez Canal

Ballroom of the Cruise Ship Berengaria, unknown photographer, 1938, via Encyclopedia Britannica


The Suez Canal had an enormous impact on the British Raj. Completed in 1869, the canal connected the Mediterranean and Red seas, shaving five thousand miles off the trip from England to Britain.


Steamship companies The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company and The British India Steam Navigation Company quickly added passenger ships to their usual cargo and mail transport routes. By the time Queen Victoria accepted the title Empress of India in 1876, travel to India was not only manageable but en vogue.


These sea voyages were the 19th-century equivalent of leisure cruises. Shipboard entertainment included egg and spoon races, fine dining, fancy dress parties, and four-star accommodations. A ladies’ travel guide of the time recommended packing (among other things) a velveteen dress for dinner, underwear that was nearly ready to be thrown out, and a white umbrella lined with blue or green fabric to protect travelers’ eyes from the sun.


The Fishing Fleet

Cicely Winifred Goschen and Major Edward Bertram Portal on their Wedding Day, unknown photographer, 1926, from The Family Album of Viscount George Goschen, via Daily Mail


In the late 19th century, women outnumbered men in London, but in British India, men outnumbered women three to one. It stood to reason that a debutante would be spoiled for choice when it came to an eligible match – all she had to do was cross the ocean. Matchmaking mothers and spirited girls jumped on the opportunity.


Some ambitious girls even secured a proposal before their feet hit Indian soil: young ladies of this era were not permitted to travel alone, of course, but even under the watchful eye of a chaperone, shipboard romances were known to occur. Of course, not all were wealthy debutantes with pristine reputations. India was also the perfect place to escape the fallout of a scandal (such as a broken engagement or scandalous liaison) or to pawn off a poor relation.


This wave of hopeful debutantes was disparagingly referred to as “the fishing fleet” in the press, but it could not be denied that the vast majority of girls who “went fishing” in India successfully reeled in a husband. Those few unfortunate souls shipped back to England without having secured a husband were cruelly referred to as “returned empties.”


Memsahib Dreams

Dandy, Mussoorie, unknown photographer, 1875, via The Times UK


The prospect of becoming a “memsahib” (a word combining the British pronunciation of “ma’am” with the Hindi word “sahib,” meaning master or lord) was certainly attractive. Wives of this time enjoyed the status of their husbands’ position, and because British India was a small community, women who had been small fish in the big pond of the London Season could become veritable whales in the small pond of the Raj.


Married women, like their bachelor husbands before them, enjoyed a comfortable household and a bevy of servants, including a cook, maids, a native nursemaid called an “ayah” to watch the children, and even a punkah-wallah, a native servant whose sole responsibility was to operate a fan on a pulley. All this, and the promise of a pension.


Of course, this is a glamorized picture. In reality, there was also awful heat, boredom, and isolation. Infant mortality rates were high, famines unrelenting, and cholera devastated entire households. For mothers, there was the added pain of sending their children away at a young age to be educated “at Home.” Wealthy women were able to travel back and forth, but visits were understandably infrequent.


While early generations of British ex-pats took pains to maintain a shocking level of insularity and isolation from Indian culture, most children raised in India (primarily by doting ayahs) had fond memories of an idyllic childhood and, finding Britain to be cold and foreign, returned to the country of their birth to marry and settle after completing their education. This, of course, provided another pool of eligible women for British men living in India.


The Sunset of the British Raj

Lord and Lady Goschen with Dignitaries at a Parade, 1924-1929, from The Family Album of Viscount George Goschen, via Daily Mail


Eventually, the sun would set on the Empire of India. Though some social and political reform was implemented in the years after the Sepoy Mutiny, it wasn’t enough. Britain’s hold stayed firm through the first and second World Wars but collapsed soon afterward. Widespread famine exacerbated by the British expansion of railways and the exploitation of fertile land for cash crops angered Indians and British Indians alike, and the rise of Mahatma Gandhi and the global anti-colonialism movement was a death warrant to the Raj.


India reclaimed its independence from the British Crown in 1947. The Fishing Fleet was a short but sweet snapshot of the romance and grandeur at the height of the British Raj.


Further Reading:


Allen, C. (1978). Raj: A scrapbook of British India; 1877 – 1947. St. Martin’s Press.

Gilmour, D. (2019). The British in India: A Social History of the Raj. Picador.

MacMillan, M. (1988). Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives and Daughters of the British Empire in India. Thames & Hudson Ltd.

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By Kelsey SpicuzzaBA HistoryKelsey holds a bachelor of arts degree in history from Georgia College & State University. After a decade in public and academic libraries, she now works as a contributing writer specializing in the humanities. Her modern-day interests include visiting bookstores, art museums, and coffee shops with her husband and daughter.