The Fishing Fleet … - Maddy's Ramblings

Jul 24, 2011

The Fishing Fleet …

The story of the ‘bibi’ line and the retuned empties

The world we live in is certainly interesting and many of the tales that enliven it come from books that people do not even know to exist. . I spend a long time with those inanimate objects created to outline periods from the past, marveling at the varied life that man led thus far. This story detailed a period like that and though I did know of this vignette from a couple of books, they were by no means complete. This weekend, armed with some research material, I got into the depths of the story and what you read is a result of that effort.

To get to this story, I have to take you to the Britain of the post Industrial revolution period. The Midlands and London were certainly busy places and a good amount of manufacturing took place. The factories were buzzing, the raw material came in freighters from the newly established colonies in India and the Far East and the British ports were busy places indeed. The educated (but from socially lower rungs (mostly though not all) of society) moved to India and found positions in the military, civilian or academic areas or even with the ICS in India and for them then, it was like today’s Middle East for Indians. They travelled far from home, to the heat and dust of India, to make a living and to make a name, earn some money and like in the case of Wellesley and a few others, fame.

But then there were many other sub plots in the story of the British Raj and this is not one you will find detailed, but mentioned only in passing, in most books. Today, you can find a few novels detailing the story of one or two of the many thousands who travelled in what were loosely known as the fishing fleet. And the large canvass of that story has in one corner the tragedy of the returned empties of the story. It was certainly difficult to research, for unlike the meticulously recorded British times in India, this has been given a short sift. Sometimes you wonder why, but anyway let us get to know the members the fleet and its purpose.

In the beginning, the ships leaving Britain travelled around the Cape of Good Hope, much like the earlier Portuguese and Dutch ships and made their beeline to an Indian port, like Bombay, Madras or Calcutta. There they disgorged their load of weary but bright eyed and pale skinned men, eager to make their presence felt among the brown people of India. How they made that presence felt is the story of the Raj. Some of the richer or senior people who paid their fare, brought along their spouses, or probably the EIC paid their fares as perks. The younger men came alone. The need for female companionship for those young and eager men sometimes created local relationships in India and a class called Eurasians or Anglo Indians was born. I had earlier covered this topic in this hyperlinked article, which I had enjoyed writing.

In the early days, the time of discovery as historians put it, there was no feel for class and society, but soon after, came the sad story of class hierarchy and color. That itself is a fascinating subject and the British actually borrowed examples from India’s own caste system to establish themselves at the top of the ladder, equal to or sometimes above Brahmins. They fortunately had the very man who created all the mess, a gentleman by name called Manu, who wrote his Manusmriti, and the class map he created, for the subjugation of the masses, at their disposal. They used varna or color to establish superiority and thus came the concept of the goras and kalas. The British Gora soon became the white master.

But that was to soon create havoc in their private lives. The young and unattached soldier certainly found paid company in the many brothels that sprouted around the forts and towns the British lived in. But the young needed partners and soon the marriage to a local or Desi woman was frowned upon, both the man and the woman became outcastes in the white’s clubs. As Geroge & Anne Forty state in their book – They also served- The [districts] in the larger cities - in Bombay it was known as "the Cages," in Poona it was called "the Nadge" -- were strictly out of bounds. If any white soldier was seen in the area, whistles were blown by the police, all traffic came to a standstill and the soldier would, of course, be caught .. .Any man who availed himself of the "tree rats" or "grass bidis" was properly dealt with. He was given a severe ticking off, had his pay stopped and was sent to Number 13 Block, which was the dreaded treatment center. Many turned, as a last resort, to the "five-fingered widow..."

The British upper crust found this all very disquieting. They had to find a way to keep the young at bay. And the solution was the establishment of what they called (but did not consign to written text and recorded history) the Fishing fleet.

And so, some girls escaped boring country life and made their way east.. Chaperoned sometimes by older married women who would explain to them the ways of India (with graceless and uneducated tact, like - do not shake hands with an Indian, you never know here their hand shave been!!) arriving in India in the cooling Autumn months, before the chill set in, in the northern mountains and the plains where the wars were fought and were governing took place. The ratio of British men to White women was three, five or as some books mention 10:1. So the marriage market in British India was bright indeed and to fill the gap came in the droves of women from Britain…

In the beginning the rules forbade British women in outposts, so the protestant English married locals as I mentioned earlier, or worse (according to the British books) they matched up with Catholics of Portuguese Indian origin. The answer to the problem was to ship marriageable girls to India. That was the fishing fleet. The first fishing fleets were shipped out in the latter part of the 17th century. The EIC provided them ‘one’ set of clothes and supported them for one year, the time allocated to find husbands. If they did not, the EIC warned them formally not to stoop to low morals and they were quickly shipped back to Britian. But this formal practice was however abandoned in the 18th century for presumably cost reasons. Many months ago, I wrote about the Orfaaas Del Rei of Lisbon, the girls who were sent out to India by the Portuguese Lendas Da India for the same purpose, to become partners for needy males serving in India. . Britian’s answer as you can see, was the fishing fleet.

Anyway by the early 19th century, the ships stopped taking the laborious route around Africa, and started using the faster route through the newly opened Suez Canal. It was in 1871, that the canal was opened and soon came to the called ‘The highway to India’. It is certainly strange isn’t it? How Egypt and the Red Sea route were always linked with India from the earliest records of mankind!! That Red Sea route was used by everybody to get to mystical India for all it produced and all it did not. Ah! I am drifting off.. let me get back on to track.

Once the sea highway was created, the route to India was straightforward and one of the steamship companies that steamed through was the P&O Company. Do you remember my article about POSH? (For those who need to start of right, I would recommend you take a quick peek at that article of mine). The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company was a major steamship carrier of passengers and mail between England and India, between 1842 and up until 1970. The P. & O. route from Tilbury or Southampton went through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to ports in India. I must also add here that there were others in operation, the BI shipping line for example. The bright and the best of Britain sailed into India and as the ships returned, the weary lot took the R & R trip back to tell their stories to the gloomy lot in Britain. It was certainly a gloomy place (Blighty in those days) for the air was smoky, fogs were a plenty, the mood was dark and gloomy, and some war was always looming in the European horizons..

The returning British on the other hand looked brown and tanned, with better toned muscles after the riding and work in India and the stories they doled out after a few mugs at the bar were astounding, to the untrained ear, of maharajas, coolies, ayas, house staff, bungalows and so on. The girls took notice. India was a place many of them wanted to go to.

Whether this enterprise was publically announced, whether it was started by an entrepreneur or whether it was sponsored by the EIC or the government is not clear, but it soon became known to interested girls that those who were looking for a husband could take a steamer to India, for there was many a young Englishman looking for a wife. Many a girl booked a place on an Eastward P&O. This P&O run from Liverpool to Bombay thus got the nickname (name in the nick of time – is that how the phrase came about??) Fishing fleet. The girls were in the ship and going on a fishing trip…fishing for a husband, and escaping the dreary gloomy, dark & dank, smelly and ‘orrible blighty, now destined for the sunny, bright, hot and dusty India…to start a new life. One lady who travelled in 1779 describes the two groups of girls who were in these ships as the old maids or the shriveled lot and the others as girls educated merely to cover their mental deformity. The British India shipping line was called the bibi or lady line (Indian army – Heathcote) owing to the ladies seeking marriage filling them!!.

How did the girls get into the fleet? Girls in Britain or their parents started the husband hunt in right earnest after a certain age. If there was failure after a season or two, they were promptly shipped off on a fishing fleet to India, before they became a member of the spinsterly lot. Where did the girls head to after landing? They moved on to the many cantonments around India, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras where they lodged with friends and relatives or they went to the various Hill stations.

Just imagine the plight of that girl who stepped out of that steamer to start her new life…Margaret McMillan in her ‘Women of the Raj’ provides a striking picture…Sometimes they were magnificent, Sometimes on the other hand, they were awful as only people who are as frightened as can be. When a conviction of superiority goes with fear then the arrogance is heightened and sharpened. The memsahibs …..they stride through that history in their voluminous clothes which denied the Indian climate, their only concession to the heat, the graceless solar helmet, the topi which protected their rose petal cheeks from the alien sun….

After they reached India these girls were led to the balls or taken to ‘ala juggas’ or secluded spots where they sat, danced or came to know intimately, the new men courting them. Some fishing fleet girls met their match on the ship and got married as soon as they got off the ship, and as you can imagine, the long voyage was quite conducive for these matters. But this was not the best catch, so girls were told not to venture out on deck and court the men travelling on these ships unless they were of the appropriate level. Quoting from the Colonel’s lady, Those traveling alone were advised to stay in their cabins, Bible in hand, to avoid the temptations of the East and the shipboard romances. Not for nothing was the British India Shipping Line known as the "bibi" line, the Hindustani word for "woman" or "mistress" coinciding with the Company's "B.B.' monogram. The best catch was of course the heaven born or the ICS cadre men, who were equated to the Brahmins of India by the British.

And thus the annual fishing fleet arrived every autumn, and as the sprightly female passengers were disgorged, the men at the hills stations waited in eager anticipation. As the trains rumbled and steamed on from Calcutta or Bombay to the hills stations with these heady girls, the men stocked up on goods in anticipation of a quick marriage, things like furniture and clothes, to impress on the new and fair arrival.

Once landed they would move off to places like Simla or other hill stations where eager men were in anxious wait and only the ugly or unfetching ones were left unattached after a month or two. Some girls saw the opportunity and flirted a lot and worked their way through a number of eligible bachelors staring from lieutenants to the civilians (more easy to settle down in a town than an outpost, you see!) and hopefully ending with the well paid ICS man with loads of perks… before finally getting hitched. The end of the eligibility line was a district collector, usually. Ironically, the man who has been spurned sometimes ends up hawking off all the furniture and clothes he had collected in anticipation of a quick wedding to the man the girl has chosen over him…possibly his friend or senior.

As Julia Gregson the author of East of Sun mentions, For young girls, the immediate challenge—rarely stated or acknowledged—was to find a man. To do this, one had to meet the right people, to go to parties and polo matches, to fit in with a very small, enclosed, and sometimes frightened group of people. Lots of fun on the surface, but the rules of engagement were clear: you had to conform, to look good, to dress well, and not to say anything that might frighten the horses. Bluestockings and eccentrics were not well tolerated. India itself was another challenge. Some women fell in love at first sight, others hated it: the stinks, the poverty, the heat, the feeling of being cut off from Europe.

As Pran Nevile states in his book Sahib’s India - To keep them chaste for the marriage market, unmarried women traveled under the care of chaperones, usually married women…’Almost all of the fresh cargo got snapped up on the spot. The Sunday Church was a good spot for offering and receiving proposals. The few who did not succeed in securing marriage proposals, spread out into the mofussil towns.

The interest of the ladies was equally intense but for different reasons, as Lady Angela Falkland, wife of the Governor and a daughter of William IV and Mrs. Jordan noted in 1848:-

"The arrival of a cargo of young damsels from England is one of the most exciting events that mark the advent of the cold season (in mid October) with its 4 months of concentrated gaiety of dances, balls and picnics. It can be well imagined that their age, height, features, dress and manners become topics of conversation, as they bring the latest fashions from Europe, they are objects of interest to their own sex."

Statistically - At the Census (1861) 11,636 women above the age of 15, of English origin including 8,356 wives, were enumerated and 98,888 men.

Quoting from a poem in 1813

Pale faded stuffs, by time grown faint
Will brighten up through "art";
A "Britain" gives their faces paint,
For sale at India's mart.

The girls were led through the merry go round for a while and many settled with their prize catches in the fine fishing or hunting grounds up in the hill stations blessed with the salubrious cool weather. Many a special entertainment was organized for the new arrivals from the fishing fleet. Months went by and as summer came, there were some left, who were as they called it ‘short of bait’. Some were truly so, on the physically and attractiveness scale, some had as they said expended all the bait truly liberally ( now you know why it was called a fishing fleet) on the voyage itself and well, they ended up uncalled for, eventually. They hung around till the ships returned and this sad and desolate lot were called the ‘returned empties’, destined for a life of spinsterhood, working their feet off in governess’ing and nursing. Some of the returned empties were actually real returners who hated India, the colonial life style, the falseness under the pomp and lack of meaning in lonely colonial life in a land that hated them and a bunch of customs they themselves hated. They returned empty handed, and thus were the unkindly named the returned empties….

But this does not work out in mathematical sense with figures varying between 3-10 men to every British woman and 100:2 between suitors and fishing fleet girls, the chances of success were very high and that is why the trip was a regular seasonal event. Such being the case, the retuned empty was perhaps a rarity, and one who were sent back must have been terrible misfits…As the poem in an old weekly stated…

Now sail the chagrined fishing fleet
Yo ho, my girls, yo ho!
Back to Putney and Byfleet
Poor girls, you were too slow!

One question still remained in my mind. Who comprised the fishing fleet? Some references state that they are daughters of Indian officers, who went at a young age to England for studies, others mention they are daughters from wealthy families; some others believe they constituted ordinary middle class working girls. Victor Jacquemont, a French botanist visiting India at the time was not much impressed by the English ladies he met at Calcutta and other places. He wrote (1830): “Portionless girls who have not succeeded in getting married in England arrive here in cargoes for sale on honourable terms,” Another question remained; did the fleet spend just one autumn + winter season in India or a whole year? In the very beginning EIC sponsored them for a whole year, but later on with higher frequency of shipping and higher sustenance costs, the returned empties were back in the blighty in 6-8 months after setting out on the fishing trip.

The fishing fleet became virtually institutionalized by 1880. Balls, gymkhanas, moonlight picnics etc were waiting for the arrivals, and as Eric Richards mentions in his book Brittania’s children, the increase of influx of British women was also to decrease the intimacy level between the two races in India. It also appears that the returned empties complained bitterly (somewhat unfair I think) of the local competition from the Gentoo Indian women.

So readers, that is the story of the fishing fleet or the bibi line and the case of the returned empties. A period of time when mans need for a mate meant bridging oceans..One of these days I will cover the Indian marriage bazaar in the NRI circles and the Chinese marriage bazaar in Beijing…

Sometimes girls tell me how humiliating it is to undergo ‘pennukanal’ or the ritual ‘seeing a girl session’ in an arranged marriage. Just imagine how it was for these poor girls from Britain!! Then they will understand the travails of an unmarried girl going off to faraway lands , sometimes uncivilized from their perspective, and hunting or fishing for a husband, after lounging around in balls and galas and getting liberally sampled…well, that was life then…..

Recommended reading
Women of the Raj – Margaret McMillan
The Sandalwood tree- Elle Newmark
Judy O'Grady and the Colonels Lady - Noel T St John Williams.
East of Sun – Julia Gregson
Sahibs India – Pran Nevile
Plain tales from the Raj – Paul Allen
Raj – Lawrence James
The Linnet Bird – Linda Holeman

Many thanks to for pointers provided in their conversations…and ancestersonboard for the fishing fleet passenger list published on their website that I have included in this article for completeness.

Pics – from google images – Thanks to the owners and uploaders.


P.N. Subramanian said...

Many many years ago I have read about the fishing fleet arrivals and about the aftermath. You have made it extremely interesting with your lucid language. Very many thanks.

harimohan said...

that was nice maddy
have heard about our own Sammandha vandi a train carrying our men to palghat on weekends from T nadu to thier wives or paramours

Calicut Heritage Forum said...

Very interesting. Many of the British women who distinguished themselves in India were passengers of the 'fishing fleet'.What we found interesting in the manifest is the classification of passengers into English, Scotch, Irish and Foreigners. Both the ayahs were foreigners, perhaps, Indian servants returning with the memsahebs and the newly born infants.

Maddy said...

thanks PNS..
i am reading some of the novels that I had mentioned at the must have been an interesting period, though complicated for the women in question..

Maddy said...

hi hari..
that reminded me of my friend nair at ambika nivas....and his train trips...more on that anothe rday

Maddy said...

yes CHF..
that is one of the rare manifests out in the open. i will get back to the ships and the trips on anothe rblog.. those P&O voyages were I am sure very very interesting...

Rhonda said...

Thanks for the great article. I first heard of the "Fishing Fleet" from reading Julia Gregson's excellent novel, "East of the Sun," which you mentioned here, and I became very curious about the real story. But I couldn't find very much information anywhere. This article gives a great overview of this period in history. Thanks!

Maddy said...

thanks rhonda..
it came as a surprise to me too, pity todays British women have no idea about the lengths taken by their grandmas and aunts and so on...

Nivedita Srivastava said...

Im actually considering this as my research topic . Thankyou for such a wonderful outline. Quite helpful. Can you help suggest
more texts , artcles and primary sources that i could refer to for this topic?

Nivedita Srivastava said...

I've taken the fishing fleet as my research topic and found this article very interesting. Thankyou so much , could you pleasse help me suggest some more primary sources that i can refer to , I'd be extremely grateful.

Maddy said...

Thanks Nivedita
The books listed under recommended reading provide you with details of books that can be perused as well as links to primary sources.