During the British reign known as the Raj, from 1858 to 1947, legions of young Englishmen shipped off to extract India’s resources and rule its subjects. That frenzied colonizing left scant marriage prospects back home during an era when a single woman was a second-class citizen. Being married off was the best to hope for, and pity the girl who didn’t win the ring toss.
Even if one had ambitions or wanted a career outside marriage, few climbed beyond such posts as lady’s maid or governess. In the public sector women could not teach, and in medicine they could not aspire beyond nursing. In 1867, the entire board of admissions for the Royal College of Surgeons resigned in protest rather than enroll three women seeking diplomas in midwifery.
And so women went to India — in droves. Youngest daughters were often held back to take care of aging parents, to watch elder sisters embark to exotic locales wearing pith helmets, hell bent for romance — or at least a reasonable “match.”
While the women of the Raj were an intrepid bunch, they couldn’t leave well enough at home and lugged along a ballast of propriety, modesty and customs in dress and food to re-create Mother England abroad, no matter how impractical or miserable the result. Wearing flannel underwear and corsets, they dined on kidney pie and clotted cream when temperatures hovered around 100 for months on end. Imagine “Downton Abbey” in the tropics.
Making liberal use of letters and journals, “The Fishing Fleet” paints a fascinating picture of these women and their history. While De Courcy describes staggering excesses of the British Empire — jewel-studded horse reins, a maharajah’s 50 Rolls-Royces, a two-weeklong coronation bash of otherworldly opulence — she fails to source such vast wealth, making what is not written nearly shout from the pages: the great chasms of disparity between the rich and the near slave labor generating that wealth. If the United States’ current-day 1 percent seems disparate, imagine an upper-upper class of something like one-hundredth of 1 percent (anything resembling a middle class was a mere sliver), the rest living in poverty or servitude. Not that colonists would’ve much noticed, having scant contact with even their own servants. Not even Indian royalty were allowed into the hyper-British “clubs,” ground zero of the clichéd Englishmen and mad dogs in the noonday sun.
It was boasted the sun never set on the British Empire, but now that the Commonwealth is deep in its gloaming, a book such as “The Fishing Fleet” provides a glimpse of a unique era, the likes of which are fascinating and thankfully in the past.
Sarah Stonich is the author of “Vacationland” and “These Granite Islands.” She lives in Minneapolis.