The “Fishing Fleets” of Colonial India

British Wedding

When the British rose in power in India they faced an increasingly difficult situation – there were too many young British men in their colony. India was a land of opportunity for many Britishers and thousands scrambled to India, keen to make their mark. British men were strongly discouraged from marrying Indians in order to maintain notions of British exceptionalism and supremacy. However, the men’s need for female long-term companionship had to be met. On the other hand, women in Britain faced steep matrimonial challenges in their sexist society. As a result, thousands of single young women sailed to India to find suitable husbands. This was derisively nicknamed the “Fishing Fleet”, a phenomenon alluded to in many cultural depictions of Colonial India, but largely unknown outside academic research.

Before India was completely subdued there existed marriage relationships and significant intermingling between the British and Indians. However, following British ascendancy (from the 1750s), British respect and awe of India began to slowly wane. With racist and imperialistic ideologies strengthening, India’s stature dropped. Indians were now seen as racially inferior heathens to be ruled by the superior British race. The gap between the rulers and the ruled had to be kept sacrosanct. The races could not be allowed to mix anymore – and the few who broke this rule were ostracized. After the Great Rebellion of 1857 and formation of the British Raj, the divide became very severe.

The East India Company (EIC) leadership initially chose an old Portuguese solution. Long ago, the Portuguese shipped orphaned girls to India as brides for Portuguese men serving there. The government provided dowries, in the form of jobs for the husbands when the couple returned. Due to practical difficulties, the Portuguese stopped this and found brides locally. However, the British possessed more resources and newer technologies of healthcare and transportation. The first batches of women they shipped to India were adventuresses (or were of questionable reputation), or orphans from gentle families. The Company supported them for one year, the time allocated to find husbands. The unsuccessful were quickly shipped back. As Britain began to rise to paramountcy, the number of women sailing to India slowly increased, even without the Company’s direct involvement. The bureaucrats and company administrators in London derisively called this the “Fishing fleet”.

Prevailing social conditions in Britain were also responsible for this phenomenon. In those days, British women had few rights and most professions were denied for them. Some education was imparted, but marriage was seen the only true goal. This alone gave women status and security. Moreover, unmarried women past the age of twenty-five were seen as “old maids”. Without marriage a woman’s prospects were bleak: she would have to live on her inheritance or with close relatives – or work as a governess or caretaker or nurse. Women outnumbered marriageable young men in Britain: a girl not blessed with beauty, money or pedigree had little hope of marrying well. But in India, British men heavily outnumbered women. For many women, this huge pool of clearly enterprising young men – who also keenly sought mates – offered a much better chance of getting a good husband.

As British control solidified and the Crown replaced the Company, India’s reputation as a fishing grounds for “good catches” grew. More and more women began to sail for India. By the 1850s most of the women were sent by their families; a few were returning to India after a brief education in Britain. The girls were escorted and guided by older married women. These prospective brides moved in rarefied atmospheres – the clubs, bungalows, hill-stations, cantonments and churches – of British India. They lodged with friends and relatives, or shared accommodation. The rigid hierarchy of the British society in India, the conformity requirements, and India itself was a culture shock. The need to cultivate the right contacts, the confusing rules of engagement, the constant pressure to act “suitable” took a toll on the women. Even married life as a privileged “Memsahib” in India was not all a bed of roses. Yet, this was apparently better than spinsterhood in Britain. The efforts usually paid off – very few returned to Britain without a husband. The ones that were unsuccessful were derisively called “Returned Empties”.

British women in India did not make much of an impact in the affairs of India. The Raj was a Man’s World and the ICS, armed forces, bureaucracy, etc. were never open to British women. Yet, in their restricted roles as wives, mothers and Memsahibs, the women from the Fishing Fleets helped maintain British rule in India. The Fishing Fleets wound down between 1900-1930s: in this period, women’s liberation movements blossomed. The fetters began to break, and more avenues opened up for women within Britain. World War II and the Indian National Movement’s success finally ended the enterprise.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on April 28, 2019. This is also my 50th piece for DNA! Here’s the link to the original article.

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Tea, Sugar and Opium

An Opium War Cartoon

It is a bitter fact that tea became a popular beverage on the back of colossal human suffering. This author had previously written about the triangular Atlantic slave trade, in which Indian textiles and gunpowder were very essential components. Today, we look at how another Indian product, opium, was used in yet another reprehensible business – because of the surging demand for tea in Britain and the prevailing economic philosophy there. Tea and opium became part of worldwide triangular trade that greatly benefited Britain but was disastrous for everyone else involved. In this affair, sugar was a sweetener.  This triangle of tea, sugar and opium nearly destroyed Chinese society and polity and was instrumental in the rise of England as a world power.

In those days, European colonial powers adhered to the economic philosophy of Mercantilism. The goal was to be self-reliant in production; and to ensure that precious commodities such as gold and silver were amassed within national borders. Industries were run by monopolies supported through subsidies and military assistance. Methods had to be devised to pay for imports without letting depleting the stocks of precious commodities. In this context the story of tea and sugar becomes linked to that of opium.

Tea came to England in the 1630s, but for many years it was an expensive commodity as it was grown only in China. For most of the 17th-18th centuries, tea was consumed mostly by the elite, as a bitter but flavorful brew. However, tea’s popularity rose quickly. The growth in sugar consumption in Britain 18th century mirrors that of tea. Sugar was also rather expensive initially. Yet, the demand grew. To meet this growing appetite for sugar, vast plantations were established in the Caribbean islands. Here, countless natives toiled in pitiful conditions. There was also great investment in industrial process in England to yield higher production and to reduce costs. Sugar became inexpensive in the beginning of the 19th century. Now someone got the idea of mixing sugar into a cup of tea. Soon, milk was added to the brew. The demand for this new concoction exploded: a bitter brew for upper-class tastes quickly turned into a beverage coveted by the masses. This surging demand for tea – plus demand for Chinese silk and porcelain – led to much outflow of precious metals: the British authorities had to stop this somehow.

The British hoped to use the excess land revenue from India pay for tea. However, abysmal mismanagement and corruption in the East India Company (EIC) made this impossible. Bringing tea production to India was an obvious solution, but there were challenges. The British finally succeeded but that is a whole other story! It was then decided to push Indian opium into China. While India’s cotton was also accepted by the Chinese, a nation hooked on opium would yield more profits. Moreover, Indian opium was better than even Turkish opium.

After Buxar (1764), the EIC gained access to India’s opium fields in the Gangetic Valley. The EIC asserted monopoly over these. Much Indian opium was shipped to the China and popularized through various means. Tens of thousands of opium chests were shipped annually. In December 1799 the Chinese authorities banned opium. They had discovered that opium addiction was surging and the toll on the nation was heavy. The EIC now pretended that it had no hand in the opium sale in China. However, it auctioned its opium to private traders (mostly British), who transported opium in ships owned by the Company. The traders smuggled the opium for silver. Most traders deposited the silver in the Company’s factory in China and in return they were given bills payable in Calcutta or London. The Company got a commission on these bills and earned a profit. The Company then used the silver to buy tea. This trade was immensely profitable: Opium became the Company’s largest export item and accounted for 15 percent of its Indian revenue. Britain reaped huge profits and preserved precious metals, which helped industrialization and the growth of her empire. The Company’s opium and tea trade, sweetened by the addition of sugar, also changed consumption patterns.  Rising tea consumption helped sustain the emerging working classes: tea was now cheap, it was easily brewed at work itself, and it was stimulating without being intoxicating. Britain’s revenues from local tea sales were also significant. On the other hand, the opium crisis became unbearable in China and this led to the First Opium War in 1839, in which Britain won. The Treaty of Nanjing forced the Chinese to accept unrestricted sale of opium (which quadrupled soon), pay heavy indemnity, and cede the island of Hong Kong. The Chinese monarchy went into a downward spiral from this point. It would take later Chinese governments many decades and much effort to eradicate opium addiction from China’s society.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on April 14, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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