As the industrial revolution gained momentum in Europe during the 19th century, India became an important source of raw materials that were exported from the country. In turn, the ships brought back finished products to be sold here. But, in the 1830s, another 'cargo' came on board – White Memsahibs. With the advent of the steamer, the travel time between Britain and India shortened to about a month, making the journey less exhausting, thus prompting many young English girls of marriageable age to seek their fortune and a life of privilege in a "mystic and exotic" land.
Such was the annual influx of hopeful girls, especially during the winter months, that by the 1850s and 60s, incoming passenger ships were referred to as the 'Fishing Fleet'. Whilst many of these young hopefuls were successful in 'fishing' suitable and well-provided grooms, some, sadly, had to return home unmarried and were often derisively referred to as the 'Returned Empties'.
So, what did these maidens desire? Dashing young men, of course. But not necessarily. It was equally important for them to seek the comforts of life offered here and improve their social standing by mingling in privileged circles. Many of these girls came from ordinary backgrounds and could not afford the conveniences and social standing that English women enjoyed in British colonial India. Traditionally, civil servants were prized catches, often considered a marital lottery. They were also known as 'Three hundred a year dead or alive men' as a newly appointed civil servant drew a salary of about 300 pounds annually. If he survived for a few years, his widow could expect to receive the same amount as a pension.
Travelling to India in the age of the steamer was a great leap over the sailing ships that plied in the first half of the 19th century. Southampton was usually the port of embarkation, and with stops at Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said and Aden, the steamers reached Bombay in about three weeks. Coming in the winter months was the best option as it gave the ladies time to acclimatise themselves to India's tropical heat and humidity. It was not uncommon for ladies to travel solo, though having a strong reference was necessary to avoid any potential inconveniences in a strange, new land. Travel was undoubtedly not light, with luggage consisting of bath essentials, medicines, books, reading lamps and a wardrobe to suit different occasions. Travel advisory books covering subjects from 'travelling in comfort to household management and cookery were popular picks. Books such as 'The English Bride in India' and 'A Handbook for Women in the Tropics' were written especially for 'arriving Memsahibs'. However, tips in the books notwithstanding, the ground reality was often demanding.
An English girl, sometimes as young as sixteen years, would need to adapt to life in the British Raj, which was very different from the one back home. It involved a significant cultural adjustment as well as adapting to India's hot and humid climate. Besides, the "marriage market" in British India was influenced by considerations of class and social status. Many eligible bachelors preferred marrying girls within the resident British community whose parents held positions of power and influence. It was a way to advance one's career and social status in the Raj.
There were a few cases of English women marrying 'Natives', but these unions often faced racial and cultural challenges, not to mention the conflict it caused in the colonial hierarchies of the time.
With the advent of the 20th century, social norms and attitudes towards marriage underwent a significant change in Britain. As more women gained economic independence they began to make their own choices regarding marriage, often opting for partners within their own country. The traditional practice of girls from Britain travelling to India to marry became less common.
Finally, with the end of the British Raj and the withdrawal of the British colonial administration and military personnel from India, there were negligible opportunities for English women to meet and marry British men in India.
And thus ended the journey of the hopeful Brides.
Footnote: English women here refers to women from Britain and Ireland.