Before writing Grand Hotels of Egypt, I’d never come across the term ‘fishing fleet’ to mean anything other than the obvious. But as I discovered, it was also a term widely used in the 19th century to describe the boatloads of single women who arrived in Egypt each Season on the hunt for a husband. This is a forgotten bit of colonial history that’s now been put in the spotlight thanks to a book published last year, called The Fishing Fleet, and written by Anne De Courcy.
De Courcy’s book doesn’t mention Egypt at all because it turns out the Fleet actually has its origins in India, 200 years previously. It existed from the late 17th century when the East India Company first shipped women out to Bombay as prospective brides for its officers out there. The Company was staffed by large numbers of young men sent out from Britain – they outnumbered the women four to one – who had little opportunity of finding a British bride, possibly not until until they retired and returned home. These men were well educated, well bred and well paid – in short, perfect husband material. The Company saw this as a business opportunity and charged British families desperate to make a match for unmarried daughters a fee to sail them out to India. There, they maintained the women for a year, during which time they were expected to find a mate. Women who failed to make a catch were sent back home and known as ‘Returned Empties’.
De Courcy doesn’t make success sound like much fun either. She quotes a Lady Canning who married and settled in Calcutta where her shoes turned ‘furry with mildew’ in a day and there were so many cockroaches that the wine glasses on the dinner table had to have lids to cover them. There’s a Waughesque account of a ball that suffered an invasion of blister-flies (earwig-like insects that could leave large and painful blisters on the skin): ‘Some crept up gentlemen’s sleeves, others concealed themselves in a jungle of whisker. One heard little else all evening but “Allow me, Sir, to take off this blister-fly that is disappearing into your neckcloth” or “Permit me, Ma’am, to remove this one from your arm”. This however did not stop the dancers and they polka’d and waltzed over countless myriads of insects that had been attracted to the white cloth on the floor, which was completely discoloured by their mangled bodies at the end of the evening.’
The Fishing Fleet began targeting Egypt after 1882, when Britain made the country a protectorate and flooded the place with civil service and soldiers (prior to this, India-bound husband-hunters had temporarily alighted at Port Said, where they stocked up on tropical supplies, like sun hats and fly whisks, at the large Simon Arzt store).
Chaperoned by her mother, 19-year-old Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller came husband-hunting to Cairo for the 1910-1911 Season. The pair took up residence at the Gezira Palace. They went to five dances a week, and attended the races and polo games every afternoon at the neighbouring sports club. Her mother tried to broaden her mind by taking her to the Egyptian Museum, but when she suggested they should go up the Nile to see Luxor, the young girl protested passionately, saying that she was enjoying herself far too much to want to go and kick around dusty old monuments. Shortly after returning to England, she wrote a novel, which she called Snow Upon the Desert, which she set in Cairo and populated with characters modelled on people she’d seen at the Palace. It possibly wasn’t up to much because it never made it into print. Perhaps had she gone husband hunting in India rather than Cairo she might have had more colourful source material. Not that it mattered, because her next novel, written after she found herself a husband back in England, did considerably better, being published to some acclaim under her new married name of Agatha Christie.