historical writings

Husband-hunting in the Raj: Here’s the advice British women received when traveling to India

What to wear on the journey to the India and how to decorate your home once you’ve settled in.

In the age of sailing travel was slow, leisurely, full of danger and anticipation. A voyage from Britain to India took between three to four months; ships stopped at St Helena in the western Atlantic, the Cape of Good Hope, Aden or Socotra (Yemen), before finally reaching Bombay. There was the unexpected too, not least the prospect of shipboard romances. Warren Hastings, on his second appointment to the East India Company, met the love of his life, the Dutch-born Baroness Imhoff, on board the Duke of Grafton.

By the mid-19th century steamships that were smaller and faster, sailed via the Mediterranean and the Red Seas toward the East. The Suez Canal reduced travel time yet further and there were more travellers. Men who came east to serve the British Empire and then, as the 19th century wore on, more women travellers. The latter sailed out with their husbands, but most came to find husbands, constituting as Anne De Courcy writes in her book, Husband-Hunting in the Raj, the “fishing fleet”.

As the historian Alison Blunt writes, from a handful of Portuguese women travellers who came to Goa in the 1620s, by 1810, there were around 250 European women in India. In 1872, in North West Provinces (present day Uttar Pradesh), there were around 5,000 British women, and in 1901 British women numbered 42,004 in a British population of around 1,54,691. During this period, a certain social segregation and imperial distancing was already in place in India and British men were encouraged to marry their own ilk.

Travel advice books covering myriad subjects, from travelling in comfort to household management and cookery, became a popular genre from the 1870s onward. They ranged in style from the mere pedantic to those gossipy and amusing; they were also fancifully titled and dedicated. For example, Flora Annie Steele and Grace Gardiner’s book on household management was dedicated to those girls who would be house mothers in our Eastern empire.

Most such books appeared from the 1880s onwards and many went through several reprints. A Few Words of Advice on Travelling and its Requirements Addressed to Ladies by HMLS saw its fourth edition in 1878. Other examples are: Indian Outfits & Establishments: Practical Guide for Persons About to Reside in India (1882) by an Anglo-Indian (a compilation of articles published in the magazine called Bazaar); In 1909, Maud Diver’s The Englishwoman in India, that in its epigraph extolled the British woman in India, without whom the Empire would have been impossible; the pseudonymous Chota Mem’s The English Bride in India, and Topical Trials: A Handbook for Women in the Tropics by Major Leigh Hunt and Alexander Kenny. Catering to a growing group of solo women travellers was Lillias Campbell Davidson’s Hints for the Woman Traveller at Home and Abroad (1889).

The auxiliary steamer County of Sutherland at sea under steam and sail. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]
The auxiliary steamer County of Sutherland at sea under steam and sail. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]

For the voyage Eastward

In the late 19th century most ships to Bombay left from Southampton, Southwest of London, a journey of around 28 days with stoppages. They sailed via Gibraltar to Malta before reaching, four days later, Port Said in North Egypt. The journey from the Red Sea to Aden was described in most advice books as trying. There were those who preferred to travel overland through Europe by first taking the steamer from Dover to Calais and then the train through Paris, Macon, to Turin, before taking the steamer from Brindisi in Sicily to Alexandria.

Late autumn was the best season to travel out, for then one arrived in Bombay in time for the mild winter. It made, if required, the later rail journey through India easier to endure than in summers when it could get very hot.

HMLS provided advice on what to wear for the journey:

“…choose a simple dress of soft warm tweed, of a dark grey colour, made in the Princess form and buttoned down the front from the neck; the skirt must be furnished with pockets on either side, made deep enough to hold little things likely to be required whilst lying on the berth, such as a few pocket-handkerchiefs, smelling-bottle, eau-de-cologne, small brush and comb, scissors, etc. A more stylish dress must be worn for landing…It is a good plan to use very old underclothing, such as can be thrown away when soiled.”


Travelling solo

For the likes of solo intrepid women travellers who journeyed on their own, Lillias Campbell Davidson offered some special advice in her Hints to Lady Travellers.

Besides essentials such as bath and bath towels, medicines, a reading lamp, light reading material (to also not increase luggage weight), Davidson suggested some safety measures as well: “a door-wedge which is a great convenience”, a railway-key that allows access through train compartments, and a compass vital for the traveller “who has to be her own guide.” And there were quirky health essentials too, such as packing along an eye-stone to pick off dust in one’s eye. This was inserted below the eyelid, and the eyeball rolled along with the stone, the dust mote then stuck to the stone and then could be easily retrieved.

All advice books were unanimous about not carrying or packing too much – either as hand baggage or for use in India. The parcel post and friends who traveled often allowed for things to be quickly dispatched from England.

British men and women in India during the Raj. Photo credit: LIFE Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD India]
British men and women in India during the Raj. Photo credit: LIFE Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD India]

In praise of the durzee

As for clothes for the memsahib, the book, Indian Outfits and Establishments stated, “Enough at starting should be taken for a year, or even two years; for in India fashions do not succeed each other so rapidly as at home, and even in last year’s bonnet or hat you will not feel yourself demode.”

Photo credit: Wikimedi Commons [Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0]
Photo credit: Wikimedi Commons [Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0]

HMLS added that most things could also be stitched in India. There were several advice books that provided guarded praise for the durzee or the tailor. In Outfits and Establishments, there was more detail:

“The durzee is a reliable, good impersonator but on occasion not to be trusted. The Indian durzee is a very clever worker, good at imitating, but bad at originating. Give him a good pattern (and) you can get new ones by post from home as often as necessary and he will turn out a dress very nicely, with strong, neat workmanship.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]

Advice books listed some essentials and HMLS made especial recommendations about formal wear.

“The black silk dress has to be really a good one and I should advise, as well as two bodices, two skirts also…in fact you should be able to make two costumes out of one dress. Your evening dresses you will be able to alter with the occasional addition of little extras, such as flowers, ribbons, and so on. If you can afford a lace dress (I should prefer it of white), so much the better; it will outlast many other evening dresses, and lace, even if not of an expensive kind, is always useful, and can be made up over and over again on different coloured slips.”

The memsahib had to be cautious when handing out clothes for washing;

“(Y)our linen should not be trimmed with work; the washerman (dhobie) is….is a creature with rough hands, and on dainty laces and trimmings works his sweet will; he has apparently a malicious pleasure in tearing off buttons and strings, and at the very first wash reducing handsome linen into untidy dilapidated garments.”

Men too had their own travel guidelines. What they needed most were white suits, ideal in the heat, and then the wide-rimmed and sturdy “solar topee” that could be easily bought on arrival.

British men in India during the Raj. Photo credit: LIFE Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD India]
British men in India during the Raj. Photo credit: LIFE Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD India]

Interior decoration

It was best to hire furniture in India considering that the husbands were transferred every few years. Cane furniture however could be bought in India as it was cheaper and a lot of it could be prettified with “enamel paint and cretonne cushions”.

It made far more sense to buy pianos. The historian Alison Blunt cites the letters of Frances Wells, a British woman to her father in England. Pianos in India were made to suit local conditions. Frances Wells wrote that her piano was “bound completely in brass, so as to stand the climate, with a packing case lined with tin, and a red wadded cover which is necessary in India and four glass insulators to keep white ants off.”

Instead of blankets, Outfits and Establishments recommended the razai or “ressaie”:

“There are issued to the troops in India a most useful sort of light mattress, which can be used either to lie on or as a covering. It is called a ressaie, and can be procured cheaply in almost any station, or even where there are no troops. It will last for years.”

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.