A fishy story: Why the British Raj gifted the trout to India

Did you know that the mouth-watering trout was introduced in India by British colonialists who felt homesick without their favourite species of fish? A determined group of Britons decided to bring it to Indian streams, come what may

M.R. Narayan Swamy Nov 12, 2021
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A Fish in Alien Streams: The Incredible Journey of the Trout in India; Author: Herjinder

Did you know that the mouth-watering trout was introduced in India by British colonialists who felt homesick without their favourite species of fish? A determined group of Britons decided to bring it to Indian streams, come what may. After many unsuccessful attempts, losing both energy and money, the mission proved a success. But when the sun set on the Empire, the trout too saw bad days; today it is a rarity in Indian waters.  

This is truly an incredible saga put together by journalist-author Herjinder who stumbled on an unknown aspect of the Raj while doing a story on the trout. The more he dug, the more gripping it became. It took him a decade to stitch together a fascinating history of a fish married into English consciousness.  

Many Europeans in India pined for salmon and trout in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most were British in the East India Company and its army. Some Christian missionaries too shared the hunger for trout. Then there were French and German experts in the armies of various kings. When the British took over from East India Company, many civil and military servants of the Raj too entered the fray. The British realized they could ride horses, play outdoor or indoor games and could go angling in streams and rivers. But they lacked the magnificent trout.  

Dr Francis Day, an assistant surgeon with the British Army, made the first serious attempt to import trout eggs into India. He wanted to stock them in the Nilgiri stream in southern India. The biggest problem was the distance from England.  

Eventually, 6,000 eggs were packed in pine boxes and shipped to India. From Madras, they were taken on a 450-km train journey to Coimbatore and then to Ooty, 80 km away. The ova stood the long journey well, with the percentage of dead ranging only 10 to 20. But within two days, a great mortality set in among the trout eggs, ending the experiment in disaster.  

Similar and repeated failures followed both due to the weather and transport bottlenecks. The ova either froze or roasted to death. At times crabs devoured them. But the British refused to give up. The attempts to bring trout into Indian rivers earned attention in global media. 

When it became known in 1866 that rainbow trout had been introduced in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the British community in India was enthused. The trout acclimatization in Ceylon began much later than in the Nilgiris but succeeded before it did in Kashmir. Between 1893 and 1897, both English brown trout and American rainbow trout were imported into India and hatched with degrees of success.   

Frank James Mitchell, an officer of Scottish origin, returned to India after retirement, interested in introducing the trout in Kashmir. Two men from the 5th Gorkha Rifles hatched the ova in streams but these were killed by Gurkha soldiers. By 1908, Mitchel and his men collected more than one million ova and acclimatized them in virtually every stream and lake in Kashmir.  

The success story was copied in Abottabad, Nainital, Shillong, Shimla, Kangra and Kullu Valley. The rainbow trout also found its way in Nilgiris. The Mitchell family ventured into processed food under two brand names, one of which, Kissan, is still popular in India.  

Success in Nilgris came in 1904 when 20,000 ova of rainbow trout was imported. Some 875 healthy fry raised from these were placed in a stream with abundant food supply. Many more ova of rainbow trout from New Zealand were added to the Nilgiris streams successfully, generating all round joy. Some rivers were opened for trout fishing in September 1911.  

After Kashmir, Kullu was identified as the next obvious location for trout lovers in India. By 1914 there were at least 50,000 trout in seven places. The experiment was such a success that a department of fisheries was opened in Punjab. A Fisheries Research Laboratory came up in Kullu. Local poachers turned out to be the biggest enemy of the trout in the Beas. There were others too: predatory otters, kingfishers and floods.  

If trout could breed in Kashmir, could Travancore, a land of untouched natural beauty and rich flora and fauna, be far behind? The region had crystal clear streams but no trout. Here, a private company, not the government, got into the project, successfully hatching a very reasonable percentage of the ova brought from Scotland. After initial failures, news of brown trout being caught started to emerge from the hills of Travancore.  

Overjoyed Britons decided to recreate the experiment in every hill stream in north India. News of success poured in from Chamba, Shimla, Sirmour, Garhwal and Kumaon. While Kullu began to supply ova for the hills of present day Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, Kashmir stocked the streams of Ladakh, Gilgit, Baltistan, Skardu and the Neelam Valley, some of the places now in Pakistan. Trout fishing became both a craze and a status symbol.   

But the key driver for transplanting trout in India was its recreational possibilities for the British. There was no concern for native species that were forced to share natural resources with this invasive alien. This upset the ecological balance of nature. But the brown trout could not cope with floods; most perished.  

After 1947, trout started to disappear from Indian streams. Unlike hockey or cricket, angling did not catch on in India. The rapid construction of dams during Nehru’s India dealt further blows to the trout. Pollution, human intervention and climate change too took their toll. While trout farming still takes place, the condition of the indigenous mahseer fish is worse. Indeed, of India’s more than 2,500 species of fish, virtually all now face some level of threat.  

This book is a great read.  

Title: A Fish in Alien Streams: The Incredible Journey of the Trout in India; Author: Herjinder; Publisher: Hachette India; Pages: 172; Price: Rs 350  

(The reviewer is a veteran journalist, author and South Asia analyst)