The Crime of Sati

By Stephen Basdeo

In the first Robin Hood novel, Robert Southey’s ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (1791), we are told of a Norwegian woman’s travels through the Orient; entranced with the ways of the East, she marries an Indian man. Yet the romance does not last long; her lover dies and according to the custom amongst the gentoos, she must undergo sati, or suttee:

It is a custom among the Gentoos for a widow to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her husband. Yarian, a beautiful female with whom we were acquainted, was in this predicament. At this period a caravan happened to be setting forwards for China and Sir Guelphinor and myself resolved to go with it and then travel through the wide regions of Siberia. It was a long and dangerous route, but the only possible means of returning to our native countries. The Norwegian had before the death of her husband, sincerely though secretly loved Yarina. He had by this time acquired some knowledge of the language and resolved to attempt persuading Yarina to accompany us in disguise. The love of life joined to the affection she entertained for Guelphinor prevailed over the desire of glory. She disguised herself in a suit of her deceased husband and accompanied us. The Norwegian was happy and I partook of his happiness. The dangers we had participated in had been the means of establishing a firm friendship between us and I longed for the time when I should see him and Yarina settled safely in Europe.

Robert Southey, ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’. Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. e. 21 (Summary Catalogue 71777), ff.119v-120r.

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Robert Southey’s Harold; or, The Castle of Morford (Bodleian Library)

Dr Truesdale and I are currently editing Southey’s manuscript for publication, and this post delves into the changing attitudes towards this custom of sati, whereby a widow is burned alive along with the dead of body of her husband.

Britain and India have a long and interconnected history. Queen Elizabeth I was by no means an imperialist monarch, but her one major contribution to the rise of the British Empire was the granting of a Royal Charter to the Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies (hereafter named the East India Company), which gave this corporation a monopoly over trade with countries in the East.

Gradually, the power and influence of this trading corporation grew, both in England and India.

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During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British East India Company established a number of fortified trading settlements—“factories”—in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. The trading company boasted its own army and as it sought to increase its influence over Indian rulers and secure ever more favourable trading terms, it regularly got involved in territorial disputes between local Indian princely states, as well as against the French East India Company. When the first “World War” broke out in 1756—the Seven Year’s War, between the Kingdom of France and Great Britain and their respective allies—the British East India Company found itself fighting against the French Company and the Nawab of Bengal’s army.

Had the French and the Nawab of Bengal succeeding in expelling the British company from the subcontinent forever, then the history of Britain in India might be consigned to a mere footnote in history. But the British won: as a result of its victory against the Nawab of Bengal and French East India Company at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company annexed the region of Bengal. A vast part of the subcontinent was now under the control of a trading company, and Company rule was confirmed when the Treaty of Allahabad was signed in 1765, when the Mughal Emperor granted the British company the diwani of Bengal—the power to levy taxes on the inhabitants. From this point onwards, the Company expanded and consolidated its power not only over the territories it annexed, but also over the numerous princely states. By the nineteenth century it was clear that the British were there to stay. The Company, which had originally started out as a trading endeavour, had become a political power.

1200px-Warren_Hastings_by_Tilly_Kettle
Warren Hastings, Head of the Supreme Council of India and Governor of the Presidency of Fort St William. He is said to have loved India “a little more than his own country”.

In the early days of the Company Raj, British administrators still knew that they were there to make money. They wanted to interfere as little as possible with Indians’ existing laws and customs; in short, Indian culture should be respected. And many British administrators very much admired Indian culture. The Governor of the Presidency of Fort St William and Head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, Warren Hastings, once declared

“I love India a little more than my own country.”

Hastings sponsored the first English translation of the Baghavad Gita, the Hindu holy book, and founded the Asiatick Society in 1784. Other men such as James Achilles Kirkpatrick (1764–1805) “went native” by converting to Islam, learning Urdu, and even married Khair-un-Nissa, the daughter of a local Indian ruler. At this time, in high culture, we find that there was briefly a fusion of Indian and British styles of painting, practiced by Indian artists, known as ‘Company Style’, blending the European picturesque with simpler Indian watercolours.

In popular literature, novelists such as Phebe Gibbs in Hartly House, Calcutta (1789) were wholly admiring of the Indian way of life. Which brings us to one particular Indian custom which Gibbs drew attention to in her novel: the practice of sati, or suttee.

Sati
An Indian woman being led towards her husband’s funeral pyre to be burned alive (1811). London, Wellcome Collection.

Sati was practiced in wealthier, usually aristocratic, Indian families when the head of the household passed away. Gibbs’s protagonist, Sophia Goldborne, is a committed and enthusiastic orientalist and describes the practice in the following manner:

There are other casts or classes, as you may have read in the European newspapers, that burn the bodies of their departed friends and relatives, and preserve their ashes with great piety. And of this number are those wives, who, with a degree of heroism, that, if properly directed, would do honour to the female world, make an affectionate voluntary sacrifice of themselves upon the funeral pile of their late departed husbands:—it is true that there have been instances of their shewing reluctance—but those instances seldom occur.[i]

According to Sophia Goldborne, a widow who underwent this process could give no further sign of her devotion to her husband than ‘sanctifying’ herself on the husband’s funeral pyre.

Hastings and Gibbs were of the ‘old guard’ mindset: they were entranced by India, this ancient civilization with whom they found themselves in contact (Gibbs’s novel was based on letters from her brother who served in the Company army). Yet waiting in the wings back in England was a new breed of civil servant: fervently Christian, and confident in their belief that England represented civilization and Indians were ‘backward’, they wanted to Christianize and Anglicize India, and remould the subcontinent in England’s image.

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Lord William Bentinck, appointed as Governor-General of India in 1828. An ideologue who wanted to Anglicize India.

Their attitude is best summed up in comments made by Thomas Babington Macauley (1800–59):

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

The age of the ‘do-gooders’ had arrived: evangelical reformers, although ignoring social problems, poverty, and calls for political reform at home in Britain, seized on the practice of sati as the target of one of their many empire-wide moral crusades. One man of this mould, William Bentinck, was appointed as the Governor General of India in 1828 and he was determined to stamp it out:

To consent to the consignment, year after year, of hundreds of innocent victims to a cruel and untimely end, when the power exists of preventing it, is a predicament which no conscience can contemplate without horror … Every day’s delay adds a victim to the dreadful list, which might perhaps have been prevented by a more early submission of the present question.

(William Bentinck, Minute on Sati, November 1829)

That was certainly a dramatic way of seeing the problem. The truth is that sati was not widespread by the time Bentinck was appointed, but his campaign against it was part of the grander ‘civilizing mission’.

It is amazing how quickly Bentinck’s Christian propagandists swung into action behind this cause and voiced their concerns in popular literature. Where Phebe Gibbs admired the custom in the late eighteenth century, in the early Victorian period, Agnes Strickland left her readers under no illusions—the practice was barbarous and so, by extension, was the Hindu religion and the Indians themselves.

Strickland’s short story, titled Candava; or, the Last Suttee, was serialised in the Home Circle in 1849. Her protagonist, Ellen Mortlake, is a fervent Christian who has gone out to India and intends to set up a Sunday School (for the benefit of the natives, obviously, to bring them to Christ). She and her brother, who is an officer in the Company army, are one day walking in the countryside and they see a sati procession. Ellen is horrified:

Pale and sick with horror, Ellen clung to her brother’s arm for support, as she gasped out, “Is there no means of preventing his frightful tragedy?”

“It can be prevented, and it shall be,” he replied, “Lord William Bentinck has abolished Suttee. Ellen, dare you remain with the bearers while I hasten to the British headquarters to obtain assistance?”

“Go—go my brother,” she replied, “I have no other fears than that you may be too late.”[ii]

The widow is taken to the pyre, kicking and screaming; her limbs are soon bound and the ‘evil Brahmins’ pay no attention to her cries for mercy. Just as they are about to light the fire, a detachment of East India Cavalrymen, led by Ellen’s brother, ride in to save the day.

“Hold,” he exclaimed with equal courage and temper … “The British Government has at length abolished suttee forever, and it will be at the peril of life and property if that abomination is ever again attempted in British India.”[iii]

The widow is rescued, ever grateful to the East India Company for saving her life.

Home Circle
The moral crusade against sati was waged, not only at the level of high politics, but also in popular literature. Stories such as this one which appeared in the Home Circle drew attention to the barbarous practice.

Paradoxically, although the practice was practiced by very few people in India, as the moral crusade against sati got ever more courage in both the Indian and British press, there was a brief resurgence of it in Bengal. It was almost as though, resenting the ever-increasing interference of British legislators into their lives, Indian people were pushing back against it.

In all of the furore around sati, however, the views of Indian women themselves were never asked for. The question of sati and its wider significance for Anglo-Indian relations was discussed at length by Gayatri Spivak in an article entitled ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ That the Indians were a conquered and oppressed people under British rule is beyond doubt, but when it came to sati, Indian women faced two forms of oppression: they could not commit sati without facing sanctions from the British authorities, yet if they decided against going through with it, the woman would be ostracised from her family and local community. At every step of the way during the whole moral crusade against it, it was men who knew best.

While the two examples cited here were fictional works, they are illustrative of wider, changing British attitudes towards sati and Indian culture at large. During the eighteenth century, the British were guests in India, which is why they were respectful of Indian culture; the British nation was a new nation, compared to India, which was thousands of years old. By the mid-Victorian period, the British were in charge; they did not need to ‘respect’ Indian culture as much anymore and where they previously wanted to just make money, now they had acquired a civilizing mission and this required outlawing Indian practices which did not fit with their worldview.

Even though India received its independence from Britain in the 1940s, the Indian Government passed another Act of Parliament in 1988 which confirmed the ban on sati. This decision stemmed in part from a recent case which occurred in 1987 in Rajasthan when an 18-year-old girl mounted her husband’s funeral pyre, much to the condemnation of the international community. The Commission of Sati Prevention Act deemed that

‘if any person commits sati, whoever abets the commission of such sati, either directly or indirectly, shall be punishable with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine’.

In spite of this, there has been a case as recently as 2006, when 40 year old Janakrani, burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her husband Prem Narayan in Sagar.[iv] Evidently the practice persists in some of the more rural parts of India.


[i] Phebe Gibbs, Hartly House, Calcutta, ed. by Michael Franklin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), pp. 102–3.

[ii] Agnes Strickland, ‘Candava; or, The Last Suttee’, Home Circle, 14 July 1849, 17–18.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Anon., ‘India wife dies on husband’s pyre’, BBC News, 22 August 2006, online edn < http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/5273336.stm> [Accessed 17 April 2019].

Further Reading

Ola Abdalkafor, Gayatri Spivak: Deconstruction and the Ethics of Postcolonial Literary Interpretation (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2015)

Carol Bolton, ‘Romantic Literature and Colonialism’, Literature Compass, 5: 3 (2008), 541-33.

Carol Bolton, Writing the Empire: Robert Southey and Romantic Colonialism (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007)

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