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Widow Burning: The Burning Issue of Colonial Britain and India

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs” (Napier 35)

The oft-quoted response of Sir Charles James Napier (then Commander-in-Chief of British forces in India, 1843–1847) to a Hindu priest’s objection to the prohibition of sati has often been employed as a classic example of colonial ‘othering’. However, on a closer look the evidence suggests that such a simplified interpretation is not only wrong, but also masks the legacy of sati in British culture.

Visual depiction of the practice of Sati

Sati, an obsolete Hindu practice of widows burning themselves alive—willing or unwilling—on the funeral pyres of their husbands was first encountered by the British in India shortly after their arrival. Not surprisingly, it caused a considerable amount of moral outrage, horror, and fascination. Since their first encounter, the British reactions to sati have been anything but homogenous. Sati was a burning issue that attracted the attention of newspapers, magazine, ballads, caricatures, artists, historians, poets, letters, fiction, drama, and other modes of cultural activities. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the symbolism attached to the image of sati shifted as the British society itself went through different societal and religious changes. Sati—also a designation of a  woman who commits sati—was a martyr, victim of heathenism, an ideal woman, a religious fanatic, a devoted wife, or a drugged child. As Andrea Major explains in her work on the western perception of sati, “the juxtaposition of claims of heroism and barbarism is a recurrent feature in the western discourse on sati; the interwoven aspects of glorious martyrdom and cruel execution solicit dual response in observer… This duality of response suggests that western reactions to sati were about more than just the othering of Hindu society. They were the product of an ambivalent male conception of the position and status of women. Patriarchal European society may have found sati incompatible with chivalric notions about the protection of the weaker sex, but it did find resonance with its ideals feminine virtue, leading to a more complex and ambivalent reaction to sati than often been assumed” (17).

Massacre of the English at Satichaura Ghat

The fires of sati were (legally) extinguished by the British—or so they believed—in 1829 when they outlawed it in their Indian provinces. However, its ghost would come back to haunt them after the events of 1857’s sepoy mutiny. The mutiny coincided with a period of significant technological developments in the nineteenth century long-range communications. The telegraph was combined with the traditional modes of communication to lessen the time it took for a message to travel between India and Britain. This combined with the deflation of British pound and the decrease in the price of printed paper meant that the news from India were brought in front of the English people in significant capacity. The atrocities committed by the mutineers on the English men and women were devoured with great interest and moral outrage by the people of all spheres, and in greater number than ever more. British were, by all means, caught off-guard and unaware, and in their attempts to explain how and why such a revolt could take place, they found an explanation in their act of offending native religious sentiments by prohibiting the practice of sati. As the following excerpt from an article published in The Times testifies, sati became closely associated with the causes of mutiny:

“They see the government to be abolishing suttee, and so interfering with the most ancient rites of their religion; they see them admitting into the country and protecting missionaries, and permitting them to make the most open assaults upon their religions, and to declare, by their teachings and by their tracts circulated through the length and breadth of the land, that both Mahomedanism and Hindooism  are false.” (An Anglo-Indian Not of the Old School 11)

This widespread reintroduction of sati in the British culture would be of such a character that it would leave its mark in a very unexpected manner. The ghost of sati had arrived, and it would haunt the British not as symbol of a far off barbaric practice, but as an emblem of ghostly reflection of their own societal issues. Thus, the afterlife of sati would begin in the British collective memory. For example, when Punch invokes the image of sati while discussing the catholic custom of taking the veil, it does so with a purpose of harvesting its rhetoric and moral effectiveness to bulwark its point:

“Earnest religious enthusiasm—even though we may believe it erroneous—is no laughing matter with us, good lady—albeit there is a mere mania of medievalism which Punch does laugh at, he must confess. We do not deride—though we may pity—the Hindoo widow whose “heroic” devotion renders her the heroine of suttee. You talk of sisters and daughters. My lady, we have sisters and daughters as well as you. It is precisely on their account that we would legislate on the subject of nunneries. Some of them, it is possible…may be wrested from us by those legions of your ecclesiastics who are compassing sea and land to make one proselyte. We should like to know what becomes of them in the event of their being induced —May I venture to say inveigled?— to “take the veil” (Punch 205).

“A Gentoo Woman voluntarily
submitting to Death on her Husband’s Funeral Pile”, 1771

In this instance, the Indian practice of sati has been “translated” into the context of British religious debate to evoke the image of British women as victims of Catholic religious fanaticism. By throwing the word sati in the argument, the author not only evokes the image of sati while referring to young English widows and girls, but also transfers the conniving and scheming image of a Brahmin on to the Christian priests.This is a subtle, yet highly potent way of criticizing a social custom without saying too much. Such a reception, commodification, and appropriation of the image of sati in the British context brings to light its ‘mobility’ across the colonial world and the way in which it comes to be discursively situated within debates or contexts that are far removed from it. “The ingenuity of this form of appropriation lies in the fact that while it leaves things standing in place, it empties them out, in order to make them a vessel for local concerns” (Greenblatt 13). This ability of the image of sati to lend itself to continuous metamorphosis in the second half of the nineteenth century is what contributes to its widespread circulation within various contemporary fields of cultural and political activities. In my research, I will be closely examining this mobility of sati from India to Britain and then within the British culture itself, and highlight its role as a mobilizer and a carrier of critical feminist reflections within the contemporary non-fiction and fiction from 1850-1900. By highlighting this unexpected cultural connection I hope to shed some light on how culturally specific objects, ideas, or practices can move across borders in unexpected ways and become recontextualized to take a significant role in completely foreign cultural processes. This is a symptom of culture being constantly in flux and motion. As Montaigne once wrote, “the world is but a perennial movement. All things in it are in constant motion…with common motion and with their own. Stability itself is nothing but a more languid motion (67).”


Works Cited

An Anglo-Indian Not of the Old School. “Christianity In India.”The Times (London, England), Saturday, Oct 03,1857; pg. 11; Issue: 22802.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Major, Andrea.Pious Flames: European Encounters with Sati, 1500-1830. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Montaigne, Michel De. “Of Reflection.” Ed. M. A. Screech. Essays. London: Penguin Classics, 2013,Print.

Napier, William Francis Patrick. The History of General Sir Charles Napier’s Administration of Scinde, and Campaign in the Cutchee Hills. London: C. Westerton, 1851. Web.

Punch.“Fine Claims For Convents”. Punch 17 May 1851, Pg. 205. New Readerships,Web.