Suttee/Sati and British Colonialism in India

To set aside the horrors of British Colonialism in India, such as the late Victorian famines (Holocausts as Mike Davis describes them) or the Bengal Famine of 1942 induced by war time mobilization, some good was done. 

The suppression of the ancient Hindu practice of Suttee, burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre was one such good.

Charles Napier, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief in India, faced with local complaints about the abolition of Suttee, replied:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And we will follow ours’

(Cited in Steven Pinker’s marvelous new book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature‘ that I will be reviewing shortly.)

Sir Charles (1782-1853)


Which outlines the full history and complexity of this issue, including the fact that it still occurs in some areas. Here is an extract from Wikipedia:

Attempts to limit or ban the practice had been made by individual British officers in the 18th century, but without the backing of the British East India Company. The first formal British ban was imposed in 1798, in the city of Calcutta only. The practice continued in surrounding regions. Toward the end of the 18th century, the evangelical church in Britain, and its members in India, started campaigns against sati. Leaders of these campaigns included William Carey and William Wilberforce, and both appeared to be motivated by their love for the Indian people and their desire to introduce Indians to Christianity. These movements put pressure on the company to ban the act, and the Bengal Presidency started collecting figures on the practice in 1813.

Suttee, by James Atkinson 1831

The leader of the burgeoning Swaminarayan sect, Sahajanand Swami, was influential in the eventual eradication of sati. He argued that the practice had no Vedic standing and only God could take a life he had given. He also argued that widows could lead a life that would eventually lead to salvation. Governor Malcolm supported Sahajanand in this endeavor, whose domino effect led to other social reforms.[23]

From about 1812, the Bengali reformer Raja Rammohan Roy started his own campaign against the practice. He was motivated by the experience of seeing his own sister-in-law being forced to commit sati. Among his actions, he visited Calcutta cremation grounds to persuade widows not to so die, formed watch groups to do the same, and wrote and disseminated articles to show that it was not required by scripture.

On 4 December 1829, the practice was formally banned in the Bengal Presidency lands, by the then governor, Lord William Bentinck. The ban was challenged in the courts, and the matter went to the Privy Council in London, but was upheld in 1832. Other company territories also banned it shortly after. Although the original ban in Bengal was fairly uncompromising, later in the century British laws include provisions that provided mitigation for murder when “the person whose death is caused, being above the age of 18 years, suffers death or takes the risk of death with his own consent”

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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