Modern History Sourcebook:
On Ritual Murder in India, 1829
India was progressively occupied by the British, through the
agency of the East India Company, throughout the 18th century.
The company was directed by the government. The British, unlike
earlier colonizers in the Americas, decided to practice religious
toleration for their new Islamic and Hindu subjects.
This lead to a conflict: some Indian religious customs outraged
the British - for instance neonatal infantacide. But the most
contentious issue was sati (or suttee), the custom whereby
widows would burn themselves on their husband's funeral pyre.
By the 1820s the East India Company, which had not intervened,
had come to the conclusion that sati was not only repulsive
but was not necessarily voluntary. There were reports of women
being forced to burn themselves, or of being tied to the pyres.
William Bentinck, Governor-General of the company from 1828, her
addresses the issue of whether to intervene.
This is a very complex issue for those who argue "human
rights" are "western" ideals, and not universal.
What should the British have done in this situation?
Whether the question be to continue or to discontinue the practice
of sati, the decision is equally surrounded by an awful
responsibility. 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. But, on the other hand, if heretofore
received opinions are to be considered of any value, to put to
hazard by a contrary course the very safety of the British Empire
in India, and to extinguish at once all hopes of those great improvements-affecting
the condition not of hundreds and thousands but of millions-which
can only be expected from the continuance of our supremacy, is
an alternative which even in the light of humanity itself may
be considered as a still greater evil. It is upon this first and
highest consideration alone, the good of mankind, that the tolerance
of this inhuman and impious rite can in my opinion be justified
on the part of the government of a civilized nation. While the
solution of this question is appalling from the unparalleled magnitude
of its possible results, the considerations belonging to it are
such as to make even the stoutest mind distrust its decision.
On the one side, Religion, Humanity, under the most appalling
form, as well as vanity and ambition-in short, all the most powerful
influences over the human heart-are arrayed to bias and mislead
the judgment. On the other side, the sanction of countless ages,
the example of all the Mussulman conquerors, the unanimous concurrence
in the same policy of our own most able rulers, together with
the universal veneration of the people, seem authoritatively to
forbid, both to feeling and to reason, any interference in the
exercise of their natural prerogative. In venturing to be the
first to deviate from this practice it becomes me to show that
nothing has been yielded to feeling, but that reason, and reason
alone, has governed the decision.
. . . So far from being chargeable with political rashness, as
this departure from an established policy might infer, I hope
to be able so completely to prove the safety of the measures as
even to render unnecessary any calculation of the degree of risk
which for the attainment of so great a benefit might wisely and
justly be incurred.... With the firm undoubting conviction entertained
upon this question, I should be guilty of little short of the
crime of multiplied murder if I could hesitate in the performance
of this solemn obligation. I have been already stung with this
feeling. 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. . .
. . . When we had powerful neighbours and had greater reason to
doubt our own security, expediency might recommend an indirect
and more cautious proceeding, but now that we are supreme my opinion
is decidedly in favour of an open, avowed, and general prohibition,
resting altogether UpOll the moral goodness of the act and our
power to enforce it; and so decided is my feeling against any
half measure that, were I not convinced of the safety of total
abolition, I certainly should have advised the cessation of all
Of all those who have given their advice against the abolition
of the rite, and have described the ill effects likely to ensue
from it, there is no one to whom I am disposed to pay greater
deference than Mr. Horace Wilson. I purposely select his opinion
because, independently of his vast knowledge of Oriental literature,
it has fallen to his lot, as secretary to the Hindu College, and
possessing the general esteem both of the parents and of the youths,
to have more confidential intercourse with natives of all classes
than any man in India. While his opportunity of obtaining information
has been great beyond all others, his talents and judgement enable
him to form a just estimate of its value. I shall state the most
forcible of his reasons, and how far I do and do not agree with
1st. Mr. Wilson considers it to be a dangerous evasion of the
real difficulties to attempt to prove that satis are not
"essentially a part of the Hindu religion." I entirely
agree in this opinion. The question is not what the rite is but
what it is supposed to be, and I have no doubt that the conscientious
belief of every order of Hindus, with few exceptions, regards
it as sacred.
2nd. Mr. Wilson thinks that the attempt to put down the practice
will inspire extensive dissatisfaction. I agree also in this opinion.
He thinks that success will only be partial, which I doubt. He
does not imagine that the promulgated prohibition will lead to
any immediate and overt act of insubordination, but that affrays
and much agitation of the public mind must ensue. But he conceives
that, if once they suspect that it is the intention of the British
Government to abandon this hitherto inviolate principle of allowing
the most complete toleration in matters of religion, there will
arise in the minds of all so deep a distrust of our ulterior designs
that they will no longer be tractable to any arrangement intended
for their improvement, and that principle of a purer morality,
as well as of a more virtuous and exalted rule of action, now
actively inculcated by European education and knowledge, will
receive a fatal check. I must acknowledge that a similar opinion
as the probable excitation of a deep distrust of our future intentions
was mentioned to me in conversation by that enlightened native,
Ram Mohun Roy, a warm advocate for the abolition of sati and
of all other superstitions and corruptions engrafted on the Hindu
religion, which he considers originally to have been a pure Deism.
It was his opinion that the practice might be suppressed quietly
and unobservedly by increasing the difficulties and by the indirect
agency of the police. He apprehended that any public enactment
would give rise to general apprehension, that the reasoning would
be, "While the English were contending for power, they deemed
it politic to allow universal toleration and to respect our religion,
but having obtained the supremacy their first act is a violation
ol their profession, and the next will probably be, like the Muhammadan
conquerors, to force upon us their own religion."
Admitting, as I am always disposed to do, that much truth is contained
in these remarks, but not at all assenting to the conclusions
which, though not described, bear the most unf`avourable import,
I shall now inquire into the evil and the extent of danger which
may practically result from this measure.
It must be first observed that of the 463 satis occurring
in the whole of the Presidency of Fort William, 420 took place
in Bengal, Behar, and Orissa, or what is termed the Lower Provinces,
and of these latter 287 in the Calcutta Division alone.
It might be very difficult to make a stranger to India understand,
much less believe, that in a population of so many millions of
people as the Calcutta Division includes, and the same may be
said of all the Lower Provinces, so great is the want of courage
and of vigour of character, and such the habitual submission of
centuries, that insurrection or hostile opposition to the will
of the ruling power may be affirmed to be an impossible danger....
If, however, security was wanting against extensive popular tumult
or revolution, I should say that the Permanent Settlement, which,
though a failure in many other respects and in its most important
essentials, has this great advantage at least, of having created
a vast body of rich landed proprietors deeply interested in the
continuance of the British Dominion and having complete command
over the mass of the people....
Were the scene of this sad destruction of human life laid in the
Upper instead of the Lower Provinces, in the midst of a bold and
manly people, I might speak with less confidence upon the question
of safety. In these Provinces the satis amount to fortythree
only upon a population of nearly twenty millions. It cannot be
expected that any general feeling, where combination of any kind
is so unusual, could be excited in defense of a rite in which
so few participate, a rite also notoriously made too often subservient
to views of personal interest on the part of the other members
of the family....
But I have taken up too much time in giving my own opinion when
those of the greatest experience and highest official authority
are upon our records. In the report of the Nizamat Adalat for
1828, four out of five of the Judges recommended to the GovernorGeneral
in Council the immediate abolition of the practice, and attest
its safety. The fifth Judge, though not opposed to the opinions
of the rest of the Bench, did not feel then prepared to give his
entire assent. In the report of this year the measure has come
up with the unanimous recommendation of the Court.... No documents
exist to show the opinions of the public functionaires in the
interior, but I am informed that ninetenths are in favour
of the abolition....
Having made inquiries, also, how far satis are permitted
in the European foreign settlements, I find from Dr. Carey that
at Chinsurah no such sacrifices had ever been permitted by the
Dutch Government. That within the limits of Chandarnagar itself
they were also prevented, but allowed to be performed in the British
territories. The Danish Government of Serampur has not forbidden
the rite, in conformity to the example of the British Government.
It is a very important fact that, though representations have
been made by the disappointed party to superior authority, it
does not appear that a single instance of direct opposition to
the execution of the prohibitory orders of our civil functionaries
has ever occurred. How, then, can it be reasonably feared that
to the Government itself, from whom all authority is derived,
and whose power is now universally considered to be irresistible,
anything bearing the semblance of` resistance can be manifested?
Mr. Wilson also is of opinion that no immediate overt act of insubordination
would follow the publication of the edict. The Regulation of Government
may be evaded, the police may be corrupted, but even here the
price paid as hush money will operate as a penalty, indirectly
forwarding the object of Government.
I venture, then, to think it completely proved that from the native
population nothing of extensive combination, or even of partial
opposition, may be expected from the abolition....
I have now to submit for the consideration of Council the draft
of a regulation enacting the abolition of satis.... It
is only in the previous processes, or during the actual performance
of the rite, when the feelings of all may be more or less roused
to a high degree of excitement, that I apprehend the possibility
of affray or of acts of violence through an indiscreet and injudicious
exercise of authority. It seemed to me prudent, therefore, that
the police, in the first instance, should warn and advise, but
not forcibly prohibit, and if the sati, in defiance of
this notice, were performed, that a report should be made to the
magistrate, who would summon the parties and proceed as in any
other case of crime....
The first and primary object of my heart is the benefit of the
Hindus. I know nothing so important to the improvement of their
future condition as the establishment of a purer morality, whatever
their belief, and a more just conception of the will of God. The
first step to this better understanding will be dissociation of
religious belief and practice from blood and murder. They will
then, when no longer under this brutalizing excitement, view with
more calmness acknowledged truths. They will see that there can
be no inconsistency in the ways of Providence, that to the command
received as divine by all races of` men, "No innocent blood
shall be spilt," there can be no exception; and when they
shall have been convinced of the error of this first and most
criminal of their customs, may it not be hoped that others, which
stand in the way of their improvement, may likewise pass away,
and that, thus emancipated from those chains and shackles upon
their minds and actions, they may no longer continue, as they
have done, the slaves of every foreign conqueror, but that they
may assume their first places among the great families of mankind?
I disown in these remarks, or in this measure, any view whatever
to conversion to our own faith. I write and feel as a legislator
for the Hindus, and as I believe many enlightened Hindus think
Descending from these higher considerations, it cannot be a dishonest
ambition that the Government of which I form a part should have
the credit of an act which is to wash out a foul stain upon British
rule, and to stay the sacrifice of humanity and justice to a doubtful
expediency; and finally, as a branch of the general administration
of the Empire, I may be permitted to feel deeply anxious that
our course shall be in accordance with the noble example set to
us by the British Government at home, and that the adaptation,
when practicable to the circumstances of this vast Indian population,
of the same enlightened principles, may promote here as well as
there the general prosperity, and may exalt the character of our
From "Lord William Bentinck on the Suppression of Sati, 8 November 1829," in Speeches and Documents on Indian
Policy, 17501921, ed. Arthur B. Keith (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1922), vol. 1, pp. 208226.
This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.
The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted
texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World
Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the
document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying,
distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal
use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source.
No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.
(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997