Tinted engraving: a rather typical representation of a Hindu woman about to plunge into the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre. “The widow now ascends the funeral pile, or rather throws herself down upon it by the side of the dead body” (Ward 301). Source: The collection of the Imperial Hotel, Janpath, New Delhi, reproduced by kind permission of the hotel. Click on all the images here for larger pictures.

The self-immolation of recently bereaved wives on their husbands’ funeral pyres confronted the British in India with central questions about the obligations of the colonizer to the colonized, respect for other cultures, and questions of gender that had important implications for British women.

In India, the individuals who sacrificed themselves in this way were called satis, from the Sanskrit word for “a good woman,” by association with the goddess Sati. In Hindu mythology, Sati is the wife of Shiva, and she immolates herself in protest against her father’s lack of respect for her husband. In one telling, her faithfulness is such that she feels no pain from the fire. Of course, since Siva himself is immortal, no version of the myth ever really fits the ritual as it developed (see Hawley, Introduction, 14). More analogous to it, perhaps, were the self-immolations of the Rajput women of Rajasthan, who in earlier times chose this way of preserving their and their husbands’ honour when their menfolk went off to battle. But here again there were great differences. These women’s husbands, too, were not yet dead, and a jauhar, as the preemptive act was called, was a communal one involving children, the sick and the elderly as well. Still, like Sati, both the Rajput wives of olden days and the satis were seen to demonstrate the extreme of wifely devotion.

Suttee or “widow-burning,” as the British called it, became a subject of much concern to the new administrators. As time went by, it acquired a peculiar resonance for them, and for those in the home country as well. As well as raising uncomfortable and challenging issues about the role and duties of the British in India, it called into question the self-abnegation expected of women in Britain itself, prompting some reflections on the very nature of service and self-sacrifice, especially in the colonial context. Today, thanks largely to the Kolkata-born cultural theorist Gayatri Spivak, it has again become a hot topic among postcolonial and feminist critics.


Suttee could not just be abolished overnight. As its association with myth suggests, it was deeply rooted in the culture. It goes back to ancient times among various peoples, with instances recorded among the Thracians, Malaysians and others. An early account of its enactment by Indian widows appears in the Greek historian Diodorus, where it is dated as occurring in 317 BC (Yule and Burnell 879). Besides noting its connection with the goddess Sati, the Victorians held various theories about it. The most sympathetic was that it started from “the voluntary sacrifice of a widow, inconsolable for the loss of her husband … solely because her affection to the deceased made her regard life as a burden no longer to be borne” (qtd. in Peggs, India’s Cries, 3rd ed., 214). But some saw cruelty in it from the start, suggesting that it arose from “a dread on the part of the chiefs of the country, in olden time, that their principal wives, who alone were in possession of their confidence, and knew where their money was concealed, might secretly attempt their life, in order at once to establish their own freedom, and become possessed of the [i.e. their husbands’] property” (St John et al., 489). Whatever the origin, other ideas had gathered around the practice — for example, that those who chose to die in this way not only displayed wifely virtue at the time, but would continue to serve their husbands in the afterlife; and, still more curiously to western observers, that the woman’s action would expiate the sins of her husband’s family. Such ideas had produced a cult predicated on suttee’s “magical efficacy,” as one social historian puts it (Weinberger-Thomas 168), but at the same time left the custom open to abuse. Instead of being a matter of choice, suttee might be enjoined, the woman cruelly coerced by those who stood to gain by her death, whether the gain lay simply in family honour, or in more tangible assets.

Does this engraving show such a victim? There is not much to help us here. In some accounts, the woman wears wedding finery, since suttee was seen as a final consummation of the marriage (see Hawley, Afterword, 179). But this woman is seen only at the last, decisive moment, her hair flowing loose, wearing the simple white sari that was the usual mark of widowhood. There are no female supporters — but they would not have been allowed at this point. The man immediately behind her would be the officiating Brahmin. He might be actively helping her on her way — or simply letting her go. The log in the foreground might be ready for use during the ritual: in a more complex scenario, the pioneer Baptist missionary William Ward (1769-1823) noted that “two bamboo levers are brought over the whole, to hold down the bodies and the pile” (301), thus speeding up the burning process and also, according to some accounts, preventing any last-minute bid for escape (see Savill 660). Laying the pile in a pit was supposed to perform the latter function too. As for the red tinting of the flames, echoed in some items of clothing, this certainly lends an extra terror to the moment, but whether it also reflects a forced martyrdom remains unclear. In general, it is as hard to “read” the picture as to think about the reality that it represented.

The British Response

A coloured aquatint by the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), after Quiz (John Page Mellor), from 1815. Source: The Wellcome Institute, by kind permission.

Western observers were apt to interpret suttee in their own way. There is no question of coercion in this next picture. The voluptuous woman gazes raptly at the corpse of her husband, while musicians perform in the left-hand corner. Drums and other instruments were indeed played on these occasions, reportedly to drown out any groans or screams of agony. “It is a fatal omen to hear the suttee’s groan” (qtd. in Yule and Burnell 883). But this scene has an almost carnival-like atmosphere. It is a sexed-up version of events, in which only the person in the far right of the foreground, with face hidden, seems distressed. In exchange for letting the ritual go ahead, Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India from 1732-1818, and the prelate to whom he is talking in the upper right-hand corner, are receiving bags of rupees — despite the fact that Hastings himself describes the whole thing in the speech bubble as “shocking to humanity.” How far can we trust Rowlandson here, bearing in mind his unlikely depiction of the widow? Hastings was certainly dogged by allegations of corruption, and eventually impeached (though acquitted), and he believed in respecting Indian ways. But he is reported to have said later that he would have abolished the practice “if he could have relied upon the popular feeling being in his favour in our own country,” explaining that “the danger [of interfering with Hindu customs] was felt, not in India, but only in England!” (Peggs’ emphasis, in India’s Cries, 3rd ed., 253).

Attempts had been made as early as the sixteenth century, notably by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, to “prevent any woman being forcibly burnt” (qtd. in Yule and Burnell 880), but, despite the outrage of foreign observers, early responses to the problem by the British were feeble, and the practice continued under their watch. Its deep roots were reinforced by the existence of sati temples; and there were various motives behind the individual acts: “These women were not a homogeneous group of mindless victims or senseless fanatics, but individuals who made various choices for various reasons and had many voices and cannot be sorted into two tidy groups of those who jumped and those who were pushed” (Doniger 615). On the British side too, apart from the difficulty of distinguishing between individual cases, there were a range of considerations, not simply pecuniary ones — although, as Hastings admits in Rowlandson’s cartoon, while accepting his emolument, “the revenue it brings in … is of importance.” A more acceptable concern was not to upset relationships with the populance. Indian and English historians alike agree that there was real anxiety that heavy-handed measures would offend Indian sensibilities (see Majumdar et al. 817-18), and particularly a fear “of Hindus and Muslims perceiving British rule as a threat to their religions” (Keay 428). This danger had long been recognised, and accounts for what Hastings said in mitigation of his laissez-faire attitude. Thus, according to another British historian, the practice of suttee not only continued but “increased notably among the upper classes of Bengal” in the early years of British rule (Spear 119).

As for the increase, perhaps it had now found a new role, as a defiant expression of cultural and religious identity. Despite British professions of horror and the untiring efforts of enlightened Hindus, especially the Bengali reformer Rajah Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), it was not until December 1829 that a later Evangelically-inclined Governor-General, Lord William Bentinck, having surveyed his Indian officers first to test their reaction, finally made suttee illegal in his second year of office (see Peers). Similar regulations were enacted in the following year in Madras and Bombay. Even then, it continued in some areas (see Peggs, India’s Cries, 3nd ed., 267-68), so it was not completely stamped out.

A woman lies on the bier beside her dead husband. Source: Peggs, India’s Cries, 3rd ed.(1832), following p. 212.

This other well-known engraving prefaces a book by the Rev. James Peggs (1793-1850), one of the first Baptistmissionaries in what was then Orissa (now Odisha) on the Bay of Bengal. Arriving in 1822, he and his wife had a hard time there, losing three infants, Frances, Elizabeth and Mary, one after another, each in the first year of life. He saw these babies as “the first fruits to God of the dust of Orissa” (A History, 363). The couple both suffered health problems too, but returned safely to England on 9 November 1825 after nearly three and a half years away, ready to continue the good work on more hospitable shores. He devoted himself to writing, campaigning for reforms on the subcontinent, and chronicling the Baptist mission which he himself had helped to establish. In particular, he put together some of his previously published materials under the title, The Suttees’ Cry to Britain (1827), then reissued the tract with considerable success inIndia’s Cries to British Humanity (1830). Suttee was the first subject to be dealt with in the early editions of the compendium, ahead of infanticide, idolatry, Ghaut murders (the exposure of the sick on the banks of the River Ganges), and slavery, and though he moved it to the fourth section in the 1830 edition, he still writes passionately about it there. “It is a painful circumstance,” he wrote, “that this barbarous custom, which existed prior to the Christian era, should not, before this period, have been annihilated by the progress of civilization, and especially the diffusion of the salutary influence of Christianity in the East” (India’s Cries, 3nd ed., 3).

The engraving at the beginning of the second edition, as shown above, and reproduced again before the section on suttee in the third edition, is more propagandist than the first tinted engraving of the woman diving into the flames, and of course is quite different in feel from the Rowlandson depiction of a curvaceous and doting spouse. The victim is clearly a victim, as the account he gives of this suttee, as witnessed by the Rev. J. England of Bangalore, confirms. It took place in 1826. A young mother, who has been drugged, has succumbed to the pressure of a dozen or so officiating Brahmins despite pleas from her mother and sister, and the earnest entreaties of the Scottish missionary, the Rev. John Campbell. But once the process is underway, she raises one arm in desperate supplication (Stevie Smith’s poem, “Not waving but drowning,” comes to mind). Men brandishing cutlasses set to work to slash the supports of the heavy canopy erected over the pyre, even before the flames do their work, and indeed it is seen to come crashing down on the still conscious and screaming woman. The two men shown in the right-hand corner, in dark western suits and hats, are evidently the Revs. Campbell and England themselves, covering their faces and recoiling in horror. Some detritus on the ground nearby is indistinct, leaving the mind to play on various possibilities, perhaps simply of haste on the part of those stoking the flames. The emphasis here is on the barbarism of the act (India’s Cries, 3nd ed., 218-19).

An alternative form of suttee. Left: Another “infatuated woman” prepares to go down into her husband’s burial pit (Peggs, India’s Cries, 3rd ed., 216). Right: The woman descends, to be buried alive with her husband. Sources: Peggs, India’s Cries, 3rd ed., facing p. 213, and on p. 259, respectively.

A distraught woman (probably the victim’s mother) can be seen in the centre of the left-hand picture here, and there are other women behind and to the right,the latter performing a ritual dance. But when the time comes for such a woman to go down into the pit, she is helped or propelled by an elder (again, probably the officiating Brahmin), who presses down on her shoulders. Someone in the background, on the left, plays a trumpet. As in other cases, the sati is bare-breasted. Widows were not supposed to wear the usual short bodice under their sari — it was just one of the ways in which they were stigmatised. There was a sexual element here, too, insofar as she was perceived as a temptation, “a loose canon, a hazard both to men and to her family which she would dishonour were she unfaithful to her dead husband” (Doniger 614). At the same time, as in Rowlandson’s picture, the woman’s sexuality was what drew attention to her at this climactic moment: accounts by western witnesses seem “obsessed with the woman, with her body (her youth, beauty, health) and with her agony which they can only thrillingly imagine” (Fludernik 430). Peggs gives only a simple caption with the first picture, which introduces this section, but it looks like a prelude to the second, which illustrates a full eye-witness report by “the late Capt. Kemp,” made in 1818 (India’s Cries, 3rd ed., 259).

Suttee’s Relevance at Home

Commentators suggest that the response to suttee was quite out of proportion to its prevalence (see Keay 429). Figures for the year 1823, for example, when Peggs was active in his ministry, indicate that 234 Brahmin women performed the ritual, and a further 331 of other castes (see Doniger 611). In the years 1815-24, when the British were concerned enough to collect statistics, and when the number is thought to have “reached an all time high,” there were 6,632 cases in Bengal, Bombay, and Madras — that is, about 737 a year (Fludernik n.2, 432). Even allowing for under-reportage and the selection of particular areas, this is not a huge number in the context of a total population already probably in excess of 200 million (see Raychaudhuri et al. 465-66). Yet the individual cases, graphically relayed to the home audience by people like the Rev. Campbell and Captain Kemp, were harrowing and haunting. The subject therefore became central to discussions about how the British should deal with Indian customs, often featuring in newspaper reports and parliamentary proceedings at home (see Lewis 73). Between 1823 and 1830 a grand total of 107 petitions protesting against it were presented to the House of Commons. This was largely due to Peggs’ own activities. In 1828, for example, he set up a society in Coventry for the Abolition of Human Sacrifices in India, and toured the country, successfully urging women as well as men to lend their voices to the British protest. Women began to send in their own petitions in the following year (see Midgley 79-81).

The issue clearly caught the public imagination. The plight of beautiful and exotic women made a greater impact than, say, that of the even more helpless victims of female infanticide. No doubt it brought out the knight errant spirit, graphically reinforcing a sense of mission, a belief in spiritual, moral and cultural superiority that handily justified the colonisation of a distant land. But the involvement of women brings in another factor. More subtly, one critic sees British concern with suttee as partly, at any rate, a displacement activity:

Increased attention to suttee paralleled not just anti-Hinduism but an ensuing interest in and fear of self-destruction that came with altered suicide law after 1823, and later in the century, with a fear of “redundant women” — a term used to refer to a surplus of unmarried females…. Many Victorians wanted to believe that “redundant women” had really no place to go but toward death. Suttee offered a flagrant case in point and was sufficiently distanced from England to become a topic for open discussion. The British were shocked at the Indians’ apparent solution to redundancy but were fascinated by it all the same. [Gates 98 ]

But redundancy was not the only problem that women faced at home. Wives as well as their unwed sisters were now querying their roles. Were they really no more than their husbands’ helpmeets, with no right to independent lives without them? In Jane Eyre, so often cited for its proto-feminism, the heroine’s refusal “to be hurried away in a suttee” (271) is only the most obvious reference to the issue. From Jane’s incarceration as a child in the Red Room onwards, the text is shot through with fiery images. The most dramatic are (significantly) to do with Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, who attempts to turn the tables by burning Mr Rochester in his sleep, and later sets fire to Thornfield Hall, thus conveniently removing herself from the scene. Jane’s own refusal to be “grilled alive” as a missionary’s wife in Calcutta (as Diana Rivers puts it, 411), shows how she herself “rejects the self-annihilation required of an Indian widow” (Midgley 92). She does so not just in relation to the two men who seek to marry her, but throughout, tenaciously guarding her identity from anyone who tries to extinguish it. In this way, suttee could be a potent symbol for social ills at home, specifically, gender inequality. Discussing it, and petitioning against it, could be both symptom and proof of the need for change in Britain, just as much as in India.

The Wider Picture

Suttee also says much about the whole colonial project. The notions of martyrdom and sacrifice are deeply engrained in both Christianity and Hinduism. Here again, Jane Eyre is of considerable interest. In the heroine’s opinion, the future missionary St John Rivers is great but pitiless, a man who, “in pursuing his own large views,” is apt to trample on the smaller people (411). These include the people closest to him: he is willing, indeed eager, to commit Jane too to the rigours of his calling. He also, of course, aims to impose his own passionate beliefs upon others who have different ones, and over whom, as a representative of the ruling class, he has power. Jane, who personally shies away from marriage to such a man, never sees this from the Indian point of view. She has no doubt about the value of his mission as such. At the end of her “autobiography,” she tells us that he has already almost worked himself to death in India, and is soon expected to meet his Maker. Despite the fact that she had refused to enter into such a venture as his wife, she seems utterly convinced that his efforts have been worthwhile, and will win him a heavenly crown (see 447).

In real life, the Baptist missionary James Peggs was of similar mind to St John Rivers. As noted above, his own health was ruined by his stint in Orissa, his children died, and his wife was “brought to the verge of the grave by fever” (A History, 203), thus narrowly escaping the fate that Jane had feared. He was like Jane, too, in his belief that all this was worthwhile. God may have hidden himself at such times, says Peggs, “but ‘Thou doest all things well,'” he concludes, managing to believe that even the deaths of his children “shall best promote thy purposes of mercy in Orissa” (A History, 363).

Western observers were not unaware of the parallels between suttee and Christian martyrdom, but felt that it would be a kind of blasphemy to acknowledge them. The two acts sprang from such different roots: “an alleged excess of conjugal love could not be allowed to merit a martyr’s crown” (Fludernik 419). Even so, we might now feel it unfair that sacrifice should be condemned in one context and seen as heroic in another. Total commitment by any individual, of either gender and of any culture, might be considered a right rather than a wrong. The denial of choice might then be seen as an infringement of personal autonomy, and not at all what the person involved either wants or needs. Yet moral relativism, if that is what it is in this case, seems amply justified here. Mrs P, as her husband calls her, is likely to have accepted the risk to her own and her family’s health with open eyes, and as a result of her own convictions; the Hindu widow, on the other hand, was likely to have been under pressure — pressure to face not just the risk of dying, but certain death. Leaving aside the distinct possibilities of “drugging, intimidation, and outright murder” (Fludernik 413), the latter would have known that a life of widowhood would bring many disadvantages: blamed for the death of her husband, henceforth she would be regarded with suspicion, despised and treated as an outcast. Another great Bengali scholar and reformer, Iswarachandra Vidyasagara (1820-1891), wrote movingly of the “insupportable torments of life-long widowhood” (21) when successfully campaigning for the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856.

However, despite the involvement of important Hindus like Rajah Rammohun Roy and Iswarachandra Vidyasagra, and Bentinck’s consultations with his Sepoy officers, the publicity surrounding this and other issues did serve to stigmatise Hinduism generally, and to reinforce superior attitudes towards it. These developments in turn stirred resentment and helped to open the way to the dangers that lay ahead in 1857. An old India hand like Flora Annie Steel (1847-1929) commented later that Bentinck’s “abolition of suttee, his tinkering with Indian law so as to free Hindu converts to Christianity from disabilities in succession … had passed muster at the time, but as their effects became palpable, their interference in matters of custom and religion was resented” (346-47); and modern historians agree with her (for example, see Keay 429).


Two illustrations from Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). Left: Gorgeously attired Aouda precedes the palanquin bearing her husband’s corpse. Right: Passepartout rises from the bier to rescue her from the flames. Source: Verne, facing pp. 86 and 96.

Even after Bentinck’s legislation, the practice continued to fire the western imagination. Jules Verne (1828-1905),for example, uses it as a major plot device in his internationally popular adventure story Around the World in Eighty Days(1873). His heroine Aouda is just the kind of candidate for suttee in whom westerners were most avidly interested. She is a young and well-educated Parsee from Bombay, who had been forced into marriage with an elderly Rajah, and is first met just after her husband’s death. She needs support in the funeral procession not because of grief, but because she has been given intoxicants to prevent her from resisting her fate. In typically chivalric fashion, the hero Phileas Fogg, witnessing the procession on his travels through India and being informed of its nature, is eager to rescue her. The task seems impossible, but, unknown even to Phileas, as the time approaches his resourceful servant Passepartout manages to insinuate himself onto the bier. Then, when the suttee begins, Passepartout rises from the incipient flames. Masquerading as the dead Rajah himself, he takes the woman in his arms and saves her from a fiery death. Naturally, the extraordinary and unearthly spectacle throws the onlookers into utter confusion. When the extravaganza based on the novel came to the Manchester stage in 1875, “the rescue of a Hindoo lady from the Suttee” was the first of its highlights to be mentioned by theManchester Times theatre critic (“The Queen’s Theatre”). After her rescue, Aouda provides the romantic interest of the plot, vividly demonstrating the rather unsavoury erotic element in the western response to suttee. Phileas eventually marries her, their union serving as an important element of the happy ending.

With the passage of the new legislation, many widows must indeed have been saved from this ordeal, if not in such a spectacular fashion. But, while this and other reforms cut down on practices that involved terrible suffering, they did not serve to eradicate them entirely, and suttee was no exception. Hence, abroad, Peggs’ continued campaigns, as well as the focus on Aouda’s plight in Verne’s best-selling novel of the 1870s. In India, the initiatives of social reformers like Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) were probably the best form of rescue: Ramabai, a widow herself, opened a home for child widows (the result of early betrothals) in Bombay in 1892. Yet, again, both prejudice and practice lingered, as the terms of the “Commission of Sati (Prevention) Law” (1987) suggest, with its prohibition against

any inducement to a widow or woman to get her burnt or buried alive along with the body of her deceased husband or with any other relative or with any article, object or thing associated with the husband or such relative, irrespective of whether she is in a fit state of mind or is laboring under a state of intoxication or stupefaction or other cause impeding the exercise of her free will. [Section 4, Explanation (a)]

Even on our own century, the Times of India has expressed a fear that sati will again become a problem. (“Why sati…”).

Suttee has not faded away from the polemical scene either. In 1928 Edward Thompson conducted a “Historical and Philosophical Enquiry” into it, seeing it “as relic of once widely spread savagery …. practised by a people in many respects highly civilized and genuinely, though capriciously, humane” (26), and giving almost all the credit for stamping it out to Bentinck, suggesting at the end of his essay that so far Indian self-criticism regarding “woman’s position in society and her duties towards man” had still not been “searching and brave enough” (142). Later cultural historians and theorists have also converged on the subject, with postcolonial and feminist critics both seeing the phenomenon as a useful way of looking at the encounter between East and West, specifically between Hindu and Christian in colonial times, and at the manipulation of women in both cultures. The cultural theorist Gayatri Spivak has been the most high-profile of these more recent critics, with a landmark essay of 1988, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In her revised version of this in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, she brings out the “profound irony in locating the woman’s free will in self-immolation” (299) and, on the other hand, particularly scorns Thompson’s unsubtly colonial reflections on it as constituting a “perfect specimen of the justification of imperialism as a civilizing mission” (303).

The various images of suttee that came out in the nineteenth century are still proving difficult to process. How well (or badly) the British understood and managed the practice must always reflect contentiously both on the differences between the two cultures, and on the wisdom or otherwise of the colonial administrators, and ultimately on the whole colonial project. One thing is clear, however: outrage and protests over suttee at home give an early indication of developments in British society, and specifically of women’s willingness to engage in a women’s cause — at first, at a safe distance from home. This would eventually help them win for themselves the larger freedoms that they enjoy today. There is still work to be done, of course, but not as much as there is in India, where the sati‘s cries were once literally and very deliberately drowned out, and where recent events (a number of high-profile gang rapes) show that the struggle for such freedoms is just as urgent as ever.

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