Burning of females on funeral piles of their husbands – UK Parliament Debate-20/06/1821


HC Deb 20 June 1821

vol 5 cc 1217-22

Mr. Fowell Buxton rose to move for Copies or Extracts of all Communications from India, respecting the Burning of Females on the Funeral Piles of their Husbands. In introducing this question, he disclaimed all intention of casting reproach upon any body; for he was aware that a feeling of delicacy upon the superstition of the natives alone restrained the British authori- ties from interfering to prevent these dreadful spectacles. Still the question was not, in fact, one of religious toleration; but whether murder and suicide ought tacitly to be permitted under the British jurisdiction. It might be sufficient for his purpose to state the extent to which this shocking practice had been carried in one presidency alone—he meant that of Fort William. Within the last four years, in that presidency, 2,366 females had been seen to ascend and perish upon the funeral piles of their husbands. That was the number that had openly perished under the eyes of the magistracy, exclusive of the number which had been consumed in secret, or by the connivance of a mercenary police. By the Mahommedan law the practice was discountenanced, and therefore in many places discontinued; but it was to be regretted that it still prevailed to a great extent in countries under the British jurisdiction. Not only had the disciples of Mahomet abolished this practice, but the French, Dutch, and Danes had accomplished the same object in their East Indian settlements. Many of the native princes, amongst whom were the rajah of Travancore, and the Peishwa, the latter of whom was a Hindoo and a brahmin, had also put an end to this revolting custom. He hoped that, when the proper time arrived, the British government would exert their utmost efforts to extinguish so great an evil, and show that they would not be behind hand with their predecessors in the great work of justice and humanity. He did not wish any thing to be done on this subject which would be likely to excite the apprehension of the natives of India, or to shock their religious feelings or prejudices; but he certainly was anxious that steps should be taken to prove the detestation with which this government viewed so abominable a practice.

Many of these murders took place contrary to the Hindoo law itself. By that law, females under 16 years of age were not allowed to ascend the funeral pile; yet, it would appear from the papers for which he was about to move, that girls of 12, 13, and 14 years of age had been sacrificed; and, in one instance, a child of eight years old became a victim to the barbarous custom. By the Hindoo law those widows were also exempted, who in the event of their death, should leave children behind them under 3 years of age, unless some security was given, that the infants would be taken care of. It was also specifically set down, that the sacrifice should be perfectly voluntary—that no drugs should be administered for the purpose of causing intoxication; but these provisions of the Hindoo law were not complied with. No later than yesterday he had a conversation on this subject with a most respectable gentleman, the rev. Mr. Thompson, one of the East India Company’s chaplains, who stated, that as he was sailing on a river in the neighbourhood of Calcutta he observed a crowd on the bank, and found that the people had assembled for the purpose of witnessing the burning of a widow, who was then performing her last ablution. When that part of the ceremony was concluded, she was led to the pile, but she fainted repeatedly. The people began to grow impatient; and she was at last placed on the pile in an insensible state, and lashed to the dead body of her husband. The unfortunate creature, however, recovered her senses, and struggled to escape. A brahmin immediately placed a torch, in the hand of one of her children, who set fire to the pile, and the whole was consumed in a few minutes.

He had also been informed of an instance where the family of the individual had not money to procure wood enough to form a proper pile. In that case, the child of the parties about to be consumed began by applying fire to the face of his deceased father, and then proceeded to place the flame beneath the body of his living mother. The fire soon took effect, but it was a considerable time before the sufferings of the unhappy woman were terminated. Though he did not think it would be proper to put an end to this practice by force, yet he was of opinion that the natives of India ought to be restrained within the laws of their own religion. Beyond these they should not be suffered to depart. All these evils arose from one cause—the ignorance of the natives; and the only cure for them was their instruction. Every person, therefore, must perceive how imperative it was on the government of the country, to extend as far as possible the benefits of education to the natives of India. He was happy to observe what had been done by the governor-general with reference to this object. The natives began to admit the superiority of European intellect, and the gratitude they felt for the benefits which were conferred on them led them to be- lieve that those by whom they were now governed must, in some former period, have moved in a more exalted state of existence, as they could not otherwise, account for the virtue, wisdom, and talents, which they displayed. The hon. gentleman then moved “for Copies or Extracts of all Communications received from India relative to the Burning of Females on the Funeral Piles of their Husbands.”

Mr. Bathurst doubted the expediency of European interference. It was admitted that great exertions had been made by the governors in India to put down the dreadful practice in question. One effect of those exertions, however, had been to invite breaches of the native law; and it was a melancholy fact, that in consequence of that circumstance the interference of the Indian governors had led to an increase of the number of victims. If any mode were to be adopted for confining the natives to the letter of their own laws, it could be carried into effect only by causing a European officer to superintend those dreadful executions, which would be to give a sanction to them on our part. He therefore doubted the policy of any direct interference. It was a strong fact, that the practice was not at present allowed either in Madras or Calcutta; the consequence of which was, that the destined victims were taken to be sacrificed out of the boundaries of those towns. He was persuaded that the gradual dissemination of knowledge among the natives was more calculated to produce a beneficial effect on this subject than any forcible interference on our part.

Mr. Wilberforce willingly admitted that the government of India had made great efforts to abolish the dreadful practice. Undoubtedly he was an enemy to compulsory proceedings; but provided the prejudices of the Hindoos were not insulted, he was convinced that no people in the world would more willingly listen to instructions in religion and manners. It had been proposed to institute a college at Calcutta, for the purpose of educating and preparing missionaries, to be sent among the Hindoos. Indeed, by proper attention to certain essential points, he had no doubt that the conversion of these people might be effected. It was a mistake to suppose that this practice of immolation was in general voluntary. There were very few cases in which it was so. A reluctant consent was extorted; but when the unfortunate victim came to the pile, she frequently shrunk from the consummation when it was too late, the priests taking care to prevent all retreat, and in some cases even proceeding to tie the unhappy female down to the logs of which the pile was composed.

Mr. Hume said, that about the years 1793, 1794, and 1795, several regulations were made on the subject which had a most beneficial effect. The impression on his mind was, that in Benares, where most of the burnings took place, the practice had almost disappeared. If the treatment of asses and mules were a fit subject for parliamentary consideration, surely the treatment of thousands of human beings was so. Many of those unhappy individuals were sacrificed to the interest of the parties connected with them. The heirs of their husbands’ property induced the brahmins to persuade them that they would go to heaven by making this sacrifice, in order that that property might come unburdened into their hands. In his opinion, the government of India might counteract the evil by strong regulations, and among others, by charging a thousand or two of rupees for a licence to perform the sacrifice.

Mr. Canning observed, that whatever difference of opinion there might exist on other points of this interesting subject, there were two on which all must agree—first, that it would be in the highest degree gratifying to the feelings of the House, if the inhuman practice in question could be completely put down; secondly, that it would be extremely inexpedient that any attempt should be made to put it down by coercion. It was with a reference to both those considerations that parliament ought to act; and hon. gentlemen ought especially to bear in mind, that of all the exercises of human authority and discretion, the most delicate and difficult was such an interference on the part of a superior power with an inferior, as, while on the one hand it should be effectual, on the other hand it should be divested of that harshness of character which too frequently belonged even to the appearance of control. He apprehended that the effect of any manifestation of a direct interference of authority, would be not so much to stimulate a government which evidently required no stimulus, as to alarm the natives, and, perhaps, even to render necessary some relaxation in the measures already adopted to eradicate so barbarous a usage. Very far was he from contending that every possible effort ought not to be made to put down the barbarous practice in question, by reasoning and by the, diffusion of knowledge. But in that case, the greatest attention ought to be paid to the feelings of the people; otherwise, with that repugnance to control which was inherent in human nature, they would shrink from foreign interposition, and the habits which a milder course might eventually have subdued, would be rendered still more firm and inveterate. An observance of this principle in our conduct to the natives of India was especially expedient; as we might shake and loosen that cement by which they were now bound in affection and gratitude to the British government.

We must look for amelioration in the improvement of the people in the arts of peace, and in the gradual introduction of a purer system of morals and religion. The policy of the Mahometan conquerors of India had been held out for our imitation. But was the conduct of Mussulmans to be the guide of Christians? The religion of Mahomet was one of conquest; the religion of Christ was one of persuasion. The former triumphed by power; the latter triumphed in spite of power. We must be content to pursue a slow and silent and forbearing course before we could hope for the extinction of that ignorance of which superstition was the invariable concomitant.—After a short reply, the motion was agreed to.


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