The historic narative of the British sweeping into Britain and bringing about civilisation among the savages has been one that everyone in Britain has been brought up with. One of the main barbaric acts referred to by the British as being outlawed, is that of widowed wives being burned alive with their husbands. As with all historic narratives, we must always remember who the writer of this historic event is and to what end has this been written in history. I quote a passage from Barbara Metcalf's 'A concise History of Modern India', that challenges this narrative.
Lord William Bentink as governor-general (1828-35) began the process of implementing the reform agenda. This was not to be an easy task. Funds were always scarce, while Bentnick was anxious not to antagonise Indian opinion by moving too fast. Among his first acts was the 1829 abolition of sati. With its immolation of a living woman on her husband's funeral pyre, this act, rather like British public executions, catered to an English obsession with death as spectacle. Although English observers in the eighteenth century had valorized sati as an heroic act of romantic self-sacrifice, by Bentinck's time it was seen as emblematic of India as a land of barbarous and blood-thirsty faith. Above all, for the British, sati testified to the moral weakness of Indian men, who lacked the masculine strength to nurture rather than to degrade their women, and so to the consequent need for Britain to stand forth to protect them.
Although responding to outrage liberal and evangelical opinion, Bentnick nevertheless took care to solicit Indian support, above all from a panel of Brahman pandits whom he enlisted to assure him that the practice was not required by 'scripture'; and he represented his action as that of an enlightened Hindu ruler. Despite its visibility, sati was not in fact, with at most some 800 cases annually, throughout Bengal, widely practised. Indeed, one European resident of Calcutta in 1780 wrote vividly about the horrors of sati, but then reported that she had 'never had the opportunity to witness the various ceremonies, nor have I ever seen any European who had been present at them'. Hence the prohibition of sati could satisfy the liberal reforming impulse without risk of triggering an upheaval. Other, more widespread practices, such as that of female infanticide among the Rajputs of northern India, the British tiptoed gingerly around.
Barbara Metcalf. A concise History of Modern India. Cambridge University Press (2012). P82-83