Liberal Empire and the Limits of Religious Toleration: The Abolition of Suttee in India, 4 Dec 1829

On 4 December, 1829, the Governor-General of Britain’s state-run monopoly and de-facto government of colonial India—the East India Company—issued what became the most controversial mandate of his administration. Lord William Bentinck, scion of one of Britain’s most elite noble families and by 1829 a career diplomat, decreed that anyone who assisted in the practice of suttee was guilty of culpable homicide. Suttee—sometime Sati—meant that a living Hindu widow joined her deceased husband of his funeral pyre. The practice of widow-burning horrified British missionaries and liberal-minded Whig politicians in London. Nonetheless, imperial administrators in India proper allowed the practice because they feared popular backlash from Hindus if they criminalized suttee.

The abolition of suttee showed the nineteenth century Empire’s willingness to rule India in a way that Britons, and particularly devout Christian Britons, believed might eventually make India a more enlightened civilization. Most biographers of Bentinck proposed that the decree against suttee appealed to natural law and the laws of humanity more than they appealed to an impulse to Christianize India. Bentinck, a liberal widely known for a commitment to religious toleration in India, carefully avoided the perception of trying to foist Christianity on India throughout his administration. Unsurprisingly, his proposition to abolish suttee elicited concerns from a minority of colonial administrators who feared that he would be seen as trying to force conversions from Hinduism to Christianity. [1]

Britain’s imperial policy until the beginning of the nineteenth century had been one of broad religious accommodation for Hindus and Muslims in India. The Empire’s studied unwillingness to abolish suttee fit that accommodationist disposition. Imperial agents in India routinely warned successive governor-generals to avoid being high handed. Disregard or antipathy to Hindu practice, would lead Hindus to think that British Empire was as intolerant as the Muslim Mughal Empire that preceded it in control of the Subcontinent. Abolishing suttee, accommodationists reasoned, would lead Hindus to believe that “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 of their profession, and the next will probably be, like the Muhammadan conquerors, to force upon us their own religion.”[2]

Accommodationist reasoning worked in the years after Britain asserted its supremacy in India after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The revived strength of the Church of England in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the increased presence of missionaries in India meant that by 1829 inaction on suttee had become politically untenable. Bentinck decided to risk association with Islamic emperors and Evangelical missionaries rather than allow suttee to continue. Although he disowned any “view whatever to conversion to our own faith,” he also argued that Providence’s commands for all men of whatever races held “no inconsistency.” To the divine “command received as divine by all races of men, ‘No innocent blood shall be spilt,’ there can be no exception.” Bentinck’s appeal to natural law was not theocratic, but it is undeniable that he was prompted to act on natural law by British missionaries, thirteen of whom filed an unprecedented number of official petitions in 1829 urging the governor-general to act. [3]

[1] Nancy G. Cassels, “Bentinck: Humanitarian and Imperialist-The Abolition of Suttee.” Journal of British Studies 5, no. 1 (1965): 77–87.

[2] Demetrius C. Boulger, Lord William Bentinck (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1892), 101.

[3] Lord William Bentinck on the Supression of Sati, A. Berriedale Keith ed., Speeches & Documents on Indian Policy, 1750-1921, Volume 1 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922), 225.


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