In what year was sati banned?

Sati: 100 years ago, Nepal banned widow burning

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier reports on "poor creatures" and describes how women, half burned, rush into the Ganges and are devoured by crocodiles

The British East India Company now regulated the custom by distinguishing between legal and illegal widow burning. Officials said that a widow could only be cremated with her deceased husband if it was her absolute will. In any case, the trade governors were convinced that sati was rarely found and in some regions not at all. The majority of British officials opposed the complete ban on Sati. The reason: They did not want to provoke protests or prevent the Hindu scholars from interpreting the religious scriptures in a self-determined manner. Because self-sacrifice not only proves loyalty, but the widow would also enjoy veneration herself, according to the Hindu interpretation. At the time, the colonial officials were certain - but wrongly, as it turned out later - that belief stood in the way of any peaceful reform. Instead of banning the custom, more education should be provided, then Sati would eventually disappear on its own.

The British are mobile

Large parts of the British public, including many women, had long been calling for the abolition of sati by this time. At the end of the 18th century, Jemima Kindersley wrote against the custom. The wife of a British lieutenant colonel, who lived in India from 1765 to 1769, wrote numerous letters, which she also published as a book. Like many of her contemporaries, she explained that sati was introduced to protect Indian nobles from poisoning by their wives - as a kind of life insurance for the husbands. The highest caste of the Brahmins would also advocate the custom so that the widow's family could gain access to her property. How much of Kindersley's statements were factual cannot be determined. And the Indian sources give little information about sati.

In the 19th century in particular, women played an important role in the anti-sati movement. For the most part, however, they were not women's rights activists, but advocates of Christian mission. Like their male counterparts, they believed Hinduism to be the main cause of widow burning. The Female Education Society, a Protestant missionary organization in London, therefore sent single British women to India to give Christian lessons to local girls. Back in England, the activists presented the reports of missionaries - enriched with episodes about burns, in order to win the audience over to the missionaries.

The reports had an impact. The British began to oppose Sati more and more. Especially after the missionary William Ward (1769–1823) published writings on Hinduism. The Baptist missionary writes about the "humiliation of the people" through superstition that is an "auxiliary force for the most diabolical passions" and hits a nerve with the British. Similar to Joshua Marshman, also a Christian missionary - he tells of a widow who was burned on a small fire while her neighbors "burst into brutal laughter." In the eyes of the British public, the texts contradicted the statements of the officials. Calls for a ban on sati grew louder and peaked between 1827 and 1829.

Different goals, same methods

The aspirations were part of the so-called abolitionism movement. Out of the conviction of moral superiority, the British felt it was their task to take on the moral leadership role worldwide - later this was also used as a reason for the colonization of Africa. First Quakers, then at the end of the 18th century British MPs, fought against slavery and human trafficking. In order to mobilize the British public, they established a system that would serve as a model for subsequent movements - including the anti-sati movement: journals, lectures, petitions and the establishment of nationwide networks and local societies had proven to be effective. Numerous organizations with different goals worked closely together - one was about peace, improved education or universal suffrage, the other about free trade, proselytizing or fighting hunger. What united the groups was mostly religious zeal and the firm conviction that they would stand up for the disenfranchised. The opponents of slavery as well as the fighters against widow burning were confronted with similar arguments from their opponents: In the event of a ban, there was a risk of rebellion.

British officials considered most of the ordinary Indian population to be potentially dangerous to their colonial rule if sati were legally prohibited. They therefore saw no reason for a ban. Resistance to custom simmered primarily in distant England. For a long time, the Indian population did not express any objection to the custom. That changed in 1828: The Brahmo Samaj movement was formed in Calcutta, which finally spoke out publicly against Sati. Its founder was Rammohan Roy, the son of a wealthy Brahmin family. Historians assume that his commitment was triggered by the burning of his sister-in-law, which he witnessed as a young man.