By Laban Gabiddon
‘Nineteenth-century British India was marked by a series of debates on reforming the status of women. The first and most sensational public debate was concerned with outlawing sati.’
James Peggs was one of the first Baptist missionaries to arrive in Bengal along with his wife in 1822. Peggs was appalled by the practice of sati, or ‘widow burning’ as the British called it. Sati was the name given to a woman who immolated herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. By entrusting herself to the flames, the widow would supposedly demonstrate her utmost fidelity to her husband. Her commitment was not seen as beneficial to the afterlife or to please any gods, but solely to prove her affection for the deceased and to remove herself as a burden on society. Furthermore, if the widow refused to take part in the practice, she may have found herself ostracised from the community. From Peggs’ evangelical point of view, it was ironic that those wives who were the most loyal and virtuous suffered the most as a result.
From Ewer’s perspective, a big issue was that sati bore little resemblence to the supposed scriptural basis which modelled wives as voluntarily submitting themselves to self-imolation, where it was seen as an act of pure will and devotion. Rather, widows were often coerced into sati for material gain of surviving relatives in order to save the expense of maintaining the widow whilst freeing up legal rights over the family estate. Widows, Ewer concludes, were scarcely free agents.
Peggs set out on a campaign to bring about sati‘s abolition. He felt that a mistake in the readings of Hindu scripture was to blame and compared it to hundreds of people dying every year in England due to a mistake in the law. However, the practice could not be abolished overnight, and the campaign called into question several debates relating to the subordination and self-abgenation of women internationally and domestically; Spivak, for example, criticised the mission in India by likening the campaign to a mere instance of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men.’
The Broader Debates Raised by Peggs’s Campaign
The campaign to outlaw sati has attracted much academic debate regarding its relevance to gender roles in India and England. The campaign called into question the self-abnegation of women in the nineteenth-century. For example, the increased attention to surrounding sati heightened the attention given to the ‘redundant woman’ in England, a term highlighted by Gates, which referred to the surplus of unmarried females in England. Many Victorians believed that women had no place in society unless they were married, as unmarried, or widowed women they were ‘redundant’. As we can see, Gates’ observation helps illustrate for us Spivak’s identification of the patriarchal undertones underpinning the campaign to abolish sati.
Mani highlights another contentious issue; what was the real focus of the campaign? According to Mani, issues and debates mainly surrounded sati’s scriptural sanction, as opposed to the pain and suffering of women. The focus on scripture rather than the suffering in these debates called into question the status of indigenous women, and perhaps women in Victorian England. From this, one could gather that with the focus surrounding sati rarely touching on the violence towards women, the furtherance colonial paternalism was the real objective of the campaign. Questions around a woman’s roles in England began to rise to the surface; questions such as ‘are women no more than their husband’s helpmeets with no independent right to life without them?’. Spivak argues that the male elite were merely replacing one form of violence with another whilst adopting a paternalistic approach, ignoring any of women’s own cultural understandings or religious beliefs.
Despite the lack of organised feminist movement in Britain between the 1790’s and the mid 1850’s, there was still rich debate concerning the position of women in British society, and perhaps the horrors of sati helped to spur on the idea that women in the nation could exert a strong influence in the political sphere.
James Peggs’ Campaign to Outlaw Sati and Women’s Involvement
Whilst the focus of this essay is on the Reverend James Peggs and his campaigning, it should be noted that the contribution of women in helping him do so has gone largely ignored by historians.Whilst James Peggs led the way forward for this movement, behind the scenes, evangelist women such as Hannah More worked energetically to encourage signatories in favour of the abolition of sati. As missionary activity in India expanded after 1813, missionary societies became increasingly reliant for financial support on organized networks of local ladies’ associations, which mobilized thousands of middle-class women to help fundraise. Sati became the focus of appeals to draw women to the cause and put pressure on Parliament. The movement also gave English women the power to extend their own privilege to Indian women. Pressure particularly mounted on Parliament to take action when records of sati were published, which saw numbers of incidents rising from 1813 onwards. Thanks to the combined efforts of James Peggs and the vast number of women who got involved in 1820, the first Blue Book on sati was published, and in the following year Buxton initiated the first parliamentary debate on the issue. In 1823, public pressure began to mount, and the first anti-sati petition was put forward to parliament. The campaign gained renewed momentum in 1827 when James Peggs published his work, The Suttee’s Cries to Britain, in which he urged that petitions be sent to parliament, and promoted his anti-sati campaign by setting up The Coventry Society for the Abolition of Human Sacrifice in India. By 1830 the British campaign had achieved its objective as, the then Governor-General of India, Lord Betnick forbade the practice of sati on 4th December 1829. The abolition of Sati is now codified in the Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987.
Critical Appraisal and Conclusion
As this essay reaches its conclusion, we are left with one final question in our critical analysis of the campaign: was the campaign to outlaw sati a genuine step forward for women’s rights in India, informed by shifting domestic attitudes towards feminism in Britain, or merely an imperialist exercise of paternalist values? If we go back to Spivak’s point regarding ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’, there are several illustrations that add weight to this phrase.
Firstly, Spivak’s point is illustrated by the fact that all three abolishment movements were led by men, as was the custom at the time. And even though Peggs encouraged women to help, despite women not technically being prohibited from petitioning, it was generally thought inappropriate for women to do so because ‘women should not meddle with the masculine sphere of politics.’ Even worse was the proposition that even the presence of women’s signatures would bring discredit and ridicule to the cause they supported. There was genuine progress made by women in this period. Between 1829-30, fourteen separate groups of women successfully sent anti-sati petitions. However, this apparent progress is somewhat undermined by the fact that these women had to present these petitions not as political issues but rather as issues of morality, and were forced to frame their petitions as appeals to powerful men rather than challenges to male authority.
Questions also arise around the ideal resolution for these ‘rescued’ Indian women? According to the evangelists, their salvation was to become good Christian wives, at a time when marriage, in the opinion of early feminists, was akin to a master/servant relationship.
Nevertheless, the action taken by women in the campaign to outlaw sati, despite the inherent drawbacks, was a very positive step forward. As Midgley points out, these women helped shape the future of feminist movements in the West. The British feminists of the 1860-1914, who championed colonized women on the imperial stage had foremothers in anti-sati and anti-slavery campaigns who had already been involved in defining women’s imperial mission to Britain.
Lata Mani, ‘Production of an Official Discourse on ‘Sati’ in Early Nineteenth Century Bengal’ (1986) 21 EPW pp.32
 James Peggs, A voice from India: an appeal to Britain recommending the abolition of the practice of burning Hindoo widows, chiefly extracted from “The Satis’ cry to Britain” (Seely London 1829)
 Mani (n 1) 35; Mani goes on to comment on how officials in this period gave no regard to the barbarity towards weak uneducated women whose families used sati for self-gain.
 Peggs (n 2) 5
 Rosalind Morris, Can the Subaltern Speak? : Reflections on the History of an Idea, (ed.) (Columbia University Press, New York. 2010) pp.52
 Jacqueline Banerjee, Cultural Imperialism or Rescue? The British and Sati, (The Victorian Web) <http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/india/sati.html>
 Lata Mani, Contentious traditions: the debate on Sati in colonial India (University of California Press 1998) pp.1
 Banerjee (n 6)
 Clare Midgley, Female emancipation in an imperial frame: English women and the campaign again sati (widow burning) in India, 1813-30, 9:1 WHR pp.95
 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, (London, Penguin Books, 2004 Rev ed.) p.38
 Midgley (n 9) 112
- Clare Midgley, Female emancipation in an imperial frame: English women and the campaign again sati (widow burning) in India, 1813-30, 9:1 Women’s History Review 95-121
- Morris R, Can the Subaltern Speak? : Reflections on the History of an Idea, (ed.) (Columbia University Press, New York. 2010)
- Mani L, Contentious traditions: the debate on Sati in colonial India (University of California Press 1998)
- Peggs, J. A voice from India: an appeal to Britain recommending the abolition of the practice of burning Hindoo widows, chiefly extracted from “The Suttees’ cry to Britain” (Seely London 1829)
- Jacqueline Banerjee, Cultural Imperialism or Rescue? The British and Suttee, (The Victorian Web) <http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/india/suttee.html>