HC Deb 18 June 1823 vol 9 cc1017-21
Mr. Fowell Buxton

rose to present a Petition from a most respectable meeting of the gentry, clergy, and other inhabitants of the county of Bedford. It was signed by two thousand four hundred individuals, and the petitioners earnestly implored the House to take such measures as may be deemed most expedient and effectual for putting an end to the practice existing in British India of Immolating Widows alive on the Funeral Pile of their Husbands. The hon. member said, that he was anxious to call the attention of the House to this petition, since it not only came from a most respectable body, but related to a question most interesting to the feelings of humanity. It appeared from the papers upon this subject, which had been laid on the table of the House, as well as from other documents equally authentic, that between eight and nine hundred widows were annually consumed alive in cur East Indian possessions on the funeral pile of their husbands. Surely, then, some attention was due to the subject on the part of the House. It appeared, that some of these dreadful scenes were accompanied with circumstances of the most revolting cruelty. It often happened; that the same day which deprived a son of his father, beheld him the executioner of his mother; and that he was seen applying the torch to the pile which was to consume the bodies of both. It not unfrequently occurred that, when the poverty of the par- ties was such as not to enable them to procure a sufficient quantity of fuel to consume the body, the half-consumed victim of this horrible superstition was suffered to linger in the most dreadful agonies, until fresh fuel could be procured to complete the dreadful ceremony. It was revolting to every feeling of humanity to know, that the convulsive agonies of the expiring victims were made the constant subject of indecent joke and brutal merriment to the surrounding spectators. He had received a letter from a friend in India, giving a detailed account of many of those shocking spectacles. Amongst others, his friend had mentioned, that, in the instance of the burning of the widow of a village barber, the friends and relatives of the party were not able to procure sufficient fuel to burn the body, and that the legs and arms hung over the fire, untouched by the flames, while the re6t of the body was slowly consuming. He would mention another case, which proved that these horrible sacrifices were not always voluntary. A young woman, of only fourteen years of age, had been induced, by the persuasions of her friends and relatives, to consent to immolate herself on the pile of her deceased husband. She remained on it for some time; but as soon as the unfortunate woman felt the flames, her agonies became so great, that she burst from the pile and endeavoured to effect her escape. She was, however, brought back; and again placed upon the pile by her relatives. Again her resolution failed her, and a second time she escaped from the dreadful scene, and cast herself into a water-course to relieve her scorched limbs; but her relatives pursued her, and binding her up in a sheet placed her a third time on the burning pile. She however burst from it a third time; and then one of the surrounding spectators pursued her and brutally cut her throat. The hon. member said, he would not fatigue or disgust the House by mentioning other cases, though he could cite many. But he would just ask the House, whether these were not scenes to which, if possible, the government ought to put an end as speedily as possible? Another opportunity would, he trusted, occur, of bringing the subject more fully under the consideration of the House. He would therefore only add at present, that no danger could possibly arise from prohibiting this practice throughout British India. That such a thing was practicable the House had already sufficient proof: for it had been put an end to by every other European government possessing territory in India. The Danes, the French, the Dutch, and the Portuguese, had totally prohibited it in their portions of India; and several of the Rajahs had accomplished the same object. And so also, he was persuaded, might our own government, if they would only exert a moderate portion of that promptitude of decision which they exercised on so many other occasions, not half so important. He earnestly hoped that the serious attention of his Majesty's minister would be directed to the subject; for if something were not done in the interim, he should certainly feel it his duty to call the attention of the House to it early, in the next session.

Mr. Wynn

said, that there could be no difference of opinion, as to the principle upon which the hon. gentleman urged this abolition of the horrible practice referred to. All of them must alike deplore the existence of these melancholy effects of superstition. Considerable difficulty would, however, attend any practical measure which might be adopted, with a view to putting an end to this barbarous custom. The cases of successful interference on the part of other nations, which the hon. gentleman had referred to, were not parallel; since it was evident, that the same experiment, might be safely made in a small possession, which could not be hazarded without great danger in a territory so immense as that which was subject to the British dominion in India. Horrible, however, as the practice was, it was one as old as any known in India. It had existed at least as far back as the time of Alexander the Great; and it had taken such deep hold of the natives, and was founded on such strong feelings connected with the religion of that country, that the feared that any attempt to put an end to it, by force, would be ineffectual. He therefore much doubted, under all the circumstances, policy of legislative interference in a matter which it would be better to leave to the judgment and discretion of the local government.

Mr. Hume

observed, that the subject had occupied the attention of the government India, and that as strong measures of prevention had been adopted as could well be taken, without interfering with the religious prejudice's of the people. By the existing regulations, no widow could be burned alive unless by her own free consent. Certainly, no means of influence or persuasion ought to be omitted to prevent this horrible practice; but he deprecated legislative interference, as likely to lead to dangerous consequences.

Mr. Wilberforce

said, it appeared clear to his mind, that if proper means were resorted to, there would be found no greater difficulty in putting an end to this horrible custom, than there had been found in putting an end to a similar practice under the government of marquis Wellesley. He was sorry to find that the practice was increasing, and had' extended itself to places in which it had not formerly existed. As to the sacrifices being voluntary, how could a sacrifice be called voluntary, where the wretched victim was bound down to the stake to prevent the possibility of escape? He hoped that his hon. friend would persevere in his intention of bringing the subject again before the attention of the House.

Mr. Forbes

said, he had once thought that the practice might be put down by legislative interference, but he had since had reason to alter his opinion, and thought that no regulations would be sufficient to check it. It was the opinion of the marquis of Hastings, that the means which had been taken to prevent, had tended rather to increase, than mitigate the evil. The widows would equally satisfy the barbarous superstition which prevailed in India, by being burned, drowned, or buried alive. If the existing practice could be abolished, the number of victims was not likely to be diminished. He was convinced that force would be of no avail; though he believed that a good deal might be effected by persuasion.

Mr. Money

was of the same opinion, and wished the subject to be referred a committee, that some measure might be devised for checking the horrible practice.

The Petition was then read; setting forth,

"That the Petitioners contemplate with extreme concern the practice existing in British India of Immolating Widows alive on the Funeral Pile of their Husbands; that, from official Returns now before the public, it appears that the number' so immolated in the Presidency of Calcutta alone, in the years 1817 and 1818, amounted to upwards of 1,500; that, assuming this calculated to be a standard whereby to judge of the extent of the practice throughout the whole of Hindustan, the total number may be computed at upwards of 2,000 in every year; that it further appears, by the regulations passed in India in the year 1815, that an attempt was made, to diminish the frequency of this ceremony, by restricting its use within the limits prescribed by the Shaster, which limits had, in a variety of instances, been exceeded, but that, so far from having the desired effect, this act of interference had contributed to increase the practice, by legalizing its performance in all cases specified by the Shaster; that the Petitioners would respectfully submit, that to allow a custom in any form, or under any modification whatever, which may be justly chargeable with the crime of murder, is to violate the principles on which all civil law can alone be founded and maintained, and no less involves a breach of those laws of God which demand respect from every country professing Christianity; that under these circumstances, the Petitioners earnestly implore the House, to adopt such measures as may be deemed most expedient and effectual for putting an end to a practice which, so long as it is suffered to continue, cannot but be considered as an anomaly in the administration of civil law, authorizing a wasteful expenditure of human life, and compromising that character for humanity and veneration to the laws of God, which they trust will ever distinguish the government and people of this country."

The Petition was ordered to be printed.