HC Deb 06 June 1825 vol 13 cc1044-7
Mr. Hume

rose, to call the attention of the House to a subject which, he regretted to say, had not been noticed in an earlier part of the session. He alluded to the government of India, per- mitting the practice of widows immolating themselves on the funeral piles of their husbands. He held in his hand a petition from Crail upon the subject; and it would be impossible for any member to give his attention to the subject without feeling a desire that an end should be put to so revolting a practice. He wished to know when the hon. member for Weymouth intended to bring forward his motion. The evil was of great magnitude. This practice was not enjoined by, or consistent with, the Hindoo religion; and it was the opinion of the best-informed persons, that an end might be put to it, without danger of any sort.

Mr. F. Buxton

said, he had been restrained from bringing this question before the House, chiefly by the political state of affairs in India. He proposed to do so in the first week of the next session. He remarked, that in five years, there had been, in the province of Bengal alone, 3,400 females burnt on the funeral piles of their husbands. The real amount, in all probability, went far beyond the official returns. Gentlemen conversant with India had assured him, that the real numbers were nearer 10,000. He feared that the conduct of government had unintentionally promoted this wickedness. To say the least, the natives had not been made acquainted with the feelings of the British legislature, by any declared disapprobation of the practice. The police of the Indian government were required to attend the burnings; but they were directed not to interfere to prevent them. This was construed into a silent acquiescence in these abominations. Now, what rendered these facts the more melancholy was, that the practice itself was not absolutely enjoined by the Hindoo religion. some of the most active of the local magistrates and judges had recorded their opinions, that the practice might be put a stop to by the mere expression of the will of the British government, and that the natives would be gratified with the change.

Mr. Trant

said, that haying had considerable experience in this matter, from a long residence in India, he could not refrain from giving some expression to his sentiments on this occasion. He observed, that Bengal exhibited a greater number of these sacrifices than any other province of India. It was, in fact, the chief seat of Hindoo superstition. Why it was so, he did not pretend to determine. But, sure he was, that it would be highly dangerous for the British government to interfere, with a violent hand, in any thing which concerned the religious rites of the Hindoos. He had himself known a native of that country, the most enlightened man of all the Asiatics he had met with. This person saw enough of the superiority of European education to induce him to have his children brought up in those schools. In a conversation which he had with this person upon the atrocity of these burnings, that man, clever as he was, had justified the practice, and said, "That is a point of our religion, and your government must not interfere with it."

Mr. Wynn

thought it was highly desirable to put an end to such ceremonies, or if not, to check them as much as possible. But, it was a subject which must be treated with much caution and delicacy. In. his opinion, no legislative measure could remedy the evil. Its abolition must be the work of time and circumstances. They must not think of legislating for India as if it were a confined district, to the inhabitants of which our laws, habits, and manners were perfectly familiar. If they wished to succeed, it must be by acting gently and progressively upon the feelings of the people; and this could only be done by the local authorities.

Sir C. Forbes

said, that when lord Wellesley was in India, he might, with one stroke if his pen, had he not been restrained, have put an end to the practice. He applauded the government of that great man in India, which was nearly as perfect in mildness, wisdom, and firmness, as could be expected from the defects of our common nature. That nobleman had put a stop to infanticide, which was as stoutly defended on the score of superstition as this horrid practice of burning widows. The case had materially altered since then. The religious jealousies of the people had been awakened. Shoals of missionaries had been allowed to go in among them; and their feelings had taken a posture of hostility which before they would not have experienced. Still, he was of opinion that the British government would do well to compel the Directors, and through them the local authorities, to interfere. It was absurd to suppose that the love of life was less powerful in the bosom of a Hindoo woman than in any other person. The sacrifices were not voluntary. They were the effect of persuasions from the Brahmins and the relatives of the women. The miserable victims would be happy to take refuge under a law of the British legislature making it murder for any one to aid or abet these sacrifices. Until something of this kind was done, it would be in vain to expect the suppression of the abominable rites.

Sir Hyde East

was convinced, that the sacrifices had been considerably increased by the repeated discussions in parliament on the subject. He attributed many of them to the growing jealousy which the natives entertained of the interference of government, and of the shoals of missionaries who had mingled with them. If these men merely preached the gospel, he would have no objection to their residence there. They might persuade the unfortunate widows that it was "better to marry than burn."

Mr. W. Smith

said, that so far from thinking that parliament ought not to interfere, he felt convinced that nothing effectual would be done towards quashing this abominable idolatry by the local authorities, until they were compelled by law.

Mr. Hume

said, that the hope of effecting the extirpation of these cruel rites by the mere disposition of the court of Directors, and their instructions to the local authorities, might be judged of from this fact—that from 1787 down to the end of 1820, there had not been one line, not even a word of disapprobation expressed by the Directors to those authorities. The first movement of the kind took place in consequence of the motion of the hon. member for Weymouth. He was convinced, that the business must be effected by a committee of that House. No half measures would do here. All that the government and the court of Directors had hitherto done, had only had the effect of legalizing the murders in the eyes of the natives. They ought first to inquire in a committee as to the safest and most efficacious means of suppressing them; and then to adopt a law for the peremptory enforcement of those means.

Sir I. Coffin

said, that the readiest way to lose India would be to interfere with the superstitions of the people.

Sir Hyde East

applauded the local authorities for their successful efforts in reducing the number of sacrifices.

Mr. F. Buxton

was obliged to the hon. member for doing away in his second speech with the charge which he had made in his first. He had first charged him with increasing the number of immolations: in the second speech, their numbers were said to have declined considerably.

Mr. Money

said, it was in the power of the government to suppress the practice without offending the native population. He referred the House to several instances, wherein the local magistrates had, by mere persuasion, prevented the burnings.

Ordered to lie on the table.