William Bentinck, report to the Council of the British East India Company on the
, November 8, 1829
Bentinck (1774-1839) was a successful British soldier in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1811
he went to Sicily as commanding officer of the British garrison there, and played a major
part in overthrowing Sicily’s reactionary queen. He attempted (but failed) to persuade
the British government to annex Sicily, and then in 1814 launched an invasion of
mainland Italy using British and Sicilian troops. He pronounced Italian independence
and unity, but the British government had other plans for Italy, and recalled Bentinck in
Bentinck served as a Whig (liberal) Member of Parliament from 1815 through
1827, where he was a close ally of John Stuart Mill’s father. In 1827 he was appointed
Governor General of Bengal (roughly modern Bangladesh), with the mission of turning
around the finances of the British East India Company, which was operating at a loss.
Bentinck succeeded, making the Company highly profitable by the time his term ended in
1835, and also championed a liberal and Westernizing approach to ruling Bengal.
This report was written in 1829 to persuade the Company’s Council to outlaw
, the Hindu practice of having widows burn themselves to death (or be burned to
death) on their husbands’ funeral pyres.
Whether the question be to continue to discontinue the practice of
, the decision is
equally surrounded by an awful responsibility. To consent to the consignment year after
year of hundreds of innocent victims to a cruel and untimely end, when the power exists
of preventing it, is a predicament which no conscience can contemplate without horror.
But, on the other hand, if heretofore opinions are to be considered of any value, to put to
hazard by a contrary course the very safety of the British Empire in India, and to
extinguish at once all hopes of those great improvements affecting the condition not of
hundreds and thousands but of millions—which can only be expected form the
continuance of our supremacy, is an alternative which even in the light of humanity itself
may be considered as a still greater evil. It is upon this first and highest consideration
alone, the good of mankind, that the tolerance of this inhuman and impious rule rite can
in my opinion be justified on the part of the government of a civilized nation. While the
solution of this question is appalling from the unparalleled magnitude of its possible
results, the considerations belonging to it are such as to make even the stoutest mind