Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Culture Clash

Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs!

Sir Charles James Napier, the British Army's Commander-in-Chief in India from 1849–1851, reacting to a Hindu priest's complaint about making Sati illegal.

A similar even was also recounted in a book about his administration:

A man had been condemned for murdering his wife; his chief sued the general for pardon.
[Napier:] "No! I will hang him." 
[Chief:] "What! you will hang a man for only killing his wife!" 
[Napier:] "Yes! She had done no wrong." 
[Chief:] "Wrong! No! but he was angry! why should he not kill her?" 
[Napier:] "Well, I am angry, why should not I kill him?" 

I have glanced through the book, and it seems to be full of fascinating and disturbing passages like this one:

Sir C. Napier classed under the head of slavery, the dragging young girls from their homes for the harems of the great; and often he rejoiced at being the instrument of Providence to suppress the cruelty exercised towards women, though to do so, he was forced to wield the sword so terribly in battle and give the axe of justice such a sweep; but the feeling respecting the non-right of women and children to their existence and freedom demanded the sternest repression; for the examples of unmitigated cruelty and debauchery given by the numerous ameers, had a wide currency which sharp justice only could counteract. 

I get the feeling that I would have liked Napier, but the not guy who wrote the book. I am not sure which is more alien to modern sensibilities, the Indian culture of shameless patriarchal violence or the British culture that created such self-righteous and overblown prose to justify colonialism. But I am certainly glad that the British culture ended up leaving such a large mark on the world, and then turning into the mindset that we have today.

1 comment:

Lou said...

thanks Richard, for this snippet of history....and your cultural sensibilities & insight in such matters. (And people think history is boring!). Dad