From Supporting Missions to Petitioning Parliament: British Women and the Evangelical Campaign against Sati in India, 1813–30

  • Clare Midgley


Between 13 February 1829 and 29 March 1830 a total of fourteen separate groups of women from around England sent petitions to Parliament calling on it to abolish sati, or rather what they described as ‘the practice in India of burning widows on the funeral piles of their husbands’.1 Amongst the earliest examples of female petitioning, and directly preceding women’s more extensive petitioning for the abolition of colonial slavery, this intervention in the political process was taken not by women who identified themselves as radicals or supporters of the ‘rights of women’ but rather by women associated with the evangelical missionary movement. The petitions formed the climax of a broader campaign against sati linked to women’s support for missionary activity in India and to the first coordinated attempt to provide Christian education for Indian girls and women.


Indian Woman British Woman Missionary Activity Woman Campaigner Christian Missionary 
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  1. 1.
    See, for example, text of the petition of the female inhabitants of Melbourne, Journal of the House of Commons, 84 (1829) entry for 2 April 1829, p. 192. The term ‘suttee’ rather than sati was used in British nineteenth-century texts. Definitions of sati vary in English and Indian languages: see John Stratton Hawley (ed.), Sati, the Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 11–15. In this article the term sati is used to refer to the practice of widow-burning (rather than to the woman herself).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
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  3. 4.
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  6. 8.
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  10. 12.
    Stanley, The Bible and the Flag, p. 98; Ernest Marshall Howse, Saints in Politics: The ‘Clapham Sect’ and the Growth of Freedom (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1953), p. 92.Google Scholar
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  12. 14.
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  13. 15.
    The quotation is from the leading evangelical poet William Cowper’s ‘The Task’, as quoted in Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850 (London: Hutchinson, 1987), p. 165.Google Scholar
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  15. 17.
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  16. 18.
    Ward’s text became a key source of information on Hindu religion and society in Britain at this period — see Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (Berkeley, CA: California University Press, 1998), Chapter 4.Google Scholar
  17. 22.
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  19. 26.
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  20. 48.
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  21. 49.
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  22. 51.
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  23. 55.
    David Turley, The Culture of English Antislavery, 1780–1860 (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 63.Google Scholar
  24. 57.
    For debate about female petitioning among anti-slavery campaigners in the 1790s and again in 1830, see Midgley, Women against Slavery, pp. 23–4, 62–4; for debate in 1829 over female signatures to petitions against Roman Catholic Emancipation, see Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 278–9.Google Scholar
  25. 59.
    Joseph Peggs, The Suttees’ Cry to Britain, 2nd edn (London: Seeley, 1828), p. 91, footnote.Google Scholar
  26. 60.
    Ibid., p. 97.Google Scholar
  27. 69.
    John Rosselli, Lord William Bentinck: The Making of a Liberal Imperialist, 1774–1839 (Delhi: Thompson Press, 1974). Rosselli describes Bentinck as a supporter of anti-slavery, a friend of Charles Grant, an active member of the British and Foreign Bible Society and an associate of the Clapham Sect.Google Scholar
  28. 70.
    C. H. Philips (ed.), The Correspondence of Lord William Cavendish Bentinck (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. xxvi–xxviii, 94, 191–5, 335–45, 360–2 (text of the regulation). For Bombay and Madras see Kenneth Ballhatchet, Social Policy and Social Change in Western India (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), pp. 304–5.Google Scholar
  29. 71.
    C. A. Bayly, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire: The New Cambridge History of India, 2, no. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), Chapter 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Clare Midgley

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