General Charles James Napier

Chances are, you have never heard of General Charles James Napier. You might have heard a famous story about him. General Napier was a British general and Commander-in-Chief in India.

When the British took over India, they discovered that in many villages had  a charming custom called suttee or sati. Suttee refers to the practice of a Hindu widow who would throw herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre. I am not sure what the religious justification of this practice might have been, but I imagine that the idea was that there was no point in keeping an old woman around after her husband was gone. If the widow didn’t want to immolate herself and was strong-willed enough to resist the social pressure to do so, the male villagers would throw her in anyway.

The British were horrified by this practice. Although the British East India Company did not usually attempt to interfere with local customs, under pressure from Christian missionaries and Hindu reformers, the British banned suttee in the regions of India under their direct control in 1829.

Napier was the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in India from 1849-1851. During his tenure, a delegation of Hindu notables complained to him of the ban on suttee. His reply was priceless.

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours

If the British of that period had the same sort of politically correct, multi-cultural mush in their heads that all too many in the West have nowadays, Napier would have been instantly recalled for his racism and ethnocentrism. “How dare he assert that British customs are in any way superior to Indian traditions. “, the liberals would have said. No doubt they would have opposed any attempts to ban suttee in India and would have encouraged the authorities in Britain to ignore the practice in the immigrant communities.

For all their faults, and they did have them, the Victorians British at least had the self-confidence and moral clarity to assert that a civilization that does not burn widows is, in fact, more civilized than a civilization that does burn widows. I wish we, in the West, still had that self-confidence and moral clarity. I wish our intellectual elite understood that the civilization that brought things like modern science and democracy to the world has nothing to apologize to savages for.