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  • Men and Women of Feeling:Conventions of Sensibility and Sentimentality in the Sati Debate and Mainwaring’s the Suttee
  • Jeanette Herman

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Figure 1.

Frontispiece, James Peggs, India's Cries to British Humanity, 1832

The frontispiece to the 1832 edition of James Peggs' missionary pamphlet, India's Cries to British Humanity, was an etching of a sati or "suttee," as the British called the Hindu practice of widow immolation. Peggs, one of the most vocal opponents of the practice of sati,1 was a Baptist missionary who led an expedition to Orissa in 1822, and whose pamphlets appealing to the British government and public for the abolition of sati went through multiple versions and editions between 1827 and 1832. The etching that opens the 1832 pamphlet depicts a black-skinned woman burning on top of a large fire while black-skinned men wave either swords, which they are using [End Page 223] to cut branches to fuel the fire, or torches, which one man is applying to the sati's body. The sati, still alive though partially immersed in the flames, raises her hand to the sky in a gesture of appeal and has her mouth open, a visual representation of those "cries to British humanity" to which the pamphlet's title refers. On the far right side of the image, two men, marked as British by their white skin and Western garb, turn their faces away from the pyre and cover their eyes with their hands.

In the appealing gesture of the Indian woman and the averted eyes but braced presence of the British witnesses, this etching visually represents the colonial relationship between Britain and India as one in which India must be saved from its own barbarity by a reluctant Britain—a common British deployment of the sati scene, which Gayatri Spivak has famously summarized with the phrase "white men are saving brown women from brown men."2 Because Peggs' text was originally written to criticize the East India Company's refusal to abolish sati, here the averted eyes of the British witnesses could be read both as a mark of their repulsion at the practice and as an embodiment of Britain's refusal to act to prevent it.3 In addressing an audience of British readers back in England, however, the image calls on the outrage, the sympathy, and the un-averted gaze of the British public to effect the intervention of which the pictured onlookers appear to be incapable. In its sentimental appeal to the British public, therefore, this image embodies the ideology of British colonialism as a civilizing mission. The triangulated relationship among the burning body of the appealing widow, the averted gazes of the British onlookers, and the outraged sympathy of the British public constructs the colonial relationship as one based on British benevolence as contrasted with Indian women's suffering, on the one hand, and Indian men's barbarity, on the other. Scholarship from Spivak, Lata Mani, and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan,4 among others, has located in the nineteenth-century discursive production surrounding sati—and particularly in the debates leading to its 1829 abolition—a site for analyzing the workings of the colonial administration and the British use of Indian women as a justification for India's occupation. Focusing on different facets of British representations of sati, this scholarship has shown that the East India Company's abolition of sati was less about the Indian women whose lives were at issue than it was about justifying Britain's presence in India and about constructing imperialism as the establisher of "the good society."5

But the question of how the sati figure functioned in the British colonial imagination in the early nineteenth century is in fact more complex and multifaceted than existing scholarship suggests. While scholars writing [End Page 224] about the practice have dealt with gender in relation to the women who died, most work on representations of sati during this period focuses on writing by male authors, politicians, and missionaries who were involved in the official debates over sati specifically and British India more generally. Women's writing on sati in this period has largely been...


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