Encountering the “sati”
This chapter looks at accounts of the custom of “sati” or widow-burning, as practiced in India, by various European, especially English, travel writers over the seventeenth century, examining the narratives of Edward Terry, Francois Bernier, Peter Mundy, John Ovongton, and Thomas Bowrey. Some of the writers praised the courage and loyalty of the widow while condemning her false religion, some even transforming the “sati” into a witch. In the process, they disavowed the presence of shared values, which provided implicit justification of the custom, thereby displaying ambivalence. The latter half of the period shows narratives which focus on ethnographic details, evince dispassionate observation, seek rational explanations, and investigate motives, demonstrating trends of the Enlightenment. Others seek to root the practice in the innate goodness of human nature and explain the origin of the custom in terms of universal impulses of love and benevolence. Anticipating the colonial period, writers like Bowrey fashion the European/English observer into a savior figure who opposes the barbarous and cruel Indians in protecting the innocent sati. The contradictions, displayed in the narratives, demonstrate the ambivalence the custom evoked.