In the distance, Thomas could see a large fire. It was about half a mile away. He was on horseback, following a large group of adults and children leaving the town. A man’s corpse was burning. As he got closer, he could see a young woman beside another fire surrounded by a crowd. Without hesitating, the widow salaamed to her friends, handed Thomas some flowers from her hair and sprang into the fire.
It was 1672 and Thomas had broken his journey at a village for dinner. Before continuing on his way, his interpreter asked if he wanted to witness the burning of a widow. During his first year in India, he had heard a story about a case in which twenty-seven wives and concubines were burned. He had been told not all widows went to their death willingly but, when he rode up to her, the young woman standing by the fire seemed unexpectedly cheerful. He had questioned her, asking why she allowed herself to be so deluded by the Brahmins. They overheard and appeared angry but, before they were able to react, the widow smiled and said it was her happiest hour. Thomas suspected she was intoxicated.
Sati, widow burning seen as abhorrent by the thirteen year old Thomas, was not always condemned by Europeans in the late seventeenth century. Some admired the act. In the West generally, sati has never been properly understood but was a religious ritual that conferred a status similar to Christian sainthood on the deceased widow. The rite of sati was, in theory at least, voluntary and practiced only in Bengal and Rajasthan. It was not until 1829 when the East India Company passed the Abolition of Sati Act that any attempt was made to ban the ritual.
Despite Thomas’ horror, he was to voluntarily witness such Sati again in the future. He described two further widow burnings in Bengal. At one, the woman was unwilling but resigned. She stood courageously by the fire but, when the time came, refused to leap into the flames. The Brahmins moved to force her but she took hold of one and threw herself with him headlong onto the pyre, where they both died. Thomas demonstrated some sympathy with the widow’s defiance of the males in authority over her. Although it is not possible to ascribe modern-day feminist beliefs to him, it is an enlightened attitude at a time when within his own culture women were legally the possession of their fathers until married and, after, belonged to their husband. Only widows had any autonomy.