Unintended consequences: suttee

Most actions have unintended consequences, and sometimes they can be catastrophic. Ask Theresa May: she called an election to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations ( or so she said) and destroyed her credibility. I’ve long favoured all scientific research being open access (free to read and to reuse), but unintended consequences have been predatory journals (scams) and hybrid journals ( journals making money than ever by continuing with subscriptions but also charging some authors to pay for open access). But both of these examples are trivial compared with what an Indian anthropologist told me about an unintended consequence of the British trying to strengthen the position of women in India.

Before the British arrived India was, he explained, a feudal society that did not use money. The Brahmins, the leaders, grabbed as much land and as many women and cows as they could. A Brahmin might have 100 to 150 wives (something that causes wonder to those of us who have to concentrate to keep one wife happy). When he died his oldest son would take over, and life would continue as before. Suttee, where the wife committed suicide at her husband’s death classically by leaping onto the pyre at his funeral, was, he said, more myth than reality.


The BritSutteeish stepped into this precapitalist society, and thinking it unjust that wives should have no right to their husband’s property gave them such legal rights. But how could you divide land into 100 or 150 parts? You’d destroy the wealth. (I remember a farmer in Britain explaining to me that farmers couldn’t get divorced because it would destroy the sustainability of a farm–and that was with one wife.) Those who depended on the land, not least the son who expected to inherit, thought this intolerable, and so they simply murdered the wives–and called it suttee.

The British seemed to have the best of intentions towards the women but actually precipitated their murder.


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