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Title: Spiritual arithmetic : religion, social statistics and the making of an information panic about widow-burning in India, c. 1750-1830
Author: Beckett, Guy
ISNI:       0000 0004 7972 6495
Awarding Body: Birkbeck, University of London
Current Institution: Birkbeck (University of London)
Date of Award: 2019
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In 1802-4, as this thesis will explore, two clergymen organised a study in Bengal that was explicitly designed to produce an innovative set of social statistics. Both men were strongly evangelical. Reverend Claudius Buchanan was closely connected to the Church of England Clapham Sect evangelicals who clustered around William Wilberforce. The other, the missionary William Carey, was a Particular Baptist whose theological convictions were rooted in the evangelical Calvinism of the Bristol Baptist Academy. Both men shared the common late eighteenth-century evangelical view that the Protestant faith had been hollowed out by empty church rituals. Like others of their generation of Methodist, Baptist and Church of England evangelicals, they believed that faith was "revived" by direct experiential encounters with the gospel and the holy spirit. They preached conservative messages of hellfire, damnation and salvation. "The world was in darkness till Christ came", India was "wholly under the dominion" of the devil, and unless its people were saved, they "must go to hell". Both thought Christians had a duty to spread this message globally. They must "carry on ... till all India, and the whole world, are obedient to the faith." Yet neither man appeared to see any conflict between their conservative religious beliefs and the production of statistical information. The social question that interested Carey and Buchanan was the Hindu custom of widow-burning, known to Britons then as suttee, which many British officials at that time thought almost obsolete. Buchanan himself had never seen one, but unusually Carey had watched a woman burn three years previously. Returning from Calcutta, where he had been purchasing Bengali type for his printing press, on April 1st 1799 he came across a group of people gathered on a river bank preparing to cremate a body. Watching the widow lie down on the pyre with her husband's body, then be covered in cocoa leaves and butter and set alight left Carey "full of horror". The custom profoundly affected him emotionally and spiritually. Although described as a form of "perfectly voluntary" suicide by the widow and mourners, Carey felt the widow was being denied the chance of Christian salvation by this act and was effectively being murdered by her religion and her family. Three years after this chance encounter Buchanan and Carey began planning a survey of widow-burnings in Bengal that produced two sets of social statistics for 1803 and 1804. Why they decided to start counting has never been examined. It was no mean achievement. The counts took eighteen months to undertake, studied a relatively large area and employed a team of people, but was not financed by the East India Company. The Swiss historian Jörg Fisch has written the first global history of widow-burnings, showing that the custom was not unique to India. However he has noted that globally there is a real lack of sociological evidence, which makes it very difficult to prove how commonly it was practiced. For Fisch the counts in Bengal were vital evidence, as it was the first time anywhere in the world that widow-burning was "observed and surveyed with the help of modern bureaucratic methods." Carey and Buchanan's statistics were presented to the Governor-General in Bengal, but this data was not sent back to London by the Bengal administration, it was not archived by the Company in London, and therefore not included when Parliament compelled the Company to publish all its paperwork on sati in 1821. These early statistics have subsequently sat apart from the later government figures and the only historical account of their genesis was written in 1859, as part of a history of the Baptist mission to India. A decade after Buchanan and Carey's counts, the East India Company started collecting its own official statistics. The first data was collected in 1815, and judicial statistics about the custom have been produced by the Indian state ever since. These official figures are much better known, but their production and reception has never been properly studied. The handful of historians who have examined both sets of figures have argued that the evangelical count was "completely independent of the state" and conducted "secretly". There are not thought to be any causal links between these two British counts. Yet both the evangelical and state counts were large-scale undertakings, occupying substantial resources, that were organised in the same city a few years apart. This study asks why evangelicals used modern bureaucratic methods to study this obscure, rare custom and in what ways their statistical knowledge influenced how the British colonial state governed India. These two questions drive this inquiry, but behind both of them sit nagging questions about the audience for data at this time. Who were the intended audiences for the unofficial and official statistics and what was the impact of this new knowledge? How were the numbers understood within the British government, the Company and in wider public spheres, and did this reception in any tangible ways influence how the British governed or made policy?
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available