Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

Sati and Thags

Now at length there came to India a time of peace, and Lord William Bentinck, the next Governor-General, could spend his time in trying to make the lives of the people happier.

One of the first things he did was to forbid Sati or widow-burning.

When a Hindu died, his body was not buried but laid on a great pile of wood and burned. It was the custom for his widow to throw herself upon the burning pile and be burned too. Sometimes she did it willingly, being carried along by a kind of religious madness, and believing that she was doing a great and noble deed. Sometimes the wretched woman had to be forced into the flames with threats and blows, sometimes she was drugged with opium until she knew not what she did.

Now Lord William made this horrible deed a crime, and anyone who helped in it was punished with death. It was thought at the time that the Indians would be very angry with this new law which seemed to interfere with their religion. But there were no riots. Sati soon died out even in provinces not under British rule.

Lord William also put down the Thags. These were stranglers and thieves by trade. They were born thieves. The fathers and mothers were thieves, and they taught their children to be thieves, as naturally as a father who was a tailor, taught his son to be a tailor too.

Dresses as ordinary people they went about the country. They made friends with those they met upon the road. Often they would travel for days in seeming friendliness, making the journey pass pleasantly with talk and laughter. But suddenly, one evening, perhaps, as the whole party was resting under the cool shade of trees or making ready an evening meal by some village well, the chief would give a sign. Quick as lightning each Thag would draw a rope from its hiding-place. Whirling through the air came the noose, and in a moment it was drawn tight round the neck of his victim.

In a few minutes the wretched unsuspecting travellers lay dead. They were robbed of all they possessed, and buried at once. For the Thags always carried a kind of pick-axe with them with which to dig holes for the graves of their victims.

They had many tricks, too, with which to deceive travellers. Sometimes a rich young man would come upon a beautiful lady weeping by the roadside. Full of pity for her, he would stop to ask what was the matter. In a moment the noose would be round his neck. And when he lay dead the beautiful lady, wiping her pretended tears, would be among the first to rob him.

The Thags had a secret language of their own. The children were trained when they were quite young as scouts and spies. The cleverest were chosen to use the lasso, and so skillful did they become that no traveller whom they attacked ever escaped.

It was not easy to put down the Thags, for although they wandered all over Central India, their ways were so secret that it was hard to find them. But Lord William was very determined to root them out, and in various ways two thousand of them were caught in about six years. Some were hanged, some put in prison, and some were pardoned and settled down into peaceable citizens, and at last the Thags quite disappeared.

Lord William Bentinck ruled in India for nearly eight years. He not only fought against evil customs but he tried to bring good into the lives of the people. He was perhaps the first British ruler who saw that India must be ruled for the good of the Indian people, and not just to put money into the pockets of the British.

It was during Lord William's rule in 1833 that another great change in the Company took place. In that year the Company was made to give up all trade, and made to attend only to the ruling of India. The trade of India was made quite free to all, and people of any country were allowed to live there, if they wished, without first asking leave from the Company.

It was while Lord William Bentinck was Governor-General that Lord Macaulay went to India as law member of the Council. And when the people raised a monument in memory of Lord William, it was Lord Macaulay who wrote the words carved upon it. Among many things which a man might be proud to know were said of him were the words. "Who never forgot that the end of government is the happiness of the governed."

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