Sir Charles Napier

Imperialism is something of a dirty word. The imposition of foreign rule, customs, taxation and even religion on a subject people is deemed reprehensible. Yet there are times when national cultures should not be whole-heartedly respected. The old Hindu practice of suti, the burning to death of widows, was outlawed by the British in India, along with the stoning of lepers. Enraged Hindu priests gathered mobs to protest the prohibition, to which Sir Charles Napier, Governor of Sindh and Commander-in-Chief in India, replied:

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

The priests quietly departed and no more Indian women were roasted. Napier is remembered today by a statue in Trafalgar Square and a public house in Blackburn, which first elicited my curiosity about the man after whom it is named. Ironically, the people whose lives he saved were least able to express their gratitude for deliverance from so vile a practice. Indeed, I do not know the state of his heart, not his relationship to the Saviour, yet Napier arguably did more to care for widows than many more peaceable men who administered that great land. Our faith must be expressed by what we do, not just what we say. Our actions must show our faith, not just words.

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. James 1:27