On Walls and the Great Salt Hedge

Hadrian’s Wall (public domain)

Walls have suited the purposes of authoritarian governments throughout history whether they were built to keep people out (like Hadrian’s Wall) or to keep people in (like the Berlin Wall). Most of them have had moderate success. One of the most unusual was the Great Salt Hedge that once snaked across India for approximately 1800 miles.

The hedge followed what was more properly called the Inland Customs Line, a 2500 mile barrier which, as its various names suggest, was built to protect revenue.

 

The story actually begins when officials of the British East India Company, noting an ancient tax on salt in Bengal, decided to raise it by a factor of ten. More on the tax itself later.

Silver Rupee, Madras, 18th Century

The immediate impact of that tax was to unleash smuggling from regions to the west and south and widespread avoidance of taxation. By 1803 the British East India Company built customs houses along a line to supervise movement of salt and insure its taxation. As British control grew, so did the line of customs houses. By the 1840s under the leadership of C.H. Smith the line had extended to most of India and it took on the formal name “Inland Customs Line.” Customs posts were placed at approximately one-mile intervals. It is about that time that the construction of the hedge began.

[Derivative of British_india.png (by Kmusser), changes made by Dumelow / CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Initially the barrier was a dry hedge, made up of cut branches, largely of the dwarf Indian plum, and other thorny brush. A visitor in 1861 later described it as “composed of thorn-bushes, not planted, but just heaped in a long line some 6 feet high, which an animal cannot easily burst through.”(The Forests of Upper India by Thomas W. Webber, 1902) In some places it was described as being more than ten feet tall and a dozen feet thick.

Allen Octavius Hume

Webber goes on to say, “There were chaukis (posts) every three or four hundred yards along the entire hedge, where armed chaukidars guarded the line to prevent smuggling. They could shout to one another for assistance in case of caravans trying to burst through.” It appears that the Inland Customs Line initially required a staff of over 6,000 to patrol and maintain. It was prone to damage from wind, fire, ants, rats, mold, and so on, and required enormous effort to maintain. Much of the dry hedge had to be replaced annually.

After the great mutiny of in 1857 the government of India passed from the East India Company to the British Crown. Under the term of Allen Octavian Hume as Customs Commissioner (1867-1870) various provincial segments of the line were combined in a single entity, and serious effort began to build a living hedge. Hume, a bit of an amateur botanist, experimented with various plants. Eventually it included Indian plum, babool trees, acacia, and even bamboo and prickly pear.

Photo by Derek Harper / Thorny bank near the Camel

 

There are no pictures of the Great Salt Hedge. One cannot help but think that Hume and others envisioned as the hedges they knew in England such as this one near Camelford in Cornwall.

The southern stretch of the Inland Customs Line proved inhospitable; the hedge simply did not grow. Revenue increased sharply, but so did costs. Customs houses were, of course, still required every mile and the number of people required to maintain and manage it reached 14,000. For all that effort, the hedge was not a stupendous success. In the 1870s alone over 6000 smugglers were caught and convicted. In addition, the hedge also turned out to be a barrier to trade.

By 1870s, there was also a fair bit of opinion, against the hedge. The Finance Minister of Britain, Sir John Strachey called the Inland Customs Line “a monstrous system.” By 1879 forces in Parliament clamored to do away with it. Strachey, Peel, and others worked to reform Indian finances, imposing the salt tax at the point of manufacture rather than at the boundaries. Revenues remained up and smuggling dropped. The hedge, abandoned, gradually died away. By the end of the century the hedge had all but disappeared—it is invisible today—but the tax remained.

 

Viceroy of India’s Supreme/Executive Council and Secretaries, Simla, 1864. Sir John Strachey standing, far right. Photo by Bourne & Shepherd, albumen print, circa 1864

The salt tax, “equalized” across the country, continued, but was much hated. It, like the hedge, became a symbol of infringement on freedom. A tax on salt had been imposed in India since ancient times, at least since the time of Alexander the great. However, the East India Company’s sharp increase in the 18th century lay severe burdens on the people. PTI/IndiaTV suggests that a typical Indian farmer would have had to spend two months wages just to obtain salt for food, and that the desperation led to smuggling which spawned the hedge.

The British obviously saw it differently. William Crooke, who described himself as being “of the Bengal Civil Service, Retired,” called the salt tax one that “compels the lowest class to contribute their quota to the support of the Empire.” The British Raj maintained an iron grip on the manufacture of salt until 1946.

Gandhi, The Salt March

In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi made salt a symbolic focus of his campaign for independence. He believed salt to be a nutritional necessity in India’s climate, and the British monopoly to be immoral. He and his supporters began what came to be called The Salt March across India in protest. Their goal was to reach the Arabian sea and illegally harvest salt. The march gave Gandhi international attention and eventually drew a harsh reaction from the Raj which drew even more scrutiny. Churchill said the march “inflicted such humiliation and defiance as has not been known since the British first trod the soil of India.” Over salt. We can only shake our heads.

A search for fiction that included the Salt Hedge revealed a small treasure.  The Mercy of the Lord, by Flora Annie Steel (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1914) is still in print. It includes “Salt of the Earth,” a tale of a boy, sentries, smugglers and the Great Hedge. The Mercy of the Lord is still in print.

For more information see:

Crooke, William; Things Indian. London, John Murray Albemarle Street, 1903. https://archive.org/details/thingsindianbeing00croo/page/n6/mode/2up

“Customs Line / Great Hedge of India,” on Global Security; https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/india/great-hedge-of-india.htm

(detail on the salt and its taxes)

Higgins, Adrian; “The odd tale of Britain’s wall — a hedge — across a swath of India,” The Washington Post, February 13, 2019; https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/home/the-odd-tale-of-britains-wall–a-hedge–across-a-swath-of-india/2019/02/12/8c9c328c-2995-11e9-984d-9b8fba003e81_story.html

Laskow, Sarah; The British Once Built a 1,100-Mile Hedge Through the Middle of India, January 9, 2018; on Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/colonial-india-british-hedge-salt-tax (this one includes a delightful—but utterly fictional—illustration)

PTI; The Great Hedge of India: Wall that divided India; for IndiaTV, April 25, 2013. https://www.indiatvnews.com/news/india/the-great-hedge-of-india-wall-that-divided-india-22215.html

Shah, Aditi; The Great Hedge of India; LiveHistoryIndia, February 19, 2018. https://www.livehistoryindia.com/snapshort-histories/2018/02/19/the-great-hedge-of-india


Award winning author of family centered romance set in the Regency and Victorian eras, Caroline Warfield has been many things. She reckons she is on at least her third act, happily working in an office surrounded by windows where she lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far-flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. Her novel, The Reluctant Wife begins in India under East India Company rule, but, alas, does not feature the Great Salt Hedge.