The British Once Built a 1,100-Mile Hedge Through the Middle of India
April 26, 2020 10:12 PM   Subscribe

The British Empire had been working on this giant hedge for at least 30 years. It had, at long last, reached “its greatest extent and perfection,” wrote Roy Moxham in The Great Hedge of India. [...] One British official wrote that it “could be compared to nothing else in the world except the Great Wall of China.” ¶ As he reported on the extent and health of the hedge [in 1878], though, Halsey knew its time was coming to an end. That same year, the empire stopped all funding for the mad project, and it was not long before the hedge had disappeared entirely. When Moxham, an English writer, went looking for it in 1996, he couldn’t find a trace. In search of Colonial India's British "Customs Hedge" (Atlas Obscura)

From Wikpedia: The Inland Customs Line which incorporated the Great Hedge of India (or Indian Salt Hedge) was a customs barrier built by the British across India primarily to collect the salt tax. The customs line was begun while India was under the control of the East India Company but continued into the period of direct British rule. The article continues, and includes details on the history, and dismantling, of the hedge, and its legacy.

More from Atlas Obscura:
More than a century later, the writer Moxham went looking for traces of this living monument to British hegemony and persistence. For him, the search began with the purchase of a used book, Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, by Sir William Sleeman, which happened to mention the hedge (Internet Archive). Other sources were few and hard to find, and as Moxham learned more about it he found that it had been almost entirely forgotten.
There's also a lengthy article, with a fairly succinct history of the East India Company, on Above Top Secret.
posted by filthy light thief (40 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
You know a giant green tree belt would be better than a stupid cement wall.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:41 PM on April 26 [5 favorites]


Sadly all I can think of now is Monty Python - "I want a shrubbery!"
posted by PhineasGage at 10:52 PM on April 26 [9 favorites]


You know a giant green tree belt would be better than a stupid cement wall.

Africa and China are working on that very thing, to restrain the expansions of the Sahara and Gobi Deserts, respectively.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:17 AM on April 27 [7 favorites]


Sounds like Moxham did find traces of the hedge after all:

There, Moxham wrote, “Clusters of thorny acacias topped the embankment. Some were 20 feet high. Thorn-covered Indian plum trees barred the way .… We had found it at last.”
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:22 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]


I am a fan of a good hedge and soon to be in need of a new book. Thank you so much for sharing this.

What is it about a good hedge that is so satisfying?
posted by McNulty at 12:36 AM on April 27 [1 favorite]


One section had rats living in it, and the patrol there introduced feral cats to combat them.

What could possibly go wrong?
posted by Paul Slade at 12:43 AM on April 27


What could possibly go wrong?

They were hedging their bets.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:37 AM on April 27 [24 favorites]


As he reported on the extent and health of the hedge, though, Halsey knew its time was coming to an end. That same year, the empire stopped all funding

The empire stopped all funding - of the hedge - so until then there must have been a Hedge Fund?
posted by misteraitch at 3:06 AM on April 27 [41 favorites]


Haha, yes. And a Hedge Fund Manager!
posted by carter at 3:18 AM on April 27 [7 favorites]


The real reason the British built a giant hedge? Warning: peak Wordshore
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:19 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]


When I was in high school in Melbourne, there was a spate of arson attacks aimed at hedges in Melbourne’s leafy suburbs, which inspired toilet graffiti like “Hedge Burner Fan Club”. This was also the time when there was a debate about Australia becoming a republic, with some of the aye side using the language of resistance to the legacy of British imperialism. At the time I wondered if the two could be linked, with hedges being seen as symbolic of a propriety shipped over from the Mother Country, and targets for symbolic anti-colonial attack.
posted by acb at 3:19 AM on April 27


The Atlas Obscura piece refers to the whole project as a "living monument to British hegemony and persistence". That's a pun of such quiet and subtle majesty that I feel the rest of us should just bow our heads in tribute.
posted by Paul Slade at 4:17 AM on April 27 [33 favorites]


so until then there must have been a Hedge Fund?

No - they made Mexico pay for it.
posted by DreamerFi at 4:46 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]


The Futility Closet podcast has an episode about the hedge.
posted by Homer42 at 4:56 AM on April 27 [3 favorites]


We can laugh, but of all the ways British imperialism has chosen to solve what they think is a problem, “plant a long-ass hedge” is the most harmless one I’ve ever heard of.
posted by mhoye at 4:57 AM on April 27 [7 favorites]


As British as football and mince pies.
posted by glonous keming at 5:06 AM on April 27 [1 favorite]


What could possibly go wrong?

You have to watch out for hedge case conditions.
posted by zamboni at 5:17 AM on April 27 [4 favorites]


One section had rats living in it, and the patrol there introduced feral cats to combat them.

What could possibly go wrong?


If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, be very alarmed.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:59 AM on April 27 [7 favorites]


I am in need of some hedge-like screen plantings so this comes at a good time.
posted by jquinby at 6:24 AM on April 27


So how much malnutrition did this hedge cause?
posted by clawsoon at 6:31 AM on April 27 [1 favorite]


Idea for article: Stop building hedges through the middle of India.
posted by thelonius at 6:35 AM on April 27 [1 favorite]


British East India Company's mismanagement was responsible for over 30 million deaths by famine. The salt monopoly was a horrid thing, generating about 10% of colonial revenue. And no decorative box hedge this:
an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes, supplemented by stone wall and ditches, across which no human being or beast of burden or vehicle could pass without being subject to detention or search
posted by scruss at 6:36 AM on April 27 [19 favorites]


This would never happen today. It was certainly a hedge of its time.
posted by phooky at 6:43 AM on April 27 [7 favorites]


Sounds like Moxham did find traces of the hedge after all:

There, Moxham wrote, “Clusters of thorny acacias topped the embankment. Some were 20 feet high. Thorn-covered Indian plum trees barred the way .… We had found it at last.”


And then there's the next paragraph:
The hedge itself might have died, but the path it cut through the country was preserved, in a way. Later in India’s history, road designers looked at the long, flat embankments that cut through the country as an infrastructure asset. The hedge’s path was, in certain areas, transformed into a series of roads. Moxham had such a hard time finding any trace of the Great Hedge of India because its history had been paved over.
I'm half tempted to map out the line of the old hedge barrier in Google Maps to see what's developed over it.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:49 AM on April 27 [4 favorites]


scruss: British East India Company's mismanagement was responsible for over 30 million deaths by famine. The salt monopoly was a horrid thing, generating about 10% of colonial revenue.

Thanks for those citations. I found this topic interesting, but I realized there's a lot more misery and suffering caused by and adjacent to this bit of "odd history."
posted by filthy light thief at 6:50 AM on April 27 [3 favorites]


The system this hedge was designed to enforce- the colonial salt tax- lasted longer than the hedge. Gandhi's Salt March was pretty pivotal in the Indian independence movement.

The hedge was not entirely unlike Trump's Wall, seems to me. Mostly a symbolic assertion of power, but practically-speaking riddled with holes.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:26 AM on April 27 [3 favorites]


Salt deficiency is very bad for people, and presumably worse in a hot, humid climate. I'm willing to bet that the debilitation caused by salt deprivation was blamed on laziness.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:41 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]


The Soviets build a wall with a death zone around Berlin and we're all "oh how awful". But the British build a hedge inside India and it's like "pip pip what an intriguing concept in colonial management".
posted by Nelson at 8:12 AM on April 27 [15 favorites]


This seems like as good a time as any to note that the US flag is based on that of the British East India Company.

Our hallowed forefathers saw the symbol of a brutal capitalist enterprise and were like, "Yeah, that's the one, just change it up a smidge so it doesn't look like we copied."
posted by evidenceofabsence at 9:17 AM on April 27 [3 favorites]


That's a superb book and an uncharacteristically weak summary by Atlas Obscura.

Moxham is detailed and explicit about the physical toll taken by salt deficiency, worse in hot climates, worse if doing heavy physical labor. He talks about the size of the army in India kept specifically to defend and maintain the hedge. It's not a book fond of the hedge, just amazed by it.

And he also talks about the salt tax in France, the gabelle; the detail I remember is that farmers couldn't afford enough salt to keep their draft animals healthy so the basic food productivity of the entire landscape was reduced.

The gabelle was technically a government tax, but was enforced by tax-farming, which more or less privatizes the right to collect (sometimes to set) taxes. The East India Company started as private enterprise and turned into a hellacious government. I think of his cross-history often during ideological arguments about what kind of rapacity is worse.
posted by clew at 9:51 AM on April 27 [22 favorites]


clew, thanks for that summary!
posted by filthy light thief at 9:59 AM on April 27


"The Soviets build a wall with a death zone around Berlin and we're all "oh how awful". But the British build a hedge inside India and it's like "pip pip what an intriguing concept in colonial management"."

We need to be angry about all the travel restrictions (perhaps except for this hopefully temporary emergency) rather than twitting people for not being angry about all of them.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:08 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]


Nelson: The Soviets build a wall with a death zone around Berlin and we're all "oh how awful". But the British build a hedge inside India and it's like "pip pip what an intriguing concept in colonial management".

To me, the hedge is an interesting plan because from the outset it sounds like something that is bound to fail, just like a very long wall, but in different ways. It makes me think of a South African saying: "only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid day sun," in that the British tried to apply British logic and expectations to other locations around the world, disregarding the fact that India is a giant, ecologically diverse nation, just as the South African sun is hotter than that experienced in England.

And for me, the other intriguing aspect is that so much of it disappeared, both physically and from the public memory, while we have video record of Gandhi's Salt March from less than a century ago (History Channel excerpt, with voice-over narration about the tyranny of British rule with regard to its salt tax), as one example of how this aspect of British rule is so well documented and remembered.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:11 AM on April 27 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, in the former British colonies of Australia, they were having problems with invasive rabbits and native dingoes, so they built both a rabbit-proof fence and a dingo fence, both cutting off large slices of the continent. Which makes one wonder whether the desire to build very long barriers is an Anglo-Saxon peculiarity in modern times.
posted by acb at 10:38 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]


"The East India Company started as private enterprise and turned into a hellacious government."

It's a good thing that the same thing didn't happen later in Africa. Oh, wait...
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:16 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


Which makes one wonder whether the desire to build very long barriers is an Anglo-Saxon peculiarity in modern times.
posted by acb at 10:38 AM on April 27


It s almost as if forms of enclosure were the beginnings of a rapacious imperialism, first practiced on and fought by England's own
posted by eustatic at 5:23 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


Which makes one wonder whether the desire to build very long barriers is an Anglo-Saxon peculiarity in modern times.

Not just modern times and not just Anglo-Saxons, if you include Hadrian's Wall.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:40 PM on April 27


William Henry Sleeman, the author of the book which led Moxham down this ... garden path... was an interesting person in his own right, tasked with the suppression of the scourges of Thuggee and Dacoity (very real dangers to the fevered Colonial British mind filled with dark imaginings about the crafty, murderous, secretive native population, but now increasingly disputed by modern historians), and the possible partial inspiration for The Jungle Book. I had to study his exploits in history class in India 35 years ago.
posted by lassie at 10:07 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


We also used fences to good effect in the Boer war, carving off bits of the country as we advanced, and of course fences are an iconic part of the First World War.
posted by alasdair at 10:44 PM on April 27


Previously
posted by unliteral at 7:45 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


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