THE GREAT HEDGE OF INDIA: The Search for the Living Barrier that Divided a People, by Roy Moxham. 234 pages. Carroll & Graf paperback, $14
When I saw the title of Roy Moxham’s “The Great Hedge of India,” I had the same first thought that he did when he encountered entries about it in books he was conserving: Probably another example of dotty sahibs left out too long in the noonday sun; or, if not that, perhaps one of the numerous attempts by the Government of India to figure out how to modernize the place.
But, as we learn in a few chapters and as Moxham learned over several years in the 1990s, the story is darker. Murderous, in fact.
The thorn hedge -- 2,500 miles long, around eight to 12 feet wide and 14 feet high -- was at its peak in the 1870s, but the story begins earlier.
Moxham skillfully weaves the threads, the question of the human requirement for salt, the development of salt policy by the East India Company in Bengal in the 18th century, the corruption, death and suffering that followed, and Moxham’s search for some remnant of the hedge, which was second only to the Great Wall of China in size.
It was also nearly forgotten; much of Moxham’s labor involved trying to find maps at a large enough scale to lead him to remnants of the hedge -- if any were left.
Along the way, we get a vivid picture of how unchanged India is; Moxham’s guide came from a village not reached by any road, with no electricity, running water or post office. But also of how much it has changed; the guide is a modish city dweller, and the hedge has been almost obliterated by roads, extension of cultivation and harvesting of the trees and bushes for firewood. It adds to the drama that the out-of-the-way places where the hedge might have been left alone today are the home now, as then, of ruthless robber gangs.
In the heat of India, an adult requires about an ounce of salt a day -- thankfully Moxham does not bother with metric measures -- for health. And salt cannot be stored by the body.
The Company imposed a tax so high that it would have required two month’s income of a ryot (landless farm worker) to pay for it. The hedge was made to stop smuggling of salt from western India, where the taxes, though high, were not murderous.
As so often when capitalists are involved, greed and individualism resulted in less, not more income for the capitalists, since salt-deprived workers are sickly, weak -- when not dead -- and unable to produce wealth. It goes without saying that the Bengalis were made poorer, but that was not a concern of the British.
It is impossible to say how many people were killed by the salt tax, but at least millions and probably tens of millions. When you add in the toll from famines caused by the secular decline in the value of silver (the currency of India) against gold (the money of Britain) the total reaches into hundreds of millions, but that is a story for another day -- you can find it in Mike Davis’s “Late Victorian Holocausts.”