Ben Oliver

The Great Hedge of India

No one who has not taken in hand the cultivation of a thousand miles of live hedge can form any conception of the Herculean labour this involves.
31 August 2020

In the mid 1990s, historian Roy Moxham read a British army major’s account of his time in India during the empire. In it, Moxham spotted a mention that the British built over 1000 miles of hedge in order to enforce a customs line. Finding no mention of it elsewhere obvious, he delved deeper into the story and travelled to India several times in search of any remnants of the line.

This book is an account of those journeys—part travelogue, part historical work. Moxham interweaves his journey with interesting historical detail on the customs line, used to enforce a salt tax. He delves pretty deep into the socio-economic impacts of such a tax, showing us how what seems like a mildly amusing quirk of the British Empire was actually a way to enforce a brutal and cruel policy.

Lack of salt is a particularly nasty thing in a population, it is potentially fatal but presents itself as mere fatigue or illness. Where lack of water makes you thirsty and lack of food makes you hungry, a lack of salt presents itself more subtly, usually until it’s too late. Fatalities are also often misdiagnosed. Therefore, heavily taxing salt can cause serious public health issues.

It’s a quintessentially British story. A mad attempt to build a hedge on the scale of the Great Wall of China, an even madder attempt to man it every quarter of a mile, and of course a dark and horrible motive behind the whole thing.

A fascinating read, told by a skilled historian and storyteller.