This is a hunting-through-libraries story, and a lost-history story, and it's all about a hedge (though not, alas, really a hedgerow), and there's useful medical knowledge in it and supporting evidence for one of the nastier indictments of imperialism. I am disposed to like any of these, and the parts were put together featly and neatly. It's a tremendous shame that the book doesn't have more pictures, but Roy Moxham keeps a website which does.
The story is Ozymandish; the successive British powers in what are now India and Pakistan extended the occasional salt taxes of previous regimes to a profitable and murderous degree. They couldn't afford to build a wall between the salt-bearing and salt-lacking regions, but they ran extensive patrols and eventually built a hedge 2,300 miles long, broken by customs forts. The hedge lasted for at least a decade (the tax much longer) but then vanishes from the records. Moxham came across a reference by chance and spent years of spare time in London archives looking for the evidence of where it had been. He did find it mapped. Apparently one of the lessons is that 12,000 men and some vast funds were not really very large, in the scale of the records of India.
He also went several times to look for the remains of the hedge itself. This is a good hook for a travel story, as the search for the hedge could cover (on foot)a transect of India, especially the less-rebuilt parts; and requires talking to the village elders, a few of whom remembered the hedge, but mostly not. It's gone. The right-of-way was used for roads; where the right-of-way was lost, the fields are ploughed; much of it was dry thorn woven across desert; and the species involved aren't especially long-lived. (This last is a sad surprise for enthusiasts of temperate hedgerows, which are so long-lived that 'Hooper's Rule' is a useful estimate of a hedgerow's age in centuries.)
The wonder of the Internet, and of amiable fellow enthusiasts, and of public-domain books, has also turned up an aside of a few paragraphs in an autobiographical account of the 1857 'Mutiny': in a night-ride between forts, the strange light on the horizon is the Customs hedge, burning. Well, no wonder it was gone so quickly.
The tax lasted long enough for Gandhi's peaceful revolutionaries to defy it, of course. Moxham did another round of research on the salt tax; a little bit on the public-power-for-private-gain that encouraged the English to extend it, some on the collusion of the rich in India who preferred the salt tax to an equal-income sugar tax, which wouldn't have hurt the poor as much. There were certainly people in India and England objecting strenuously to the tax and its cruelty, who left estimates of the damage it was doing. There's an interesting medical digression on how much salt we need and what happens when you don't have enough. There's not a lot of evidence on the first, except in the logistic plans of armies; but salt loss is one of the ways dehydration kills you, and we do know something about that. Thing one, you don't crave salt when you need it; your body keeps losing water to maintain your salinity, sometimes through nausea and diarrhea. Very probably death from salt loss was sometimes mistaken for infectious disease; certainly each made the other more lethal. Thing two, one of the main symptoms is listlessness. One doubts the tax was intended to make the poor apathetic, but one also doubts that the apathy wasn't useful to the taxers.
The other unbearable salt tax was in France, the famous gabelle; as in India, it was so expensive that peasants in some regions couldn't give their animals salt licks, which only made their farms poorer. Some communes successfully revolted against it, but it lasted off and on until 1946.
As a gloomy convergence, the French salt tax seems to have started as a national (war-funding) tax and then been captured and farmed for private profit; the East India Company picked up the idea in their private-enterprise stage, and the British Empire ran with it.
I don't seem to have summarized Late Victorian Holocausts, by. Davis and Moxham cover similar ground for the famines in India during British rule, Moxham with less intent to pin down blame but nearly as much success. To summarize the former, it was repeatedly the practice of England to conquer/buy up enough of a nation to put wholly on the market systems that had been mixed; say, mixed market, subsistence, religious, and (feudal) welfare food systems. In fat years, this was not too hard to impose, as most people profited from (e.g.) a train system that took spare harvests to the ports for sale. In lean years, the harvests still went to the ports, millions upon millions of people starved in the lanes, pestilence followed famine, and at the end the merchants and capitalists owned most of the land. This happened over and over. There were apologists explaining that the savages would be even worse off without exposure to market forces: the historical evidence that this is not so is pretty strong: water-systems and granaries were systematically encouraged to fail by people who could profit in good or bad markets.
Davis' book has two strong connections to current political debates, because not only does it describe a vicious use of globalized trade, but the first lethal force was always terrible weather; usually ENSO wierdness that caused flood or drought or both. Farming requires predictable weather even more than it requires any particular weather, something that makes it difficult for me to be sanguine about even mild predictions of climate change.
ISBN: 1841192600So wrote clew in History (19th c.). | TrackBack