When Britain Tried To Stop Smugglers With A Hedge

“When a man is faced with his own death, he finds the impossible less of a barrier.” —Prince of Persia

In A Nutshell

We’ve all heard stories about how Britain was notorious for imposing taxes on their colonies. One of those taxes was the infamous Salt Tax, which led to the nonviolent protest that kick-started Gandi’s career as an activist. Before that, though, the British needed a way to regulate salt and make sure that all the proper taxes were paid on it—so they built a 3,700-kilometer (2,300 mi) hedge, mostly of dwarf Indian plum.

The Whole Bushel

Salt is something of a surprisingly invaluable resource—it has been all across the globe, and it’s always been something of a commodity. Commodities are often subject to taxes, and under British rule, the Salt Tax was law in India.

India came under direct British rule in 1857; among the laws that were now being enforced were customs laws, and goods coming into British India were taxed. With those laws came a definite need to enforce them. Over the next few decades, there were a series of customs houses built all across India, monitoring all the activity that was going on from the Indus River in the west to the Mahanadi in the east.

But there also needed to be some sort of border to help patrols make sure that no smugglers were slipping through the lines with goods, specifically salt, that hadn’t had their taxes paid.

And, as unlikely as it seems, the answer was a hedge. It was an impressive hedge, no doubt, more than 4 meters (14 ft) high in some places, anywhere from 2–4 meters (6–12 ft) thick. It was composed of whatever native plants were handy, but much of the hedge was dwarf Indian plum. Other plants included the prickly pear, the babool, and the carounda—the resulting hedge was a dense, sharp, thorny mass.

The customs houses were first; they had begun to be built in 1803, and gradually, the hedge popped up between the houses in long spurs. Overall, the hedge ultimately grew to be around 3,700 kilometers (2,300 mi) long, and was patrolled by more than 12,000 men. Its only purpose was to separate areas that produced salt from those that didn’t—and to make sure there was no one able to dodge the tax. The whole thing was a steady work in progress; some areas were destroyed by fires and the weather and needed to be relentlessly repaired.

According to contemporary descriptions of the hedge, it was impossible to pass through, a thick, tangled mass of both living and dry, dead bushes. In places, it was reinforced with lumber, wood, or stone fence, and it wasn’t just the thick brush that deterred potential smugglers—it was the ants that lived in the bushes as well.

By 1836, one estimate states that a single family in the province of Bengal would spend anywhere up to six months of their annual income just on paying for their salt and the associated taxes. Salt wasn’t just something that people could give up, either. Estimates are difficult to pinpoint, but it’s thought that anywhere from 15 to 30 million people ultimately died from salt deprivation, along with countless animals and livestock.

The hedge is one of those monumental undertakings that has been largely ignored in history books. British author and historian Roy Moxham stumbled across a single reference to it in the memoirs of a British officer who had lived in India, and was completely taken aback at how unlikely it was that he was reading it right.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: The Great Hedge of India
From Bharata to India, by M.K. Agarwal
The Great Hedge of India, by Roy Moxham