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The Great Hedge of India

by Roy Moxham

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2005103,065 (3.55)23
This is the quest for a lost wonder of the world, in the author's words his 'ridiculous obsession', arose from the chance discovery of some dusty memoirs that told of a mighty hedge spanning the Indian subcontinent in the nineteenth century. The hedge was set in place to allow the collection of the Salt Tax by British customs officers, Inspired by the concept of this amazing living barrier, now forgotten, Roy Moxham set off to find out what has happened to it and whether any remnant existed today. His travels in India, and what he found there, form the basis for this illuminating book. Writer Jan Morris comments, 'At first I thought this remarkable book must be a hoax . . . It tells the story of one of the least-known wonders of Queen Victoria's India - a customs barrier 2,300 miles long, most of it made of hedge. It was patrolled by 12,000 men and would have stretched from London to Constantinople, yet few historians mention it and most of us have never heard of it. Could anything be more astonishing?'… (more)
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An amazing story of what must be one of the longest artificial constructions the world has ever seen (after the Great Wall of China). In the Nineteenth Century the British rulers of India decided to create a giant thorny hedge down the length of India to ensure the tax on salt was enforced. You have to give it to the British; whether it be frankly ludicrously long hedges cutting a whole nation in half or the genocide of the Tasmanian Aborigines, they don't do things by half.

Of course, the most amazing thing about the hedge is that the world had completely forgotten about it until the author found a lone reference to the hedge in an old rare book. Moxham may not be a professional writer but he is a good detective, tracking down other references to the hedge and illustrating the role the integral role the Great Hedge played in Indian life, complete with a cameo of Mahatma Gandhi.

I doubt this will be a spoiler because obviously he finds a remnant of the hedge by the conclusion. ( )
  MiaCulpa | Oct 28, 2015 |
I just happened on this fairly short book, a little over 200 Pages, while browsing in the library for something on a specific period of India. There was little, but there was this interesting looking book, called [the Great Hedge of India] by Roy Moxham. Moxham found mention of this hedge, a formidable hedge, ultimately about 2300 miles long, quite wide and tall, and including plants with thorns which made it truly impenetrable. Yet, in the current day it was almost unknown. Moxham went to search for it, making three trips total before finding a remnant that was satisfying enough to allow him to stop searching with some sense of accomplishment. The purpose of this hedge, up until about 1877 was to provide a barrier separating British India from the rest of India in order to prevent salt smuggling from the non British area to the British area where salt was heavily taxed.

The book is about half and half divided between an account of his search for the hedge, and about salt, the salt tax in British India and prior; salt taxes in other places; Gandhi's rebellion against the salt tax, and the need for salt. This book was satisfying in how it seemed to provide answers to questions as they occurred to me - such as how much salt to we really need - something we dont' think about much in this age of cheap, and usually too much salt. Nowhere but in part of France did the author find a salt tax that was anywhere near as high as that on salt in British India. A tax on salt is a tax that disproportionately affects the poor, while being necessary for survival, which was why Gandhi focused on it. Moxham goes into how lowering salt consumption, which in Bengali under British rule was about 10 pounds a year on average per person as opposed to 12 or more in non British India in the 1870's, would lead to lassitude in good times, and in times of famine, would greatly increase the death rate resulting from lack of food alone.

What caused the hedge to finally be abandoned, was not, unfortunately, the abolition of the salt tax, but the extension of British rule so that they could control the production of salt throughout India.

All in all, a short, satisfying, and informative read. The one thing it lacked was a photograph of the remains of the hedge when they found it. I tracked one down though at http://www.rmoxham.freeserve.co.uk/maps.htm. Without knowing the background, frankly, it would be hard to identify the vegetation as part of a hedge. They look more like some bushy trees. But keep in mind that the types of plants found in the hedge usually didn't survive for more than 60 years, and that due to the construction of the hedge on a rise it made an ideal place for the construction of roads - most of the hedge now being under a layer of highway. In the book Moxham mentions having his picture taken at a place where there were clusters of thorny acacias and thorn covered Indian plum tree. The original hedge contained many plants including these two. The thorns of the plum trees within the other plants helped make the hedge impenetrable, and I believe that is what is mostly shown in the photograph. ( )
11 vote solla | Dec 7, 2009 |
Reading this book reminds me of how incomplete historical knowledge is. This was a massive undertaking at the time (colonial India) and was just about lost to history until Roy Moxham undertook his exhaustive investigation. He writes a fascinating tale--should I say of obsession or megalomania on the one side, persistence and ingenuity on the other?

I must have read this before Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps this is a bit of cautionary tale about the ultimate futility of civil engineering? Another point that resonates is the egomania of Albert Speer who designed architecture not for its use but for how well the structures would stand the ravages of time in the bright future of the 1000-year reich....
  bridgitshearth | Jun 14, 2009 |
My parents gave this to me for Christmas because having spent the last 2.5 years in India, they thought I might enjoy it. And they were right! It's a facinating book, well written and engaging. Its a great adventure and I have to give him points for being a thoroughly determined researcher! ( )
  salmonchick | Mar 31, 2008 |
A buddy said "Read this, it shows how crazy those Brits were." Don't want to comment on the relative or absolute craziness of the Brits, but this guy can tell a story. And he is a great detective. ( )
  ebethe | Apr 1, 2007 |
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This is the quest for a lost wonder of the world, in the author's words his 'ridiculous obsession', arose from the chance discovery of some dusty memoirs that told of a mighty hedge spanning the Indian subcontinent in the nineteenth century. The hedge was set in place to allow the collection of the Salt Tax by British customs officers, Inspired by the concept of this amazing living barrier, now forgotten, Roy Moxham set off to find out what has happened to it and whether any remnant existed today. His travels in India, and what he found there, form the basis for this illuminating book. Writer Jan Morris comments, 'At first I thought this remarkable book must be a hoax . . . It tells the story of one of the least-known wonders of Queen Victoria's India - a customs barrier 2,300 miles long, most of it made of hedge. It was patrolled by 12,000 men and would have stretched from London to Constantinople, yet few historians mention it and most of us have never heard of it. Could anything be more astonishing?'

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