Monday, March 19, 2018

Roy Moxham's Great Hedge of India: A Review and a reflection on Historical Method

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Marc Bloch the great French historian published a book that is unfortunately not widely known: French Rural History. In that book he argued that it is possible to look at the cadastral surveys produced during the era of the French Revolution in order to reconstruct the rural history of France. For eaxample why did Brittany and parts of France have an Open Field system and eclosed fields in other parts. Using the documents of a later age to reconstruct the social and economic landscape of an earlier epoch, the regressive method, has become a powerful tool of research. In the Graet Hedge of India, Roy Moxham does something similar. He has used the maps of the first half of the nineteenth century to trace the remanants of the Permit Line or the Custom Line thta separated the territories of the East India Company from those of the so called dependent states that had been brought under the overall suzerainty of the Company.
The Great Hedge of India
A map showing the Custom Line
 The defeat  of the Maharatas in 1818 for all practical purposes left the East Indiat India Companyin a dominant position politically and militarily. From this singular historical fact stemmed a huge atrocity that even the genius, the political genius of Mohandas Gandhi barely grasped: the creation of a salt monopoly that was hugely profitable to the East India Company, but a terrible calamity visited upon the people of India. Maxham, unlike Indian historians, who write modern history with their eyes firmly fixed on the crumbs falling from the polical banquet, is unburdened by any expectation, except the thrill of historical discovery and analysis. From a stray, almost an aside in the Rambles and Recollections of Col. Sleeman, he stumbled upon the refence to the Custom Line or Parmat Lian as the "natives" termed it. Seeking to see if traces of this Custom Line still survived he sets off on a rather uninspiring journey across the badlands of Northern India: Chambal, Jhansi, Etawah, Erich. He even approached the Remote Sensing Agency of India for satellite imagery of the areas he is interested in but the price quoted, US $ 16,000 is way beyond his reach and so he perseveres on until he finally sees for himself a stretch of the anceint hedge near Jhansi.

Roy Moxham is extremely affectionate toward India and in a slightly partonizing tone even wrote his Theft of India as a reposte to the apologists of the Raj of whom we find an ever increasing number, especially after the disease of Postt Colonial Theory hit the Indian academia. He argues that the purpose of the Custom Line was to prevent the smuggling of salt from the Princely territories into the Company possessions. By a historical accident, the major salt producing areas of India, Bengal and Madras fell into the hands of the Company very early and these were the major salt producing territiries of India. Salt was extensively and freely traded all across the land until the East India Company established the Salt Monopoly and created an elaborate officiadom to control the manufacture and exort of salt. In order to prevent the Salt from British territoris from leaving without the collection of a steep tariff, the Custom Line was first established near Allahabad and Benares and soo stretched nealrly 1280 miles up to the North West Frontier Province. The Custom Line was a huge hedge with thory briar trees and thick shrub 20 feet high and 15 feet broad. In 1878 the Custom Line was abandoned after fiece criticism in the House of Commons.

I found the book interesting and will certainly reccomend it to those interested in historical sleuthing.

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