18. The 2500 Mile Hedge
Northern India has relatively few sources of salt, and throughout most of history, the region had to import it from elsewhere in the subcontinent. When the British conquered India, they sought to cash in on that by monopolizing salt production, then gouging the natives for all they could get out of them via stringent salt taxes. The salt tax proved hugely unpopular with the Indian public, and protests over its collection helped fuel the rise of Indian nationalism and sowed the seeds of India’s independence movement. More immediately, however, the British had to contend with rampant salt smuggling from southern India, where salt was abundant and salt taxes were low, to northern India, where the opposite was true. So they decided to grow a giant hedge of thorn bushes, stretching across India for thousands of miles.
Known as “The Great Hedge of India”, it was supposed to stretch for 2500 miles, 14 feet wide, 12 feet high, and bristling with thorns. By 1878, the Great Hedge stretched for 1100 miles, but the thorn bushes refused to grow properly, and most of it consisted of dead branches. Still, the British persisted, and eventually grew 500 miles of proper hedge, that was patrolled by 12,000 customs officers. That army of officials had to contend with brush fires, storms, parasitic vines, and pests. It did not stop smugglers, who easily circumvented the Hedge by hacking a way through it, or by simply tossing bags of salt over the barrier to accomplices on the other side. The Great Hedge was abandoned in 1879, when the authorities decided to simply impose and collect the salt tax at the point of manufacture, then have the manufacturers pass it on to buyers.