The Great Hedge of India Paperback – 28 Mar 2002
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The Great Hedge of India is a book about an obsession. Roy Moxham, ex-tea planter, ex-gallery owner turned book conservator, was searching among the volumes in a second-hand bookshop on the corner of London's Charing Cross Road when he came across Rambles and Reflections of an Indian Official by Major-General Sir W.H. Sleeman KCB, first published in 1893. Twenty-five pounds secured the item and away he took it, little thinking it would be the beginning of an ongoing fascination with an object few people initially believed existed. Moxham was beguiled by a footnote in the Major-General's book which quoted Lytton Strachey's father, Sir John Strachey. The note said, "To secure the levy of a duty on salt ... there grew up gradually a monstrous system ... A Customs line was established which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended ... a distance of 2, 300 miles ... It consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge".
Moxham was incredulous: could there really have been a hedge that stretched half the length of one of the world's largest countries? None of the standard histories he had read had mentioned a customs hedge and surely someone would have noted something quite so bizarre? On searching out the source of the quote he found that Strachey had not been misquoted but other references to the customs line were few and far between. His search was on. The book explains Moxham's fascinating and ultimately successful search for (over three years, with three separate trips to India), and fascination with, the hedge. Every other chapter outlines, with an enviable clarity and an always easy, conversational style, the historical context in which the hedge arose. The Great Hedge of India is a gem: a joy to read, entertaining, informative and occasionally angry--Moxham's research led him to discover the reason behind the hedge, a salt tax, was punitive in the extreme. "I was deeply shocked by what I discovered about salt. When I first had the idea of finding the remnants of the Customs Hedge I had imagined the barrier as a piece of British whimsy ... It was a terrible discovery to find that it had been constructed ... so as to totally cut off an affordable supply of an absolute necessity of life". An excellent little book. --Mark Thwaite --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The Great Hedge is part history, part detective story, part travel book. Above all, it's a great read. (Mail on Sunday)
Moxham has written a parable at once light-handed and melancholy about the cruelty and folly fo the empire. (Financial Times)
Both scholarly and funny - a rare combination, It surprised me and I hugely enjoyed it. (Eric Newby)
Moxham has pulled out a jewel. (The Times)
Marvellous....Moxham sets out to find the remnants of this qunitessentially English folly, writing an affectionate and scholarly narrative'. (Observer)
Top Customer Reviews
If this sounds rather dry, The Great Hedge of India also becomes an engaging travel book as the author searches for the remains of a hedge that history had forgotten using century-old maps, a GPS navigation system and the help of Indian villagers.
This slightly eccentric task is described in a very English way and the result is a charming book on an obscure, but symbolic part of the British empire in India.
I found the book to be fascinating and it has become a real talking point. How something as odd as the hedge ever came into existence is well explained. I am still amazed that this story has disappeared from history when it is clear something so simple caused untold suffering, quite literally, to millions of people. The fact that even the Indians who today live close to the hedge line knew nothing of this is even more puzzling.
Ultimately the book, focused on one issue, tends to go into a little too much detail in places for someone with just a passing interest such as myself. It focuses on the reasoning behind the construction of the hedge and the problems of salt deprivation for several chapters, rather than the actual adventures in India trying to locate the hedge. This is my only real gripe.
That being said, it is still a good, thorough read that brought a smile to my face at the eccentricity of it (and of the author!) as well as opened my eyes to a forgotten chapter in British Colonialism.
"To secure the levy of a duty on salt ... there grew up gradually a monstrous system ... A Customs line was established which stretched across the whole of India ... It consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge."
What began as a piece of speculative research expecting to uncover some Victorian whimsy, ends up discovering a monstrous system indeed. These days, we're constantly told to reduce the amount of salt in our diets, but as Moxham documents, it is a basic biological requirement, without which both humans and livestock will die. Through painstaking trawls through original records, he uncovers an horrific picture of punitive British taxation of salt and the misery it caused to the people of India.
The greed at the heart of the Raj makes grim reading, yet Moxham's love for the people and culture of India radiates throughout this book. It's at its best in the travelogue sections, with Moxham and his companions travelling hundreds of miles in the hope of a sight of a thorn bush or two. I hope it's not spoiling the book to say that I almost cried when they finally did.
In the historical sections, there were some long paragraphs about taxation and earnings levels which begged to be transposed as charts. I would like to have had more indication of the sources Moxham was using too; we're normally told which library he was in, but little more than that!
Still, this book is an extremely enjoyable read and uncovers a swathe of history about which I knew nothing and which should certainly receive more publicity.
Not only did they do it, but they then had thousands of people look after it and police it – and, even more astoundingly, parts of it still exist today. The Great Wall of China – eat your heart out.
This is a tremendously well written book offering an insight into the Victorian mind set and life in the Raj. He makes history come alive in a compelling way.
Step out of your ordinary reading profile and read this book.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
It is a fascinating story,incredible that nobody has heard of it wherever Roy Moxham went.I can recommend the book.Published 16 months ago by Birgitte Allan
Didn't know anything about this part of british history. An easy read.Published 23 months ago by Miss E Smith
THis is a weakness in your ssystem. I often buy things from you as presents without readin or viewing them myself so there is no point in writing anything but I feel it is... Read morePublished on 17 April 2014 by Mr. C. Berg
Read this a few years ago, very atmospheric and filled with (interesting and unsettling) history and wanderlust. Bought it as a gift recently and was a hit. A travel/history gem.Published on 21 Dec. 2013 by Kitwah
This is well written . Engages one from page one and tells us a lot about our inhumane regime in India . Read morePublished on 8 Mar. 2010 by C. J. MCLACHLAN
brilliant read it before but i n storage, wished to pass it on to othersPublished on 27 Aug. 2009 by J. Mcdonald