The Forgotten Mystery of the Great Hedge of India
In the mid-1800s, British colonizers grew a 2,500 mile hedge bisecting India to catch smugglers. It caused the deaths of huge numbers of people. And then, bizarrely, it was completely lost to history.
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In 1994, a British author and adventurer named Roy Moxham came across a book in a second-hand bookshop. It was a volume that most people would move past without a second glance: a late 19th century reprint of an 1844 diary called Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official by Sir William Sleeman. This reprinted edition was annotated for clarity, expanding on points, elaborating on detail, giving the less familiar reader a helping hand.
And that’s where Moxham found one sentence that would consume the next three years of his life.
The original text in Sleeman’s diary referenced a customs checkpoint in central India. This surprised Moxham. He had read widely about India under the yoke of colonial Britain and had never come across any mention of inland customs barriers. But this wasn’t just some obscure customs checkpoint. As the explanatory footnote put it:
To secure the levy of a duty on salt [....] there grew up gradually a monstrous system, to which it would be almost impossible to find a parallel in any tolerably civilised country. A customs line was established, which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2,300 miles; and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men and petty officers...it consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes, supplemented by stone wall and ditches, across which no human being or beast of burden or vehicle could pass without being subject to detention or search.
This was extraordinary: here was a text claiming that a verdant 2,300 mile long barrier of hedges and thorns stretched across India, with the sole purpose of preventing salt smuggling, to collect taxes owed to the British government. And yet, no hedge—let alone a 2,300 mile one—was mentioned in the modern histories, British or Indian, of this period. Moxham scoured history book after history book, each as hedge-free as the last.
Moxham took five trips to India. He asked around. When he mentioned a 2,300 mile-long hedge, he got blank looks. Nobody had ever heard of it. Nobody had ever seen it.
How could that be?
Moxham decided to solve the mystery: was this gargantuan hedge real, and if so, how had it disappeared without a trace? The answer, which took him years to discover and dragged him all across rural India, provides a dark window into a forgotten tale of abusive administration that may have contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths—and it also reveals the degree to which humans are all-too capable of quickly forgetting the cautionary tales of our own history.
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