In the 19th century, the country of India protected its eastern border with a giant hedge. No walls, no moats, not fancy guard towers, just a giant impenetrable hedge. It stretched over 1000 kilometers and ran from Punjab to Burhanpur.
The great hedge of India was first placed in the 1840s by the British in an effort to strengthen trade routes so they could exploit an Indian resource: salt. There was a massive salt trade throughout India, but production was mostly restricted to the coastal areas of the region. Salt was one of the regions biggest and most profitable exports, which if you know anything about history, meant that the British wanted to have control of it.
In the mid 18th century, the British East India Company had completely monopolized the salt trade in India. The salt harvesting locations were leased out from the company to workers and the salt was then sold at heavily inflated prices through a massive salt tax. Since the salt was in such high demand, consumers did pay it though.
However, since salt was so expensive, there was a massive smuggling route that formed of illegal salt to avoid the East India Company tax. For perspective, the tax would’ve caused the average Indian to pay 2 months of their salary every year just on salt for their family.
In order to stop the smuggling and maintain superior control over the salt trade the East India Company built a line of barriers, made of cut thorny bushes and houses, across major roads to collect tax on imported and smuggled salt. This line grew and grew, all to protect the profits of the East India Company. This line of houses and barriers became known as the Inland Customs Line.
Some of the cut bushes ended up taking root where they were initially placed and eventually grew into a barrier 800 miles long. This wasn’t intentional at first. The barrier was meant to be made of cut down thorn bushes, not planted ones, but nature had other plans.
The East India Company took note from nature, however, and realized that simply having a growing thorned hedge would be far easier to maintain then constantly having to cut bushes and pile them together. A man by the name of Allan Hume, the Commissioner of Inland Customs at the time started studying the best way to ensure the consistent growth of the hedge. It was made out of a variety of bushes, like Indian Plum, Babool, and Euphorbia. Hume was also a botanist, so he knew what plants to place where. In areas of the hedge that were more arid, he planted prickly pear bushes. With the support of the company, Hume also had places with poor soil dug up and filled with even better soil so bushes could grow. A system of trenches was even built to ensure proper irrigation to the hedge.
What was first an accident and what was now a well-managed line of horticulture, the customs line was not 12 feet high and 14 feet thick in many places. It stretched 1,3000 kilometers long at one point as well. However, it seems the East India Company got themselves into quite the task. Maintaining the hedge required constant maintenance. In the early years, over 2 million cubic feet of earth and 150,000 tons of thorny hedge was moved each year. All this effort also wasn’t always successful in stopping smugglers. Smugglers would force their way through the hedge wall with camels carrying salt. Others just threw bags of salt over the hedge. However, the wall did prevent and stop a lot of the illegal salt trade. Between 1877 and 78, 6,000 smugglers were caught trying to cross the barrier.
At it’s height, the Inland Customs Line stretched 2,500 miles. 1500 of which was live or dry hedge and the rest was made of houses and other barriers.
By the early 1870s, the hedge was getting in the way of things. The British Viceroy of India forced a series of reforms in the salt production process that gave the British more control of the salt trade and flaten taxes across the country so that they could ensure there would be less smuggling.
By 1879, the hedge was abandoned.
The hedge was so effective during its time of use and the pricing and taxing practices of the British salt trade in the region meant that millions of Indians were left without much salt. This put millions in a state of salt deprivation which may have led to a variety of diseases seen in the region. After India’s great hedge was destroyed, salt consumption grew and normalized across the regions.
The hefty salt tax, however, still remained in effect, even with the giant hedge line gone. This tax was a prime subject in India’s fight for independence from British rule. The tax finally disappeared in 1946, only 10 months before India gained it’s independence.