Taxing salt in India was a lucrative activity for the British East India Company, and the British Crown afterward, but it was onerous for Indians. To prevent smuggling of untaxed salt, the British created the Inland Customs Line, and eventually built a physical hedge made of trees and shrubs along most of it. It took years to get it to grow properly, considering the variations in soil, weather, and wildlife in the subcontinent.
But as the British do, they kept working at it. They dug ditches and brought in better soil. They built embankments to resist floods. They experimented until they found the best trees for each of the many climates that the hedge passed through. Eventually it grew long and tall and wide.
It was, in the words of Sir John Strachey, a lifelong civil servant in British India cited in Moxham’s book, “a monstrous system,” that had few parallels “in any tolerably civilised country.” Each mile required 250 tons of thorny brushwood and other organic material to create, and in one year the patrols might carry 100,000 tons of this plant matter to shore up stretches of dry hedge. In most places, the barrier was at least 10 feet tall and 6 feet thick, but it grew bigger in some areas. It became “a standing monument of the industry of our officers and men and an impervious barrier to smugglers,” another commissioner wrote.
But there were problems. White ants infested the hedge and could bring whole sections down. Bush fires incinerated miles at a time. Storms and whirlwinds could sweep parts of it away. Locusts invaded. Parasitic vines blighted the hedge, the trees died of natural causes. One sections had rats living in it, and the patrol there introduced feral cats to combat them.