Three infamous examples of monopoly - the scourge of any regime - whether it be liberal and democratic,   socialist and communist or    autocratic and fascist.    Any one of these recent regimes may well be tolerable to most of us but only provided AntiTrust legislation is also fully accepted and implemented.

Common SALT... made the world go round
Such was the importance of salt that its supply could not be left to the vagaries of 'supply and demand". In particular the supply of saltpeter had to be controlled, and more importantly kept as secret as possible. Formed from saline earth and a flower-like efflorescence, Saltpeter has been known for centuries in India, and by the Nabateans in Petra . Besides the saltworks, many hundreds of village communities were occupied in
making saltpetre using primitive clay lined filters, matting, vats and bamboos. In the hot sun from April to June the Nuniah caste families would 'boil merrily away and eliminate saltpetre and salt from this apparently useless soil.' Not only were the climatic conditions perfect, but the Indian saltpetre had the additional advantage that it contained nitrate and potassium both essential for gunpowder. 

SALT MONOPOLIES 1 - The secret Monopoly


To replenish the body with the necessary salt - water ratio Salted meat in India was consumed.    Beef was by compulsion surreptitiously consumed and " that Hindus who did eat it were usually outside the pale - the lower castes and Dalits".    However in addition to the infamous physiological monopoly of salt in India the "secret salt" known as saltpeter was to become the moving force for foreign interests in India behind the salt monopoly  


Monopoly 1- The Near East India Co.

The English East India Company was the most unique organization in  British colonial history. On 16 October 1599, Queen Elizabeth I of  England granted a charter to the EIC, awarding it a monopoly of the trade with the East. The EIC arose from a grouping of London merchants, ordinary city tradesmen and aldermen who were prepared to take a gamble in buying a few ships and filling them with cargo to sell  in the East. At the end of the voyage, after the return cargo was sold, and the saltpetre 'ballast ' was quietly  discharged, the  profits would be shared amongst the share holders. This system was known as "joint-stock"

THE BRITISH IN INDIA - When the English arrived to trade in India they found they were not the only customers. The English, Dutch, Portuguese and later, the French were in constant bitter rivalry to exploit successfully the great opportunities open to traders sufficiently determined, adaptable, diplomatic and independent. One such Englishman, Peter Mundy, writes of his predicament in charge of a caravan carrying indigo and saltpetre from Agra to Surat: 'I am thrust out alone with little language, having nobody that I can trust or cares to take any pains to ease me to look after the company's goods, to help to compound the unreasonable demands of the carters and camelers, to decide their quarrels and differences.

The Company employees - 'servants' - lived and competed at close quarters in India, often disputing petty domestic arrangements, and criticising business methods; 'the Dutch are insolent and feare not to break all contracts..' and again, They doe stamp quoines (coins) at their pleasures to their profits ..' A stream of complaints flowed between the trading stations and the parent company about bribery, corruption and the lack of money and equipment .. 'We are so poore that wee shame to thinke of yt..' There was a hint of jealousy too - 'the Dutch manage things better.' In one respect they certainly did, for they used saltpetre to ballast their ships instead of the traditional useless stones. However, after the first order for saltpetre was received in 1624 the Company was then able to report that they too, 'have enough to ballast. From then on.. thousands of tons were imported to England as ballast.

COMPANY TRADING IN INDIA India proved to be an excellent source of saltpetre for the British. Formed from saline earth and a flower-like efflorescence, it has been known for centuries in Bihar, the United Provinces, the Punjab and Madras areas mainly. Besides saltworks, many hundreds of village communities were occupied in making saltpetre using primitive clay lined filters, matting, vats and bamboos. In the hot sun from April to June the Nuniah caste families would 'boil merrily away and eliminate saltpetre and salt from this apparently useless soil. Not only were the climatic conditions perfect, but the Indian saltpetre had the additional advantage that it contained nitrate and potassium both essential for gunpowder.

The difficulties of coordinating such a part cottage part works industry and win the confidence and cooperationof the powerful men who controlled it were innumerable frustrating and some-times bizarre. One grave and ever- present dilemma was transport, from 'camels falling into a well and breaking their necks' to the mortality and 'poverty of cattel for want of food'; or from robbers who 'lurked in the hills' and attacked the caravans. There were long delivery delays by princes and native monopolists who 'disallowed distaks' - permits - and refused to release consignments 'without bribery.' And there were labour problems, 'the peetermen beinge growne very villans as well as increased sales competition everywhere by interplopers or private traders'.

Nor was saltpetre a popular cargo on the ships. It was 'expensive to buy and troublesome to bring home .. a bad neighbour to better goods' like the more lucrative cottons, muslins and spices. Nevertheless, while the demand for saltpetre was increasing, and the Company, making efforts to extend business acknowledged that 'at least half their business should be invested in this commodity. Should the factors (agents) run into debt, it should only be for saltpetre..' with the warning that 'it would be well to avoid this without sanction from Fort St. George, interest being so high.

The old forts of the East India Company loom from every
strategic vantage point. Jacobs ladder was created to haul the
saltpetre to safe storage as a prisoner punishment 

The Island of St. Helena: a remote British outpost in the South Atlantic Ocean

In England, the privilege of manufacturing explosives had been in the hands of the family of John Evelyn the celebrated diarist as a Crown monopoly since before the Armada. They operated in certain specified areas while the East India Company also had their own powder mills in Surrey and elsewhere. Partly as a result, the saltpetre trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was seldom especially profitable for... 'though a considerable branch of the Company's Indian investments, it is imported (into England) under special restrictions ... which are calculated to prevent it becoming a beneficial article of commerce..' It was also to a certain extent regulated by the course of political events in Europe and in India itself. As a commercial venture, the Conmpany found it particularly galling that in addition to fulfilling their covenant to supply 500 tons to the government it had to be kept until the King (Charles 1) was pleased to buy his owne price.. and at an undervalue .. the payment also deferred before 'being permitted to sell the same to best advantage.

The response to the complaints was a threat that unless the Company sent back "a good quantity"of saltpetre they would be made to pay duty on all silver exported from England and never again enjoy His Majesty's favour, an intimidating move with serious consequences because silver was the currency in which trade was conducted.  Silver bullion exported between 1698 and 1703 was #3.171.405 compared with gold bullion at #128.229 over the same period.

Frustration and discontent over the conditions of trading storage and sales of saltpetre built up until it was clear that matters must be eased.

Sir John Banks, a businessman from Kent who negotiated an agreement between the King and the Company began his career in a syndicate arranging contracts for victualling the navy, an interest he kept up for most of his life. He knew Pepys and John Evelyn and and founded a substantial fortune from the Levant and Indian trades. He also became a Director and later, as Governor of the East Indian Company in 1672, he was able to arrange a contract which included a loan of #20,000 and #30,000 worth of saltpetre for the King 'at the price it shall sell by the candle' - that is by auction - where an inch of candle burned and as long as it was alight bidding could continue. The agreement also included with the price 'an allowance of interest which is to be expressed in tallies.' This was something of a breakthrough in Royal prerogative because previous requests for the King to buy at the Company's auctions had been turned down as 'not honourable or decent.' Outstanding debts were also agreed and the Company permitted to export 250 tons of saltpetre. Again in 1673 Banks successfully negotiated another contract for 700 tons of saltpetre at #37,000 between the King and the Company So urgent was the need to supply the armed forces in the United Kingdom, America and elsewhere that the authorities sometimes turned a blind eye on the untaxed sales. One Governor of the Company was even reported as saying in 1864 that he would rather have the saltpetre made than the tax on salt.

Some idea of the rapid rise in wartime saltpetre consumption is given by the following figures: 2,000 tons per annum in the War of Spanish Succession at the begining of the eighteenth century; 20,000 tons during the Napoleonic Wars a hundred years later; 3,000,000 tons a year by the First World War.. After 1918 the saltpetre industry declined rapidly from an export total of 35,000 tons in 1860 to 8,862 tons in 1934-35 in spite of revival measures during the 1920s.

THE TRANSITION FROM BIOLOGICAL TO INORGANIC ENGINEERING. Not all the uses of potassium nitrate or other alkaline salts have been inflammatory or explosive. The oldest salt industries, although small in today's terms, were essential and even substantial in relation to the populations of the time. They helped bridge the off-seasons when food was scarce through their preserving qualities; to heal disease, make soap, glass, fertilizers and textiles were also among their other ancient capabilites. Their undertakings operated with consistent success until the transition from organic to inorganic processes. Saltpetre as the main ingredient in gunpowder was a decisive factor in the power politics of the sixteenth century. The technology of making and refining it was secret and the sources, diminishing at the local level, had to be pursued further afield mainly in India, North Africa and China - countries which had warm climates and large herds of cattle producing urine. For wood-ash, the European buyers went to the cooler regions - the Baltic and the forests of North America. Nations which relied on fireaarms to protect their interests invaded or infiltrated these areas, often having to fight the natives and competing administrations to maintain a foothold. This aggressive manoevering between the European powers cont-inued until the beginning of the nineteenth century when abundant supplies of nitrates were discovered in Chile which became a world supplier, most of the working plants being owned and operated by British companies The real upsurge in alkali-salt consumption came during the industrial revolution in the 19th century when alternative methods were found for separating alkali ions from chlorine ions through electrolysis and the soda processes of Le Blanc and Solvay.

In the 1880s potash salts were discovered in the German salt mines and about the same time Swiss and French scientists replaced saltpetre by cotton soaked in explosives. As a result, Canadian and Russian woodash lost their value as war material, while Chile and Indian saltpetre became obsolete because nitrate could be made from the air more cheaply by the Haber-Bosch method. Potassium and sodium carbonate and the nitrates, first isolated by biotechnological methods for thousands of years, were finally manufactured without the help of living organisms.

Salt Starvation in British India – Consequences of High Salt Taxation in the Bengal Presidency, 1765 to 1878.

[ This academic article considers salt deprivation in more detail than in The Great Hedge of India, and has full citations. It is copyright, but may be reproduced for non-commercial use providing the author is acknowledged]

by Roy Moxham

Little seems to have been written by modern historians about the physiological consequences of salt deprivation that might have resulted from the high Salt Tax in British India. Occasionally, there are brief references to salt being “a basic necessity of life” (Brown 1989, 236), but without amplification. Writers on famine in British India seem generally to have ignored salt intake as a nutritional factor. The indexes to Bhatia’s Famines in India (Bhatia 1967), and Seavoy’s Famine in Peasant Societies (Seavoy 1986), for example, have no references to salt. In recent years there has been much publicity about the evils of excessive salt consumption, and this may have caused some to suppose that salt was unnecessary. Thus, Weber writes of Gandhi: “Generally, however, the thrust of his medical arguments, which should be much applauded by those stressing the link between salt and hypertension, was that a normal diet provided the salt needed for the body without the addition of sea or rock salt which in fact was toxic” (Weber 1997, 80). Probably the best overview of the Salt Tax and the need for salt in India is in Denton’s The Hunger for Salt but, understandably given the massive scope of the book, this is restricted to a one-page summary and is mostly concerned with the twentieth century (Denton 1984, 84-5).


Gandhi’s salt march has tended to focus attention on to the Salt Tax in the twentieth century, whereas the Salt Tax was much greater in the earlier period of British rule – especially in the Bengal Presidency. Consequences could be expected to have been greater, and thus easier to observe, when the tax was higher. For this reason, this essay concentrates on the situation in the Bengal Presidency from 1765 to 1878. It seeks to investigate the level of salt taxation over that period and its effect on the retail price of salt relative to wages; the physiological necessity for salt and the peculiar nature of salt hunger; the minimum salt intake necessary to maintain health and to recover from illness; actual salt consumption; and the particular consequences of a high Salt Tax in times of famine.



Salt Taxation and Prices



Salt in Bengal had been taxed relatively lightly prior to British rule, but then became very heavily taxed (Parliamentary Papers 1856, 142-153; Ray 1929-30). Under the Mughals, the retail price of salt varied considerably, according to the degree of local monopoly and difficulty of supply, but was generally cheaper, relative to wages, than it became under the British (Sarkar 1987, 66-9,95; Marshall 1976, 130-5). The Mughals had levied a tax on salt as it passed up the River Ganges to the interior. This had been at the rate of 2 per cent on Muslim, and 5 per cent on Hindu traders. In addition, local rulers had sometime imposed small tolls. In the early years of East India Company rule, a small “tax” had been levied by imposing transit duties and a high ground rent on some salt works.


Swingeing taxation of salt developed from the establishment of the Exclusive Company by Clive in 1765. This private company, owned by the East India Company’s senior servants, was given a total monopoly on salt. All production by others was declared illegal. This enabled the Exclusive Company to double the wholesale price of salt to Rs 2.47 a maund. [In order to compare like with like, prices have been converted, if necessary, into Company’s rupees with decimal points or fractions, and weights into maunds of approximately 82 lb (Maccauly 1816, 10-14).] In 1768 the Exclusive Company was forced to relinquish its monopoly on salt, and free manufacture resumed. The wholesale price fell to Rs 1.48, which included a Rs 0.3 tax to the East India Company.


In 1780, Hastings brought salt manufacture under government control again, under a complicated system of farming. The wholesale price was fixed at Rs 2, of which Rs 1.1 to Rs 1.5 went to the government as a “tax.” The farmers used their sub-monopoly to raise the price of salt excessively. In 1788, therefore, a system of direct government auctions was started. This “entirely failed to break down any sub-monopoly’ and ‘great fluctuations occurred in the sale price” until the auction system was changed in 1836, but it did have the effect of increasing the tax collected by the government to Rs 3.25 a maund. It remained at around this extraordinary level until 1878, when it was slightly reduced - to Rs 2.9 in Lower Bengal, and Rs 2.5 elsewhere in the Bengal Presidency (Strachey and Strachey 1882, 225).


The retail price of salt at the beginning of 1878 in Patna, Allahabad, and Lucknow was recorded as Rs 5 a maund (Department of Finance and Commerce 1885, 220). It seems probable that it was at about that level in the interior of the Bengal Presidency, depending on transport costs, in 1794, when the wholesale price averaged 3 rupees (Parliamentary Papers 1856, 146). In 1836, John Crawfurd described “a wholesale price of five rupees per maund upon the spot, and without reference to distribution over an immense tract of country, often without roads or bridges, for the most part with indifferent ones, and notoriously deficient in capital” (Parliamentary Papers 1836, Appendix 76: 196). He also referred to the situation in 1823, when “in many parts of the country the price rose to 12 rupees a maund for adulterated salt”.


In general, over those 90 years, wage inflation reduced the relative burden. In his account of rural Bengal written in 1794, Colebrooke describes the basic agricultural wage as ranging from half a rupee to one rupee a month. In addition he estimates the benefit of being allowed to cultivate some of the employer’s land as being worth, at the most, another seven rupees a year (Colebrooke 1806, 97). This gives a maximum monthly wage of Rs 1.6, and a minimum somewhere below Rs 1.1. By 1878, in the much enlarged Bengal Presidency, wages had risen considerably [as had prices], but in many areas, as recorded in Prices and wages in India, still only averaged three to four rupees a month (Department of Finance and Commerce 1885, 428-9). This is probably an over-estimate for, as Datta has pointed out, the figures were often only collected in the towns or nearby ( Datta 1914, 1: Appendix G, 244),and “Zemindars in Bengal…get their work done much cheaper”(246).


During those years, however, much effort had been expended in controlling the supply of cheap illicit salt into the Presidency. Among other measures:


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 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.

(Strachey and Strachey 1882, 219-20)


By 1878, therefore, it would have been much harder to obtain untaxed salt.


[By 1930, at the time of Gandhi’s salt march, inflation had increased the monthly wage of a rural labourer in Bombay Province to about Rs 13.5 (Lal 1989, 28) but the Salt Tax had been reduced to Rs 1 a maund (Weber 1997, 84).]



The Need for Salt


In recent years there has been much publicity about the need to reduce salt consumption in societies where salt is added to many processed foods (Denton 1984, 584-7). [The health benefits of any general reduction in salt consumption are still being assessed, and contentious (Alderman, Cohen, and Madhavan 1998, 781-5).] It has tended to be forgotten that some salt intake is absolutely necessary; that people need salt, sodium chloride, to survive:


The chemical requirements of the human body demand that the salt concentration in the blood be kept constant. If the body does not get enough salt, a hormonal mechanism compensates by reducing the excretion of salt in the urine and sweat. But it cannot reduce this output to zero. On a completely salt-free diet the body steadily loses small amounts of salt via the kidneys and sweat glands. It then attempts to adjust this by accelerating its secretion of water, so that the blood’s salt concentration can be maintained at the vital level. The result is a gradual desiccation of the body and finally death.

(Bloch 1963, 89)


Salt normally comprises about 1/400 of body weight (Marriott 1950, 6). In a 150-lb man this would be six ounces. In hot environments, especially when doing manual labour, people sweat heavily and lose considerable quantities of salt (35). In tropical countries “salt deficiency is perhaps the commonest of all deficiency states” (22).


The desire for salt is presumably in-built to ensure survival (Denton 1984, 604). Salt, up to a certain limit, is pleasurable to eat. Where it is plentiful, people eat more than they need – and if the body’s mechanism for secreting it is impaired, more than is desirable. Unlike hunger or thirst, however, the desire for salt does not increase when reserves are low (Marriott 1950, 22; Dill 1938, 82). For this reason people receiving too little salt will find food bland, but often not realise why they are feeling listless, or worse. Similarly, those whose salt reserves have been depleted by illness will experience no added desire to consume salt. Even doctors sometimes fail to recognise that patients are suffering from salt depletion. As Dr Marriott has written in Water and Salt Depletion: “their deaths are ascribed to ‘toxaemia’ or ‘uraemia’ or ‘circulatory failure’ when they have, in fact, died from simple lack of salt and could easily have been saved” (Marriott 1950, 3-5). Since he was writing of the situation in western hospitals in the middle of the twentieth century, it can be appreciated that deaths caused by salt depletion in eighteenth and nineteenth century Bengal would have been even less likely to be correctly attributed.


Illness is a major cause of salt depletion (Black 1953, 305-11). People who are already low on salt are particularly vulnerable. Large quantities of salt can be lost in fever-sweat, in vomit, and most of all in diarrhoea (Marriott 1950, 32-4). This should be continually replenished. Severe diarrhoeas can drain as much as 1 ounces of salt from the body in a single day, and thus quickly lead to severe dehydration. Without intravenous infusion of saline solution – not an option in the period being considered – recovery would have been unlikely (Souhami and Moxham 1990, 849). However, milder diarrhoeas, which as any traveller can relate are common in India, can over a few days also lead to severe depletion (Marriott 1950, 33). Rehydration can only be effected with the intake of salt. Without this salt, however much water is drunk, recovery is impossible. Many diarrhoeas are self limiting – that is they terminate of their own accord, without drugs, after a few days. Rotavirus diarrhoea, which “is the commonest cause of diarrhoea in children up to 2 years old in the tropics” (Souhami and Moxham, 257), is an important example. It is essential to keep the body from dehydrating, and salt is necessary for this. The main ingredient of modern oral rehydration solutions is salt (257).


Mild salt depletion, resulting from insufficient salt in the diet, produces “extreme lassitude” (Marriott 1950, 40). This will, of course, reduce economic output. For people already on the edge of starvation, insufficient salt will set up a cycle of economic decline.




Very small amounts of sodium may be present in unprocessed foodstuffs. These have been quantified by McCance (McCance 1936b, 647) together with the comment: “You will notice how little some of them contain, and appreciate that additional salt may be an absolute necessity when I tell you that I would have to eat more than twice my own weight of potatoes every day to get my physiological intake of sodium”. Meat contains more salt, but on the basis of McCance’s figures a minimum of 8 lb would have to be eaten daily. Many Indians were, of course, vegetarian. Even those that were not would have gained little from what quantity of meat they did eat, unless they were eating wild game, since domestic herbivores require salt in their feed (Denton 1984, 54). Coastal dwellers may have received some of their requirement from fish, and it can be assumed that although manufacture of salt from seawater was illegal they took advantage of the salt water for cooking.



Minimum Salt Requirement


Exactly how much salt the inhabitants of the Bengal Presidency required to maintain health is difficult to estimate. Need would have depended on such variables as body weight, metabolism, the work environment, and local climate. Some people sweat more than others, and some have a higher concentration of salt in their sweat (Ladell, Waterlow, and Hudson 1944, 491-7, 527-531). Different researchers have come up with different minimum salt requirements (Robinson 1949, 218-31). Under constant conditions, some people seem able to reduce the loss of salt in their sweat to very low levels (Conn 1949, 373-93; Dahl 1958, 1152-7). Acclimatisation may reduce salt need (Collins 1963, 716-20). Some indigenous people in areas where salt has been scarce historically, seem to have a very low salt requirement (Denton 1984, 43-4). In contrast, for many others, living or working in hot environments, high levels of salt consumption seem to be essential (Ladell 1944, 492; McCance 1936a, 245-268; Haldane 1929, 469; Dill 1938, 83-4). As Knut Schmidt-Nielsen has pointed out, “sweat contains a variable amount of sodium chloride, but always enough to cause a considerable salt loss when sweat is produced in quantities. A relatively high intake of sodium chloride is therefore necessary” (Schmidt-Nielsen 1964, 21). It is difficult, he also observes, to collect sweat and other samples without altering the body’s environment, and impossible to give general rules for cutaneous salt loss, “but we can assume that, at high sweating rates, the total loss may easily run to 10 to 30 grammes [0.35 to 1.06 oz] of sodium chloride a day” (5-8).



During the Second World War a number of investigations into the heat exhaustion of both British and Indian military personnel were conducted. It so happened that Dr Marriott, a consultant physician at the Middlesex Hospital in London, was posted inside the former Bengal Presidency:


It was my duty in India to do special tours in the hottest weather (June) to observe heat effects in such particularly hot stations as Allahabad, Cawnpore, Lucknow, and Bareilly. The tour of 1942 was particularly instructive, because it happened to be an unusually hot season (maximum shade temperature in the above stations were between 115 and 123 F. (46 and 50.6 C.) and because in that year – the first real war year for India – there was not adequate shade provision for men, nor was there general realisation of the importance of extra salt intake. During this hot season there were 1,959 admissions to hospital for heat effects and 136 deaths. I personally saw 400 cases.

(Marriott 1950, 35)


Similar salt depletion was reported among troops with heat exhaustion in Iraq (Ladell, Waterlow, and Hudson 1944). The daily hot station salt allowance was 21 grams, with another 10 grams estimated to be present in processed food, making a total of 31 grams, or 1.09 oz. Many other troops, it should be noted, found this intake adequate. In Iraq, a group of fit acclimatised men were subject to extensive tests in hot conditions. The average loss of salt in their sweat was calculated as 17.6 grams a day. There was also a loss of at least 3 grams a day in the urine, giving a total daily loss of 20.6 grams, or 0.73 oz.


Since salt hunger is not related to requirement, it is impossible to adjust consumption to exactly meet loss in sweat and urine. There must always be a surplus available to cover possible need. Moreover, since without sophisticated medical examination it is impossible to tell which people have the more efficient salt metabolism, salt availability needs to be targeted at the level of those with the higher need.


In the Bengal Presidency less salt was necessary during the cool season. However, because of the nature of salt hunger, it is unlikely that consumption would have fully reflected this. Since the body cannot store excess salt for more than a few days (Dill 1938, 81-2), unnecessary salt eaten in cooler weather would have inevitably been excreted and thus wasted. Taking the figures given above as a basis for necessary intake in hot weather, it seems reasonable to assume a minimum average daily requirement over a year of at least half an ounce of salt. This is equivalent to 11.4 lb a year.



Taking this figure of 11.4 lb for an adult, the requirement for a family can be calculated. If it is assumed that an average family contained two adults and three children, with the children consuming half that of the adults, then a family requirement of 39.9 lb of salt a year results. This amount makes no provision for any wastage or illness. [ It also makes no provision for the salt needed by cattle and other domestic livestock, which needed salt just as humans did. Salt deprivation reduces milk yields (Denton 1984, 44). The economic and nutritional effect of restricting the salt intake of cattle needs further research, as does the effect on cottage industries that used salt, such as tanning and textile dying. ] 39.9 lb of salt is just under half a maund, which is a convenient measure to use in calculating cost.




Actual Salt Consumption




How much salt was actually consumed? As has already been seen, the price of salt was often about Rs 5 a maund [and sometimes much higher]. The minimum family requirement of half a maund would have cost Rs 2 . In 1788 this would have represented about two months’ income for an agricultural labourer, and by 1878 a month’s or more. It is clear that with such high level of tax, the temptation would have been to economise on consumption.


Dr John Crawfurd, formerly of the Bengal Medical Service, in his evidence before the 1836 Parliamentary Select Committee on salt in British India, disputed the Salt Board’s assertion that nearly 12 lb of salt per head was supplied to the population. He produced figures that gave a consumption of no more than 7.69 lb a head. With regard to consumption being curtailed because of the cost he said:


The Board of Customs however, will have it, that under no possible circumstances is it likely that a larger quantity of salt than 12 lb would be consumed by the people of Bengal. They insist that, ‘the argument which holds good of the superior productiveness of low prices on all articles in general demand in civilised countries at home, is almost wholly inapplicable to the salt trade in India, where the poorest individual gets what custom and convenience have taught him to eat, and where, such are the simple habits of the bulk of the society, little more would be used, whatever were the extent of the supply and then cheapness of the article.’ My own opinion is, that a more unfounded opinion than this could not well be propounded. The people of Bengal, I have no doubt, should they ever get cheap salt, will consume it as largely as any other class of men.

(Parliamentary Papers 1836, 188)


Dr R. Moore, formerly medical officer in charge of Midnapore District, was similarly examined before the Select Committee of 1853:


Chairman: With regard to the salt revenue, have you any observations to make upon that subject?


Dr Moore: In the first place the poorer people cannot get salt. Many people have supposed that diseases arise in consequence of the deficiency.

(Parliamentary Papers 1853, 61)


Furthermore, salt was often adulterated, as an 1852 petition from Calcutta testified:


Many proofs that the duty presses with very great severity might be given, but one must here be sufficient, namely, that out of Calcutta, as far as the North-west Provinces, pure salt, as sold by the Government or imported, is almost unknown to the mass of the people; adulterations of all kinds are resorted to reduce its price to their means of purchasing; a wholesome condiment is thus often rendered unwholesome, and to all purposes for which pure salt is necessary the duty is a prohibition.

(Parliamentary Papers 1856, Appendix 7, 489)


Further compelling evidence comes from an official source, the Commissioner’s 1868-69 Report on the Administration of the Inland Customs Department:


114. VII That, excluding the salt-sources and their immediate vicinity, the average consumption of adults in the belt of country extending for 100 miles outside our cordon, where untaxed salt is available, is certainly not less than 13 lb per adult and probably materially exceeds this amount.


114. VIII That, both by actual enquiry and by reference to population and supplies, it is proved that the average consumed by adults within Line cannot exceed 8 lbs.

(Inland Customs Department 1869)


If the average was 8 lb, many must have consumed less.



Abhay Charan Das in The Indian Ryot, printed in 1881, wrote:


Then again there is a still more wretched creature, who bears the name of labourer, whose income may be fixed at thirty-five rupees per annum. If he, with his wife and three children, consumes twenty-four seers [ 49 lb ] of salt, he must pay a salt duty of two rupees and seven annas, or in other words 7 per cent income tax. Now we leave it to our readers to judge, whether the ryots and the labourers can procure salt in the quantities they require. We can positively state from our own experience, that an ordinary ryot can never procure more than two-thirds of what he requires, and that a labourer not more than half.

(Das 1881, 363-4)


From the above testimonies, it seems clear that salt consumption was severely reduced by the high level of Salt Tax, and at times was perhaps not sufficient to restore even the losses in sweat. This would have led to “a mild breathlessness at first and sense of fatigue” (McCance 1936a, 251), with consequent loss of economic output and resistance to disease. For the very poor, extremely low salt levels would possibly have resulted in “cramps, weakness, lassitude, and severe cardio-respiratory distress on exertion” (267). They would have been particularly at risk from salt-depleting illnesses, such as sweat-inducing fevers, and especially from diarrhoeas. Whatever the minimal salt requirement of the healthy, those with fevers and diarrhoeas would have been adversely affected by any restriction on salt intake needed to replace losses.



Salt and Famine


In times of famine there was no money to buy anything except basic food. As W.W. Hunter, Director-General of Statistics to the Government of India, wrote in 1874 of lower Bengal, where wages were higher than in the northwest:


A household of four persons, say two adults and two children, reduced to one meal a day, consume 1 seers of rice. In order to enable the father to do his daily work, he would require a second meal of half a seer, making 2 seers a day. If the daily consumption dropped below this, severe suffering would have to be endured. Now, at even the point that I take to be the beginning of the famine, namely, Rs 4 a maund, or 10 seers to the rupee, this lower scale of diet would cost Rs 6 a month. When rates rise to 8 seers for the rupee, or Rs 5 per maund, 2 seers a day would cost Rs 7 – 8 [Rs 7 ] a month. Yet about a fourth of the families in Bengal do not earn more than Rs 5 a month even in prosperous times.

(Hunter 1874, 21-2)


In such circumstances, there would have been no spare money to buy salt.



The Inland Customs Commissioner’s report for 1877-78 records that 10,918 people were arrested, of whom 2600 paid fines averaging Rs 6.52, and 3252 went to prison in default (Inland Customs Department 1878, para 28). [These figures only cover the jurisdiction within the vicinity of the Customs Line, and there would have been other arrests for salt offences in other areas of the Bengal Presidency.] This was a large increase on the previous year. The Commissioner wrote: “This is owing to the distress arising from the high price of grain having caused some persons to resort to irregular means of livelihood; scarcity and distress causing the Customs Laws to be made frequently offended against in common with the other laws of the land”.


The “high price of grain” is a reference to the famine that had devastated the North-Western Provinces and Oudh. The official figure for famine induced deaths in the 14 months from November 1877 to December 1878 was 1,266,420 (Parliamentary Papers 1881, 203). Later enquiries and research has concluded that this was a considerable under-estimate (Parliamentary Papers 1881, 243-50; Arup). The most detailed investigation into actual cause of death seems to have been by a Mr Roberts, who visited 62 villages in the districts of Agra, Etah, and Mainpuri. His figures (Parliamentary Papers 1881, 245) give totals:


 Hunger  278
 Bowel-complaints  285
 Small-pox  310
 Fever  1184
 Other causes  240
 Total  2297

Thus, he concluded that more people died of bowel complaints than of hunger.


The official “Statement shewing the number of deaths (by different causes) in the North-Western Provinces and Oudh” lists 165,334 deaths from “bowel complaints” excluding cholera, sharply up from 84,615 the previous year (Parliamentary Papers 1881, 232).


As has been seen, diarrhoea leads to a severe drainage of salt. The body cannot be rehydrated without consuming an equal quantity of salt. There was no remission of the Salt Tax despite the famine. The nature of salt hunger leads to it being given a lower priority than food hunger. Taking all these factors into account, it seems likely that many would have died from lack of salt. A similar situation would have occurred in the many other famines that ravaged the Bengal Presidency between 1765 and 1879 (Parliamentary Papers 1881, 1-264).





Absolute proof as to what occurred is unlikely to be forthcoming, and degrees of probability will have to suffice. It seems clear that those who were unable to obtain any salt at all would have died. How many were so poor as to die would have varied from year to year, but in time of famine they would probably have been numerous. Many more would have had their general health and resistance to disease affected by too low a consumption of salt. Some of these would have died from the secondary effects of reduced economic output or susceptibility to disease, or a combination of the two. It also seems clear that many of those with diarrhoeas, even though able to obtain enough salt for normal use, would have perished. Some would have died anyway, but it seems probable that the high Salt Tax would have considerably increased their number.


It will be difficult, if not impossible, to exactly quantify the damage to heath caused by salt starvation. As has been seen, the symptoms of salt depletion were at the time usually unrecognisable, and would have been ascribed to other causes. Autopsy is presumably not an option, especially as most people were probably cremated. Moreover, there are probably too many variables to allow the use of the mortality and illness statistics from areas of India that had cheaper salt to draw accurate comparisons. Nevertheless, it is important to know whether the impact on health of the Salt Tax was relatively small or very significant. Using modern medical, statistical and historical knowledge, it may be possible to form a better picture of events; to assess the broad magnitude of any damage to health, and roughly quantify excess mortality. Experiences in modern famines could perhaps assist interpretation; there may be useful parallels in other countries. A fuller analysis will only become possible with contributions from experts in many different fields, and I hope this essay will encourage that process.







List of References


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ARUP, MAHARATNA. 1996. The Demography of Famines: An Indian Historical Perspective. Delhi: Oxford University Press.


BHATIA, BALMOKAND M. 1967. Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India (1860-1965), second edition. London: Asia Publishing House.


BLACK, D. A. K. 1953. “Body-Fluid Depletion.” The Lancet 1: 305-311.


BLOCH, M. R. 1963. “The Social Influence of Salt.” Scientific American 209: 89 - 98.


BROWN, JUDITH MARGARET. 1989. Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope. New Haven: Yale University Press.


COLEBROOKE, HENRY THOMAS. 1806. Remarks on the Husbandry and Internal Commerce of Bengal. Calcutta.


COLLINS, K. J. 1963. “Endocrine Control of Salt and Water in Hot Conditions.” Federation Proceedings 22: 716-20.


CONN, JEROME W. 1949. “The Mechanism of Acclimatization to Heat.” Advances in Internal Medicine III: 373-393.


DAHL, LEWIS K. 1958. “Salt Intake and Salt Need.” New England Journal of Medicine 258: 1152-7.


DAS, ABHAY CHARAN. 1881. The Indian Ryot, Land Tax, Permanent Settlement, and the Famine. Howrah: Howrah Press.


DATTA, K. L. 1914. Report on the Enquiry into the Rise of Prices in India. Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing.


DENTON, DEREK. 1984. The Hunger for Salt: An Anthropological, Physiological and Medical Analysis. Berlin: Springer – Verlag.


Department of Finance and Commmerce, Statistical Branch. 1885. Prices and wages in India. Calcutta: Superintendent of Government Printing.


DILL, DAVID BRUCE. 1938. Life, Heat and Altitude: Physiological Effects of Hot Climates and Great Heights. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


HALDANE, JOHN SCOTT. 1929. “Salt Depletion by Sweating.” British Medical Journal 2: 469.


HUNTER WILLIAM WILSON. 1874. Famine aspects of Bengal districts. London: Trubner.


Inland Customs Department. 1869. Report on the administration of the Inland Customs Department, 1868-69. Allahabad: Government Press.


___. 1878. Report on the administration of the Inland Customs Department, 1877-78. Allahabad: Government Press.


LADELL, W. S. S., WATERLOW, J. C. and HUDSON, M FAULKNER. 1944. “Desert Climate; Physiological and Clinical Observations.” The Lancet 2: 491-7, 527-531.


LAL, DEEPAK. 1989. The Hindu Equilibrium, 2: Aspects of Indian labour. Oxford: Clarendon.


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MARSHALL, PETER J. 1976. East India Fortunes: The British in Bengal in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon.


McCANCE, R. A. 1936a. “Experimental Sodium Chloride Deficiency in Man.” Proceedings Royal Society B 119: 245-268.


___. 1936b. “Medical Problems in Mineral Metabolism.” The Lancet: 230: 643 – 650.


Parliamentary Papers. 1836. “Report from the Select Committee on Salt, British India.” 518 XVII.


___.1853. "Fourth Report from the Select Committee on Indian Territories, Minutes of Evidence." 692.


___. 1856. “Report of the Commissioner appointed to inquire into and report upon the manufacture and sale of salt in British India.” 2084 I XXVI.


___. 1881. “Report of the Indian Famine Commission, Part III, Famine Histories.” C 3086 LXXI – Part I.


RAY, PARIMAL. 1929 – 30. “History of Taxation of Salt under the Rule of the East India Company.” Calcutta Review, Series 3, 33: 175-194; 34: 35-43, 215-224, 347-354; 35: 17-21, 193-200, 321-325; 36: 29-34, 184-187, 340-344; 37: 64-67, 265-279.


ROBINSON, S. 1949. “Physiological Adjustments to Heat.” In Physiology of Heat Regulation and the Science of Clothing, edited by L. H. Newburgh, 1968 facsimile of 1949 edition. New York: Hafner.


SARKAR, JAGADISH NARAYAN. 1987. Mughal Economy: Organization and Working. Calcutta: Naya Prokash.


SCHMIDT-NIELSEN, KNUT. 1964. Desert Animals: Physiological Problems of Heat and Water. Oxford: Clarendon.


SEAVOY, RONALD E. 1986. Famine in peasant societies. New York; London: Greenwood.


SOUHAMI, ROBERT L. and MOXHAM, JOHN. 1990. Textbook of Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.


STRACHEY, JOHN and STRACHEY, RICHARD. 1882. The Finances and Public Works of India from 1869 to 1881. London: Kegan Paul, Trench.


WEBER, THOMAS. 1997. On the Salt March: The Historiography of Gandhi’s March to Dandi. New Delhi: HarperCollins.




Copyright Roy Moxham 2000.





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