Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Blights

I had a visit from my little friend the Sarīmant, and the conversation turned upon the causes and effects of the dreadful blight to which the wheat crops in the Nerbudda districts had of late years been subject.


He said that 'the people at first attributed this great calamity to an increase in the crime of adultery which had followed the introduction of our rule, and which', he said, 'was understood to follow it everywhere; that afterwards it was by most people attributed to our frequent measurement of the land, and inspection of fields, with a view to estimate their capabilities to pay; which the people considered a kind of incest, and which he himself, the Deity, can never tolerate.


'The land is', said he, 'considered as the mother of the prince or chief who holds it—the great parent from whom he derives all that maintains him—his family and his establishments. If well treated, she yields this in abundance to her son; but, if he presumes to look upon her with the eye of desire, she ceases to be fruitful; or the Deity sends down hail or blight to destroy all that she yields. The measuring the surface of the fields, and the frequent inspecting the crops by the chief himself, or by his immediate agents were considered by the people in this light; and, in consequence, he never ventured upon these things.


'They were', he thought, 'fully satisfied that we did it more with a view to distribute the burthen of taxation equally upon the people than to increase it collectively; still', he thought that, 'either we should not do it at all, or delegate the duty to inferior agents, whose close inspection of the great parent could not be so displeasing to the Deity.'[1]


Rām Chand Pundit said that 'there was no doubt much truth in what Sarīmant Sāhib had stated; that the crops of late had unquestionably suffered from the constant measuring going on upon the lands; but that the people (as he knew) had now become unanimous in attributing the calamities of season, under which these districts had been suffering so much, to the eating of beef- this was', he thought, 'the great source of all their sufferings.'


Sarīmant declared that he thought 'his Pundit was right, and that it would, no doubt, be of great advantage to them and to their rulers if Government could be prevailed upon to prohibit the eating of beef; that so great and general were the sufferings of the people from these calamities of seasons, and so firm, and now so general, the opinion that they arose chiefly from the practice of killing and eating cows that, in spite of all the other superior blessings of our rule, the people were almost beginning to wish their old Marāthā rulers in power again.'


I reminded him of the still greater calamities the people of Bundēlkhand had been suffering under.


'True,' said he, 'but among them there are crimes enough of everyday occurrence to account for these things; but, under your rule, the Deity has only one or other of these three things to be offended with; and, of these three, it must be admitted that the eating of beef so near the sacred stream of the Nerbudda is the worst.'


The blight of which we were speaking had, for several seasons from the year 1829, destroyed the greater part of the wheat crops over extensive districts along the line of the Nerbudda, and through Mālwā generally; and old people stated that they recollected two returns of this calamity at intervals from twenty to twenty-four years.


The pores, with which the stalks are abundantly supplied to admit of their readily taking up the aqueous particles that float in the air, seem to be more open in an easterly wind than in any other; and, when this wind prevails at the same time that the air is filled with the farina of the small parasitic fungus, whose depredations on the corn constitute what they call the rust, mildew, or blight, the particles penetrate into these pores, speedily sprout and spread their small roots into the cellular texture, where they intercept, and feed on, the sap in its ascent; and the grain in the ear, deprived of its nourishment, becomes shrivelled, and the whole crop is often not worth the reaping.[2]


It is at first of a light, beautiful orange-colour, and found chiefly upon the 'alsī' (linseed)[3] which it does not seem much to injure; but, about the end of February, the fungi ripen, and shed their seeds rapidly, and they are taken up by the wind, and carried over the corn-fields.


I have sometimes seen the air tinted of an orange colour for many days by the quantity of these seeds which it has contained; and that without the wheat crops suffering at all, when any but an easterly wind has prevailed; but, when the air is so charged with this farina, let but an easterly wind blow for twenty-four hours, and all the wheat crops under its influence are destroyed—nothing can save them.


The stalks and leaves become first of an orange colour from the light colour of the farina which adheres to them, but this changes to deep brown. All that part of the stalk that is exposed seems as if it had been pricked with needles, and had exuded blood from every puncture; and the grain in the ear withers in proportion to the number of fungi that intercept and feed upon its sap; but the parts of the stalks that are covered by the leaves remain entirely uninjured; and, when the leaves are drawn off from them, they form a beautiful contrast to the others, which have been exposed to the depredations of these parasitic plants.


Every pore, it is said, may contain from twenty to forty of these plants, and each plant may shed a hundred seeds,[4] so that a single shrub, infected with the disease, may disseminate it over the face of a whole district; for, in the warm month of March, when the wheat is attaining maturity, these plants ripen and shed their seeds in a week, and consequently increase with enormous rapidity, when they find plants with their pores open ready to receive and nourish them.


I went over a rich sheet of wheat cultivation in the district of Jubbulpore in January, 1836, which appeared to me devoted to inevitable destruction. It was intersected by slips and fields of 'alsī', which the cultivators often sow along the borders of their wheat-fields, which are exposed to the road, to prevent trespass.[5] All this 'alsī' had become of a beautiful light orange colour from these fungi; and the cultivators, who had had every field destroyed the year before by the same plant, surrounded my tent in despair, imploring me to tell them of some remedy.


I knew of none; but, as the 'alsī' is not a very valuable plant, I recommended them, as their only chance, to pull it all up by the roots, and fling it into large tanks that were everywhere to be found. They did so, and no 'alsī' was intentionally left in the district, for, like drowning men catching at a straw, they caught everywhere at the little gleam of hope that my suggestion seemed to offer.


Not a field of wheat was that season injured in the district of Jubbulpore; but I was soon satisfied that my suggestion had had nothing whatever to do with their escape, for not a single stalk of the wheat was, I believe, affected; while some stalks of the affected 'alsī' must have been left by accident. Besides, in several of the adjoining districts, where the 'alsī' remained in the ground, the wheat escaped.


I found that, about the time when the blight usually attacks the wheat, westerly winds prevailed, and that it never blew from the east for many hours together. The common belief among the natives was that the prevalence of an east wind was necessary to give full effect to the attack of this disease, though they none of them pretended to know anything of its modus operandi—indeed they considered the blight to be a demon, which was to be driven off only by prayers and sacrifices.


It is worthy of remark that hardly anything suffered from the attacks of these fungi but the wheat. The 'alsī', upon which it always first made its appearance, suffered something certainly, but not much, though the stems and leaves were covered wit