Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Pestle-and-Mortar Sugar-Mills—Washing away of the Soil

On the 13th [December, 1885] we came to Barwā Sāgar,[1] over a road winding among small ridges and conical hills, none of them much elevated or very steep; the whole being a bed of brown syenite, generally exposed to the surface in a decomposing state, intersected by veins and beds of quartz rocks, and here and there a narrow and shallow bed of dark basalt.


One of these beds of basalt was converted into grey syenite by a large granular mixture of white quartz and feldspar with the black hornblende. From this rock the people form their sugar-mills, which are made like a pestle and mortar, the mortar being cut out of the hornblende rock, and the pestle out of wood.[2]


We saw a great many of these mortars during the march that could not have been in use for the last half-dozen centuries, but they are precisely the same as those still used all over India. The driver sits upon the end of the horizontal beam to which the bullocks are yoked; and in cold mornings it is very common to see him with a pair of good hot embers at his buttocks, resting upon a little projection made behind him to the beam for the purpose of sustaining it [sic].


I am disposed to think that the most productive parts of the surface of Bundēlkhand, like that of some of the districts of the Nerbudda territories which repose upon the back of the sandstone of the Vindhya chain, is [sic] fast flowing off to the sea through the great rivers, which seem by degrees to extend the channels of their tributary streams into every man's field, to drain away its substance by degrees, for the benefit of those who may in some future age occupy the islands of their delta.


I have often seen a valuable estate reduced in value to almost nothing in a few years by some new antennae, if I may so call them, thrown out from the tributary streams of great rivers into their richest and deepest soils. Declivities are formed, the soil gets nothing from the cultivator but the mechanical aid of the plough, and the more its surface is ploughed and cross-ploughed, the more of its substance is washed away towards the Bay of Bengal in the Ganges, or the Gulf of Cambay in the Nerbudda.


In the districts of the Nerbudda, we often see these black hornblende mortars, in which sugar-canes were once pressed by a happy peasantry, now standing upon a bare and barren surface of sandstone rock, twenty feet above the present surface of the culturable lands of the country. There are evident signs of the surface on which they now stand having been that on which they were last worked.


The people get more juice from their small straw- coloured canes in these pestle-and-mortar mills than they can from those with cylindrical rollers in the present rude state of the mechanical arts all over India; and the straw-coloured cane is the only kind that yields good sugar.


The large purple canes yield a watery and very inferior juice; and are generally and almost universally sold in the markets as a fruit. The straw-coloured canes, from being crowded under a very slovenly System, with little manure and less weeding, degenerate into a mere reed.


The Otaheite cane, which was introduced into India by me in 1827, has spread over the Nerbudda, and many other territories; but that that will degenerate in the same manner under the same slovenly system of tillage, is too probable.[3]


Notes:


1. The lake known as Barwā Sāgar was formed by a Bundēla chief, who constructed an embankment nearly three- quarters of a mile long to retain the waters of the Barwā stream, a tributary of the Betwā. The work was begun in 1705 and completed in 1737. The town is situated at the north-west corner of the lake, on the road from Jhānsī to the cantonment of Nowgong (properly Naugāon, or Nayāgāon), at a distance of twelve miles from Jhānsī (N.W.P. Gazetteer, 1st ed., vol. i, pp. 243 and 387).


2. The rude sketch given here in the author's text is not worth reproduction.


3. The 'pestle-and-mortar' pattern of mill above described is the indigenous model formerly in universal use in India, but, in most parts of the country, where stone is not available, the 'mortar' portion was made of wood. The stone mills are expensive.


In the Bānda and Hamīrpur districts of Bundēlkhand sugar-cane is now grown only in the small areas where good loam soil is found. The method of cultivation differs in several respects from that practised in the Gangetic plains, but the editor never observed the slovenliness of which the author complains. He always found the cultivation in sugar-cane villages to be extremely careful and laborious.


Ancient stone mills are sometimes found in black soil country, and it is difficult to understand how sugarcane can ever have been grown there. The author was mistaken in supposing that the indigenous pattern of mill is superior to a good roller mill. The indigenous mill has been completely superseded in most parts of the Panjāb, United Provinces, and Bihār, by the roller mill patented by Messrs. Mylne and Thompson of Bihīa in 1869, and largely improved by subsequent modifications.


The original patent having expired, thousands of roller mills are annually made by native artisans, with little regard to the rights of the Bihīa firm. The iron rollers, cast in Delhi and other places, are completed on costly lathes in many country towns. The mills are generally hired out for the season, and kept in repair by the speculator.


The Rājā of Nāhan or Sirmūr in the Panjāb, who has a foundry employing six hundred men, does a large business of this kind, and finds it profitable. Since the first patent was taken out, many improvements in the design have been effected, and the best mills squeeze the cane absolutely dry.


Messrs. Mylne and Thompson have been successful in introducing other improved machinery for the manufacture of sugar in villages. The Rosa factory near Shahjahānpur in the United Provinces makes sugar on a large scale by European methods.


When the author says that the large canes are sold 'as a fruit' he means that the canes are used for eating, or rather sucking like a sugar-stick. The varieties of sugar-cane are numerous, and the names vary much in different districts.


According to Balfour, the Otaheite (Tahiti) cane is 'probably Saccharum violaceum'. The ordinary Indian kinds belong to the species Saccharum officinarum.


The Otaheite cane was introduced into the West Indies about 1794, and came to India from the Mauritius. It is more suitable for the roller mill than for the indigenous mill, the stems being hard (Cyclopaedia of India, 3rd ed., 1885, s.v. 'Saccharum'). In a letter dated December 15, 1844, the author refers to his introduction of the Otaheite cane, and mentions that the Indian Agricultural Society awarded him a gold medal for this service. The cane was first planted in the Government Botanical Garden at Calcutta.