Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Declining Fertility of the Soil—Popular Notion of the Cause

On the 18th[1] we came on ten miles to Sāhar, over a plain of poor soil, carelessly cultivated, and without either manure or irrigation. Major Godby left us at Govardhan to return to Agra. He would have gone on with us to Delhi; but having the command of his regiment, and being a zealous officer, he did not like to leave it so long during the exercising season.

We felt much the loss of his society. He is a man of great observation and practical good sense; has an infinite fund of good humour, and a cheerfulness of temperament that never seems to flag—a more agreeable companion I have never met. The villages in these parts are literally crowded with peafowl. I counted no less than forty-six feeding close by among the houses of one hamlet on the road, all wild, or rather unappropriated, for they seemed on the best possible terms with the inhabitants.

At Sāhar our water was drawn from wells eighty feet deep, and this is said to be the ordinary depth from which water is drawn; consequently irrigation is too expensive to be common. It is confined almost exclusively to small patches of garden cultivation in the vicinity of villages.

On the 14th we came on sixteen miles to Kosī, for the most part over a poor soil badly cultivated, and almost exclusively devoted to autumn crops, of which cotton is the principal. I lost the road in the morning before daylight,[2] and the trooper, who usually rode with me, had not come up. I got an old landholder from one of the villages to walk on with me a mile, and put me in the right road. I asked him what had been the state of the country under the former government of the Jāts and Marāthās, and was told that the greater part was a wild jungle.

'I remember,' said the old man, 'when you could not have got out of the road hereabouts without a good deal of risk. I could not have ventured a hundred yards from the village without the chance of having my clothes stripped off my back.

'Now the whole face of the country is under cultivation, and the roads are safe; formerly the governments kept no faith with their landholders and cultivators, exacting ten rupees where they had bargained for five, whenever they found the crops good; but, in spite of all this "zulm"' (oppression), said the old man, 'there was then more "barkat" (blessings from above) than now. The lands yielded more returns to the cultivator, and he could maintain his little family better upon five acres than he can now upon ten.'

'To what, my old friend, do you attribute this very unfavourable change in the productive powers of your soil?'

'A man cannot, sir, venture to tell the truth at all times, and in all places,' said he.

'You may tell it now with safety, my good old friend; I am a mere traveller ("musafir") going to the hills in search of health, from the valley of the Nerbudda, where the people have been suffering much from blight, and are much perplexed in their endeavour to find a cause.'

'Here, sir, we all attribute these evils to the dreadful System of perjury, which the practices of your judicial courts have brought among the people. You are perpetually putting the Ganges water into the hands of the Hindoos, and the Korān into those of Muhammadans; and all kinds of lies are every day told upon them. God Almighty can stand this no longer; and the lands have ceased to be blessed with that fertility which they had before this sad practice began.

'This, sir, is almost the only fault we have, any of us, to find with your government; men, by this System of perjury, are able to cheat each other out of their rights, and bring down sterility upon the land, by which the innocent are made to suffer for the guilty.'

On reaching our tents, I asked a respectable farmer, who came to pay his respects to the Commissioner of the division, Mr. Fraser, what he thought of the matter, telling him what I had heard from my old friend on the road. 'The diminished fertility is,' said he, 'owing no doubt to the want of those salutary fallows which the fields got under former governments, when invasions and civil wars were things of common occurrence, and kept at least two-thirds of the land waste; but there is, on the other hand, no doubt that you have encouraged perjury a good deal in your courts of justice; and this perjury must have some effect in depriving the land of the blessing of God.[3]

'Every man now, who has a cause in your civil courts, seems to think it necessary either to swear falsely himself, or to get others to do it for him. The European gentlemen, no doubt, do all they can to secure every man his right, but, surrounded as they are by perjured witnesses, and corrupt native officers, they commonly labour in the dark.'

Much of truth is to be found among the village communities of India, where they have been carefully maintained, if people will go among them to seek it. Here, as almost everywhere else, truth is the result of self-government, whether arising from choice, under municipal institutions, or necessity, under despotism and anarchy; self-government produces self-esteem and pride of character.

Close to our tents we found the people at work, irrigating their fields from several wells, whose waters were all brackish. The crops watered from these wells were admirable—likely to yield at least fifteen returns of the seed. Wherever we go, we find the signs of a great government passed away—signs that must tend to keep alive the recollections, and exalt the ideas of it in the minds of the people.

Beyond the boundary of our military and civil stations we find as yet few indications of our reign or character, to link us with the affections of the people. There is hardly anything to indicate our existence as a people or a government in this country; and it is melancholy to think that in the wide extent of country over which I have travelled there should be so few signs of that superiority in science and arts which we boast of, and really do possess, and ought to make conducive to the welfare and happiness of the people in every part of our dominions.

'The people and the face of the country are just what they might have been had they been governed by police officers and tax-gatherers from the Sandwich Islands, capable of securing life, property, and character, and levying honestly the means of maintaining the establishments requisite for the purpose.[4] Some time after the journey here described, in the early part of November, after a heavy fall of rain, I was driving alone in my buggy from Garhmuktesar on the Ganges to Meerut. The roads were very bad, the stage a double one, and my horse became tired, and unable to go on.[5]

I got out at a small village to give him a little rest and food; and sat down, under the shade of one old tree, upon the trunk of another that the storm had blown down, while my groom, the only servant I had with me, rubbed down and baited my horse. I called for some parched gram from the same shop which supplied my horse, and got a draught of good water, drawn from the well by an old woman in a brass jug lent to me for the purpose by the shopkeeper.[6]

While I sat contentedly and happily stripping my parched gram of its shell, and eating it grain by grain, the farmer, or head landholder of the village, a sturdy old Rājpūt, came up and sat himself, without any ceremony, down by my side, to have a little conversation.

To one of the dignitaries of the land, in whose presence the aristocracy are alone entitled to chairs, this easy familiarity on the part of a poor farmer seems at first somewhat strange and unaccountable; he is afraid that the man intends to offer him some indignity, or, what is still worse, mistakes him for something less than the dignitary. The following dialogue took place.

'You are a Rājpūt, and a "zamīndār"?' (landholder).

'Yes; I am the head landholder of this village.'

'Can you tell me how that village in the distance is elevated above the ground? Is it from the debris of old villages, or from a rock underneath?'

'It is from the debris of old villages. That is the original seat of all the Rājpūts around; we all trace our descent from the founders of that village who built and peopled it many centuries ago.'

'And you have gone on subdividing your inheritances here, as elsewhere, no doubt, till you have hardly any of you anything to eat?'

'True, we have hardy any of us enough to eat; but that is the fault of the Government, that does not leave us enough, that takes from us as much when the season is bad as when it is good.'[7]

'But your assessment has not been increased, has it?' 'No, we have concluded a settlement for twenty years upon the same footing as formerly.'

'And if the sky were to shower down upon you pearls and diamonds, instead of water, the Government would never demand more from you than the rate fixed upon?'


'Then why should you expect remissions in the bad seasons?'

'It cannot be disputed that the "barkat" (blessing from above) is less under you than it used to be formerly, and that the lands yield less to our labour.'

'True, my old friend, but do you know the reason why?'


'Then I will tell you. Forty or fifty years ago, in what you call the times of the "barkat" (blessing from above), the cavalry of Sikh freebooters from the Panjāb used to sweep over this fine plain, in which stands the said village from which you are all descended; and to massacre the whole population of some villages, and a certain portion of that of every other village; and the lands of those killed used to be waste for want of cultivators. Is not this all true?'

'Yes, quite true.'

'And the fine groves which had been planted over the plain by your ancestors, as they separated from the great parent stock, and formed independent villages and hamlets for themselves, were all swept away and destroyed by the same hordes of freebooters, from whom your poor imbecile emperors, cooped up in yonder large city of Delhi, were utterly unable to defend you?'

'Quite true,' said the old man with a sigh. 'I remember when all this fine plain was as thickly studded with fine groves of mango- trees as Rohilkhand, or any other part of India.'

'You know that the land requires rest from labour, as well as men and bullocks, and that, if you go on sowing wheat and other exhausting crops, it will go on yielding less and less returns, and at last not be worth the tilling?'

'Quite well.'

'Then why do you not give the land rest by leaving it longer fallow, or by a more frequent alternation of crops relieve it?'

'Because we have now increased so much that we should not get enough to eat were we to leave it to fallow; and unless we tilled it with exhausting crops we should not get the means of paying our rents to the Government.'

'The Sikh hordes in former days prevented this; they killed off a certain portion of your families, and gave the land the rest which you now refuse it. When you had exhausted one part, you found another recovered by a long fallow, so that you had better returns; but now that we neither kill you, nor suffer you to be killed by others, you have brought all the cultivable lands into tillage; and under the old System of cropping to exhaustion, it is not surprising that they yield you less returns.'[8]

By this time we had a crowd of people seated around us upon the ground, as I went on munching my parched gram, and talking to the old patriarch.

They all laughed at the old man at the conclusion of my last speech, and he confessed I was right.

'This is all true, sir, but still your Government is not considerate; it goes on taking kingdom after kingdom, and adding to its dominions without diminishing the burden upon us, its old subjects. Here you have had armies away taking Afghanistan, but we shall not have one rupee the less to pay.'[9]

'True, my friend, nor would you demand a rupee less from those honest cultivators around us, if we were to leave you all your lands untaxed. You complain of the Government—they complain of you.' (Here the circle around us laughed at the old man again.)

'Nor would you subdivide the lands the less fo