Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Transit Duties in India—Mode of Collecting them

At Horal[1] resides a Collector of Customs with two or three uncovenanted European assistants as patrol officers.[2]

The rule now is to tax only the staple articles of produce from the west on their transit down into the valley of the Jumna and Ganges, and to have only one line on which these articles shall be liable to duties.[3]

They are free to pass everywhere else without search or molestation. This has, no doubt, relieved the people of these provinces from an infinite deal of loss and annoyance inflicted upon them by the former System of levying the Customs duties, and that without much diminishing the net receipts of Government from this branch of its revenues. But the time may come when Government will be constrained to raise a greater proportion of its collective revenues than it has hitherto done from indirect taxation, and when this time comes, the rule which confines the impost to a single line must of course be abandoned.[4]

Under the former system, one great man, with a very high salary, was put in to preside over a host of native agents with very small salaries, and without any responsible intermediate agent whatever to aid him, and to watch over them.

The great man was selected without any reference to his knowledge of, or fitness for, the duties entrusted to him, merely because he happened to be of a certain standing in a certain exclusive service, which entitled him to a certain scale of salary, or because he had been found unfit for judicial or other duties requiring more intellect and energy of character.

The consequence was that for every one rupee that went into the public treasury, ten were taken by these harpies from the merchants, or other people over whom they had, or could pretend to have, a right of search.[5]

Some irresponsible native officer who happened to have the confidence of the great man (no matter in what capacity he served him) sold for his own profit, and for that of those whose goodwill he might think it worth while to conciliate, the offices of all the subordinate agents immediately employed in the collection of the duties.

A man who was to receive an avowed salary of seven rupees a month would give him three or four thousand for his post, because it would give him charge of a detached post, in which he could soon repay himself with a handsome profit. A poor 'peon', who was to serve under others, and could never hope for an independent charge, would give five hundred rupees for an office which yielded him avowedly only four rupees a month. All arrogated the right of search, and the state of Indian society and the climate were admirably suited to their purpose.

A person of any respectability would feel himself dishonoured were the females of his family to be seen, much less touched, while passing along the road in their palanquin or covered carnage; and to save himself from such dishonour he was everywhere obliged to pay these custom-house officers. Many articles that pass in transit through India would suffer much damage from being opened along the road at any season, and be liable to be spoiled altogether during that of the rains; and these harpies could always make the merchants open them, unless they paid liberally for their forbearance.

Articles were rated to the duty according to their value; and articles of the same weight were often, of course, of very different values. These officers could always pretend that packages liable to injury from exposure contained within them, among the articles set forth in the invoice, others of greater value in proportion to their weight.

Men who carried pearls, jewels, and other articles very valuable compared with their bulk, always depended for their security from robbers and thieves on their concealment; and there was nothing which they dreaded so much as the insolence and rapacity of these custom-house officers, who made them pay large bribes, or exposed their goods.

Gangs of thieves had members in disguise at such stations, who were soon able to discover through the insolence of the officers, and the fears and entreaties of the merchants, whether they had anything worth taking or not.

A party of thieves from Datiyā, in 1882, followed Lord William Bentinck's camp to the bank of the river Jumna near Mathurā, where they found a poor merchant humbly entreating an insolent custom-house officer not to insist upon his showing the contents of the little box he carried in his carriage, lest it might attract the attention of thieves, who were always to be found among the followers of such a camp, and offering to give him anything reasonable for his forbearance.

othing he could be got to offer would satisfy the rapacity of the man; the box was taken out and opened. It contained jewels which the poor man hoped to sell to advantage among the European ladies and gentlemen of the Governor-General's suite. He replaced his box in his carriage; but in half an hour it was travelling post-haste to Datiyā, by relays of thieves who had been posted along the road for such occasions. They quarrelled about the division; swords were drawn, and wounds inflicted.

One of the gang ran off to the magistrate at Sāgar, with whom he had before been acquainted;[6] and he sent him back with a small party, and a letter to the Datiyā Rājā requesting that he would get the box of jewels for the poor merchant. The party took the precaution of searching the house of the thieves before they delivered the letter to their friend the minister, and by this means recovered about half the jewels, which amounted in all to about seven thousand rupees.

The merchant was agreeably surprised when he got back so much of his property through the magistrate of Mathurā, and confirmed the statement of the thief regarding the dispute with the custom-house officer which enabled them to discover the value of the box.

Should Government by and by extend the System that obtains in this single line to the Customs all over India they may greatly augment their revenue without any injury, and with but little necessary loss and inconvenience to merchants. The object of all just taxation is to make the subjects contribute to the public burthen in proportion to their means, and with as little loss and inconvenience to themselves as possible.

The people who reside west of this line enjoy all their salt, cotton, and other articles which are taxed on crossing the line without the payment of any duties, while those to the east of it are obliged to pay. It is, therefore, not a just line. The advantages are, first, that it interposes a body of most efficient officers between the mass of harpies and the heads of the department, who now virtually superintend the whole System, whereas they used formerly to do so merely ostensibly.

They are at once the tapis of Prince Husain and the telescope of Prince Alī; they enable the heads of departments to be everywhere and see everything, whereas before they were nowhere and saw nothing.[7] Secondly, it makes the great staple articles of general consumption alone liable to the payment of duties, and thereby does away in a great measure with the odious right of search.

At Kosī our friend, Charles Fraser, left us to proceed through Mathurā to Agra. He is a very worthy man and excellent public officer, one of those whom one always meets again with pleasure, and of whose society one never tires. Mr. Wilmot, the Collector of Customs, and Mr. Wright, one of the patrol officers, came to dine with us.

The wind blew so hard all day that the cook and khānsāmān (butler) were long in despair of being able to give us any dinner at all. At last we managed to get a tent, closed at every crevice to keep out the dust, for a cook-room; and they were thus able to preserve their master's credit, which, no doubt, according to their notions, depended altogether on the quality of his dinner.


1. The place is a small town in the Gurgāon District, Panjāb.

2. The term 'uncovenanted' may require explanation for readers not familiar with the details of Indian administration. The Civil Service of India, commonly called Indian Civil Service, which supplies most of the higher administrative and judicial officers, used to be known as the Covenanted service, because its members sign a covenant with the Secretary of State. All the other departmental services—Public Works, Postal and the rest—were grouped together as uncovenanted. In accordance with the Report of the Public Service Commission (1886-7) the terms 'covenanted' and 'uncovenanted' have been disused.

3. The text refers to what was known as the 'customs hedge'. Before the establishment of the British supremacy each of the innumerable native jurisdictions levied transit duties on many kinds of goods at each of its frontiers, to the infinite vexation of traders.

Such duties were gradually abolished in British territory, and few, if any, are now enforced by native states. Salt cannot be manufactured in British India without a licence, and the Salt (formerly called Inland Customs) Department is charged with the duty of preventing the manufacture or sale of illicit salt.

In its later developments the Customs hedge was used for the collection of the salt duty only. Sir John Strachey took a leading part in its abolition. To secure the levy of the duty on salt, he writes, 'there grew up gradually a monstrous system, to which it would be almost impossible to find a parallel in any tolerably civilized country.

A Customs line was established which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahānadī in Madras, a distance of 2,300 miles; and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men and petty officers, at an annual cost of £162,000. It would have stretched from London to Constantinople. . . . It consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes . . . A similar line, 280 miles in length, was maintained in the north-eastern part of the Bombay Presidency from Dohud to the Runn of Cutch.' In 1878 the salt duties were revised, and the necessary arrangements with the native states were made.

With effect from the 1st April, 1879, the whole Customs line was abolished, with the exception of a small portion on the Indus. (Sir J. Strachey, The Finances and Public Works of India, 1869-81, London, 1882, pp. 219, 220, 225.)

Great mines of rock salt are worked near the Indus.

4. Most people who know India intimately are of opinion that indirect taxation is more suitable to the circumstances of the country than direct taxation. For municipal purposes, indirect taxation, under the name of octroi, is levied by most considerable towns, and notwithstanding its inconveniences, is far less unpopular and far more productive than any form of direct taxation.

The people have been accustomed to indirect taxation of divers kinds from the most remote times, and hate income tax or any other direct impost, however reasonable it may be in theory. Since 1895 the general customs duty is 5 per cent. ad valorem on commodities imported into British India by sea. (See I.G., 1907, vol. iv, chapter 8). The above remarks on the suitability of indirect taxation for India are not intended as a defence of the barbarous device of the 'Customs hedge', which was indefensible.

5. That unsound System prevailed in all departments during the early years of the nineteenth century. 'In Bengal, the monopoly of salt in one form or other dates at least from the establishment of the Board of Trade there in 1765. The strict monopoly of salt commenced in 1780, under a System of agencies. The System introduced in 1780 continued in force with occasional modifications till 1862, when the several salt agencies were gradually abolished, leaving the Supply of salt, whether by importations or excise manufacture, to private enterprise.

Since then, for Bengal Proper, the supply of the condiment has been obtained chiefly by importation, but in part by private manufacture under a System of excise.' (Balfour, Cyclopaedia, 3rd ed., s.v. Salt.) At present the Salt Department is controlled by a single Commissioner with the Government of India, The fee payable for a licence to manufacture salt is fifty rupees. It is inaccurate to describe the limitation imposed on the manufacture of salt as a monopoly. Any one can sell salt, but it can be made only under licence.

6. The author.

7. The same observations, mutatis mutandis, are applicable to the magistracy of the country; and the remedy for all the great existing evils must be sought in the same means, the interposition of a body of efficient officers between the magistrate and the 'thānadārs', or present head police officers of small divisions. [W. H. S.] Much has been done to carry out this advice.

The 'most efficient officers' of the inland Customs department alluded to in the text were the European or Eurasian 'uncovenanted' Collectors of Customs and their assistants. The allusion to Prince Husain and Prince Alī refers to the well-known tale in the Arabian Nights, 'The story of Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peri- Banu'. It is omitted, I believe, from Lane's version.