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

We left Jubbulpore on the morning of the 20th November, 1835, and came on ten miles to Baghaurī. Several of our friends of the 29th Native Infantry accompanied us this first stage, where they had a good day's shooting.

In 1830 I established here some venders in wood to save the people from the miseries of the purveyance system; but I now found that a native collector, soon after I had resigned the civil charge of the district, and gone to Sāgar,[1] in order to ingratiate himself with the officers and get from them favourable testimonials, gave two regiments, as they marched over this road, free permission to help themselves gratis out of the store- rooms of these poor men, whom I had set up with a loan from the public treasury, declaring that it must be the wish and intention of Government to supply their public officers free of cost; and consequently that no excuses could be attended to. From that time shops and shopkeepers have disappeared.

Wood for all public officers and establishments passing this road has ever since, as in former times, been collected from the surrounding villages gratis, under the purveyance system, in which all native public officers delight, and which, I am afraid, is encouraged by European officers, either from their ignorance or their indolence.

They do not like the trouble of seeing the men paid either for their wood or their labour; and their head servants of the kitchen or the wardrobe weary and worry them out of their best resolutions on the subject. They make the poor men sit aloof by telling them that their master is a tiger before breakfast, and will eat them if they approach; and they tell their masters that there is no hope of getting the poor men to come for their money till they have bathed or taken their breakfast.

The latter wait in hopes that the gentleman will come out or send for them as soon as he has been tamed by his breakfast; but this meal has put him in good humour with all the world, and he is now no longer unwilling to trust the payment of the poor men to his butler, or his valet de chambre. They keep the poor wretches waiting, declaring that they have as yet received no orders to pay them, till, hungry and weary, in the afternoon they all walk back to their homes in utter despair of getting anything.

If, in the meantime, the gentleman comes out, and finds the men, his servants pacify him by declaring either that they have not yet had time to carry his orders into effect, that they could not get copper change for silver rupees, or that they were anxious to collect all the people together before they paid any, lest they might pay some of them twice over.

It is seldom, however, that he comes among them at all; he takes it for granted that the people have all been paid; and passes the charge in the account of his servants, who all get what these porters ought to have received. Or, perhaps the gentleman may persuade himself that, if he pays his valet or butler, these functionaries will never pay the poor men, and think that he had better sit quiet and keep the money in his own pocket.

The native police or revenue officer is directed by his superior to have wood collected for the camp of a regiment or great civil officers, and he sends out his myrmidons to employ the people around in felling trees, and cutting up wood enough to supply not only the camp, but his own cook-rooms and those of his friends for the next six months. The men so employed commonly get nothing; but the native officer receives credit for all manner of superlatively good qualities, which are enumerated in a certificate.

Many a fine tree, dear to the affections of families and village communities, has been cut down in spite, or redeemed from the axe by a handsome present to this officer or his myrmidons. Lambs, kids, fowls, milk, vegetables, all come flowing in for the great man's table from poor people, who are too hopeless to seek for payment, or who are represented as too proud and wealthy to receive it. Such always have been and such always will be some of the evils of the purveyance system.

If a police officer receives an order from the magistrate to provide a regiment, detachment, or individual with boats, carts, bullocks, or porters, he has all that can be found within his jurisdiction forthwith seized—releases all those whose proprietors are able and willing to pay what he demands, and furnishes the rest, which are generally the worst, to the persons who require them. Police officers derive so much profit from these applications that they are always anxious they should be made; and will privately defeat all attempts of private individuals to provide themselves by dissuading or intimidating the proprietors of vehicles from voluntarily furnishing them.

The gentleman's servant who is sent to procure them returns and tells his master that there are plenty of vehicles, but that their proprietors dare not send them without orders from the police; and that the police tell him they dare not give such orders without the special sanction of the magistrate. The magistrate is written to, but declares that his police have been prohibited from interfering in such matters without special orders, since the proprietors ought to be permitted to send their vehicles to whom they choose, except on occasions of great public emergency; and, as the present cannot be considered as one of these occasions, he does not feel authorized to issue such orders.

On the Ganges, many men have made large fortunes by pretending a general authority to seize boats for the use of the commissariat, or for other Government purposes, on the ground of having been once or twice employed on that duty; and what they get is but a small portion of that which the public lose.

One of these self-constituted functionaries has a boat seized on its way down or up the river; and the crew, who are merely hired for the occasion, and have a month's wages in advance, seeing no prospect of getting soon out of the hands of this pretended Government servant, desert, and leave the boat on the sands; while the owner, if he ever learns the real state of the case, thinks it better to put up with his loss than to seek redress through expensive courts, and distant local authorities.

If the boat happens to be loaded and to have a supercargo, who will not or cannot bribe high enough, he is abandoned on the sands by his crew; in his search for aid from the neighbourhood, his helplessness becomes known—he is perhaps murdered, or runs away in the apprehension of being so—the boat is plundered and made a wreck. Still the dread of the delays and costs of our courts, and the utter hopelessness of ever recovering the lost property, prevent the proprietors from seeking redress, and our Government authorities know nothing of the circumstances.

We remained at Baghaurī the 21st to enable our people to prepare for the long march they had before them, and to see a little more of our Jubbulpore friends, who were to have another day's shooting, as black partridges[2] and quail had been found abundant in the neighbourhood of our camp.[3]


1. Or Saugor, the head-quarters of the district of that name in the Central Provinces. The town is 109 miles north-west of Jabalpur. The author took charge of the Sāgar district in January 1831.

2. Francolinus vulgaris.

3. The purveyance system (Persian rasad rasānī) above described is one of the necessary evils of Oriental life. It will be observed that the author, though so keenly sensitive to the abuses attending the system, proposes no substitute for it, and confesses that the small attempt he made to check abuse was a failure. From time immemorial it has been the custom for Government officials in India to be supplied with necessaries by the people of the country through which their camps pass. Under native Governments no officials ever dream of paying for anything.

In British territory requisitions are limited, and in well ordered civil camps nothing is taken without payment except wood, coarse earthen vessels, and grass. The hereditary village potter supplies the pots, and this duty is fully recognized as one attaching to his office.

The landholders supply the wood and grass. None of these things are ordinarily procurable by private purchase in sufficient quantity, and in most cases could not be bought at all. Officers commanding troops send in advance requisitions specifying the quantities of each article needed, and the indent is met by the civil authorities. Everything so indented for, including wood and grass, is supposed to be paid for, but in practice it is often impossible, with the agency available, to ensure actual payment to the persons entitled. Troops and the people in civil camps must live, and all that can be done is to check abuse, so far as possible, by vigilant administration.

The obligation of landholders to supply necessaries for troops and officials on the march is so well established that it forms one of the conditions of the contract with Government under which proprietors in the permanently settled province of Benares hold their lands.

The extreme abuses of which the system is capable under a lax and corrupt native Government are abundantly illustrated in the author's Journey through the Kingdom of Oudh. 'The System of Purveyance and Forced Labour' is the subject of article xxv in the Hon. F, J, Shore's curious book, Notes on Indian Affairs (London, 1837, 2 vols. 8vo). Many of the abuses denounced by Mr. Shore have been suppressed, but some, unhappily, still exist, and are likely to continue for many years.