Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Subdivisions of Lands—Want of Gradations of Rank—Taxes

The country between Delhi and Meerut is well cultivated and rich in the latent power of its soil; but there is here, as everywhere else in the Upper Provinces, a lamentable want of gradations in society, from the eternal subdivision of property in land, and the want of that concentration of capital in commerce and manufactures which characterizes European—or I may take a wider range, and say Christian societies.[1]

Where, as in India, the landlords' share of the annual returns from the soil has been always taken by the Government as the most legitimate fund for the payment of its public establishments; and the estates of the farmers, and the holdings of the immediate cultivators of the soil, are liable to be subdivided in equal shares among the sons in every succeeding generation, the land can never aid much in giving to society that without which no society can possibly be well organized—a gradation of rank.

Were the Government to alter the System, to give up all the rent of the lands, and thereby convert all the farmers into proprietors of their estates, the case would not be much altered, while the Hindoo and Muhammadan law of inheritance remained the same; for the eternal subdivision would still go on, and reduce all connected with the soil to one common level; and the people would be harassed with a multiplicity of taxes, from which they are now free, that would have to be imposed to supply the place of the rent given up.

The agricultural capitalists who derived their incomes from the interest of money advanced to the farmers and cultivators for subsistence and the purchase of stock were commonly men of rank and influence in society; but they were never a numerous class.[2]

The mass of the people in India are really not at present sensible that they pay any taxes at all. The only necessary of life, whose price is at all increased by taxes, is salt, and the consumer is hardly aware of this increase. The natives never eat salted meat; and though they require a great deal of salt, living, as they do, so much on vegetable food, still they purchase it in such small quantities from day to day as they require it, that they really never think of the tax that may have been paid upon it in its progress.[3]

To understand the nature of taxation in India, an Englishman should suppose that all the non-farming landholders of his native country had, a century or two ago, consented to resign their property into the hands of their sovereign, for the maintenance of his civil functionaries, army, navy, church, and public creditors, and then suddenly disappeared from the community, leaving to till the lands merely the farmers and cultivators; and that their forty millions of rent were just the sum that the Government now required to pay all these four great establishments.[4]

To understand the nature of the public debt of England a man has only to suppose one great national establishment, twice as large as those of the civil functionaries, the Army, Navy, and the Church together, and composed of members with fixed salaries, who purchased their commissions from the wisdom of our ancestors, with liberty to sell them to whom they please—who have no duty to perform for the public,[5] and have, like Adam and Eve, the privilege of going to 'seek their place of rest' in what part of the world they please—a privilege of which they will, of course, be found more and more anxious to avail themselves as taxation presses on the one side, and prohibition to the import of the necessaries of life diminishes the means of paying them on the other.

The repeal of the Corn Laws may give a new lift to England; it may greatly increase the foreign demand for the produce of its manufacturing industry; it may invite back a large portion of those who now spend their incomes in foreign countries, and prevent from going abroad to reside a vast number who would otherwise go. These laws must soon be repealed, or England must reduce one or other of its great establishments—the National Debt, the Church, the Army, or the Navy.

The Corn Laws press upon England just in the same manner as the discovery of the passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope pressed upon Venice and the other states whose welfare depended upon the transit of the produce of India by land. But the navigation of the Cape benefited all other European nations at the same time that it pressed upon these particular states, by giving them all the produce of India at cheaper rates than they would otherwise have got it, and by opening the markets of India to the produce of all other European nations.

The Corn Laws benefit only one small section of the people of England, while they weigh, like an incubus, upon the vital energies of all the rest; and at the same time injure all other nations by preventing their getting the produce of manufacturing industry so cheap as they would otherwise get it. They have not, therefore, the merit of benefiting other nations, at the same time that they crush their own.[6]

For some twenty or thirty years of our rule, too many of the collectors of our land revenue in what we call the Western Provinces,[7] sought the 'bubble reputation' in an increase of assessment upon the lands of their district every five years when the settlement was renewed. The more the assessment was increased, the greater was the praise bestowed upon the collector by the revenue boards, or the revenue secretary to Government, in the name of the Governor-General of India.[8]

These collectors found an easy mode of acquiring this reputation—they left the settlements to their native officers, and shut their ears to all complaints of grievances, till they had reduced all the landholders of their districts to one common level of beggary, without stock, character, or credit; and transferred a great portion of their estates to the native officers of their own courts through the medium of the auction sales that took place for the arrears, or pretended arrears, of revenue.

A better feeling has for some years past prevailed, and collectors have sought their reputation in a real knowledge of their duties, and real good feeling towards the farmers and cultivators of their districts. For this better tone of feeling the Western Provinces are, I believe, chiefly indebted to Mr. R. M. Bird, of the Revenue Board, one of the most able public officers now in India.

A settlement for twenty years is now in progress that will leave the farmers at least 35 per cent. upon the gross collections from the immediate cultivators of the soil; that is, the amount of the revenue demandable by Government from the estate will be that less than what the farmer will, and would, under any circumstances, levy from the cultivators in his detailed settlement.[9]

The farmer lets all the land of his estate out to cultivators, and takes in money this rate of profit for his expense, trouble, and risk; or he lets out to the cultivators enough to pay the Government demand, and tills the rest with his own stock, rent-free. When a division takes place between his sons, they either divide the estate, and become each responsible for his particular share, or they divide the profits, and remain collectively responsible to Government for the whole, leaving one member of the family registered as the lessee and responsible head.[10]

In the Ryotwār System of Southern India, Government officers, removable at the pleasure of the Government collector, are substituted for these farmers, or more properly proprietors, of estates; and a System more prejudicial to the best interests of society could not well be devised by the ingenuity of man.[11]

It has been supposed by some theorists, who are practically unacquainted with agriculture in this or any other country, that all who have any interest in land above the rank of cultivator or ploughman are mere drones, or useless consumers of that rent which, under judicious management, might be added to the revenues of Government—that all which they get might, and ought to be, either left with the cultivators or taken by the Government.

At the head of these is the justly celebrated historian, Mr. Mill. But men who understand the subject practically know that the intermediate agency of a farmer, who has a permanent interest in the estate, or an interest for a long period, is a thousand times better both for the Government and the people than that of a Government officer of any description, much less that of one removable at the pleasure of the collector. Government can always get more revenue from a village under the management of the farmer; the character of the cultivators and village community generally is much better; the tillage is much better; and the produce, from more careful weeding and attention of all kinds, sells much better in the market.

The better character of the cultivators enables them to get the loans they require to purchase stock, and to pay the Government demand on more moderate terms from the capitalists, who rely upon the farmer to aid in the recovery of their outlays, without reference to civil courts, which are ruinous media, as well in India as in other places.

The farmer or landlord finds in the same manner that he can get much more from lands let out on lease to the cultivators or yeomen, who depend upon their own character, credit, and stock, than he can from similar lands cultivated with his own stock; and hired labourers can never be got to labour either so long or so well. The labour of the Indian cultivating lessee is always applied in the proper quantity, and at the proper time and place—that of the hired field-labourer hardly ever is.

The skilful coachmaker always puts on the precise quantity of iron required to make his coach strong, because he knows where it is required; his coach is, at the same time, as light as it can be with safety. The unskilful workman either puts on too much, and makes his coach heavy; or he puts it in the wrong place, and leaves it weak.

If government extends the twenty years' settlement now in progress to fifty years or more, they will confer a great blessing upon the people[12] and they might, perhaps, do it on the condition that the incumbent consented to allow the lease to descend undivided to his heirs by the laws of primogeniture. To this condition all classes would readily agree, for I have heard Hindoo and Muhammadan landholders all equally lament the evil effects of the laws by which families are so quickly and inevitably broken up; and say that 'it is the duty of government to take advantage of their power as the great proprietor and leaser of all the lands to prevent the evil by declaring leases indivisible.

'There would then', they say, 'be always one head to assist in maintaining the widows and orphans of deceased members, in educating his brothers and nephews; and by his influence and respectability procuring employment for them.'

In such men, with feelings of permanent interest in their estates, and in the stability of the government that secured them possession on such favourable terms, and with the means of educating their children, we should by and by find our best support, and society its best element. The law of primogeniture at present prevails only where it is most mischievous under our rule, among the feudal chiefs, whose ancestors rose to distinction and acquired their possessions by rapine in times of invasion and civil wars.

This law among them tends to perpetuate the desire to maintain those military establishments by which the founders of their families arose, in the hope that the times of invasion and civil wars may return and open for them a similar field for exertion.

It fosters a class of powerful men, essentially and irredeemably opposed in feeling, not only to our rule, but to settled government under any rule; and the sooner the Hindoo law of inheritance is allowed by the paramount power to take its course among these feudal chiefs, the better for society. There is always a strong tendency to it in the desire of the younger brothers to share in the loaves and fishes; and this tendency is checked only by the injudicious interposition of our authority.[13]

To give India the advantage of free institutions, or all the blessings of which she is capable under an enlightened paternal government, nothing is more essential than the supersession of this feudal aristocracy by one founded upon other bases, and, above all, upon that of the concentration of capital in commerce and manufactures.

Nothing tends so much to prevent the accumulation and concentration of capital over India as this feudal aristocracy which tends everywhere to destroy that feeling of security without which men will nowhere accumulate and concentrate it. They do so, not only by the intrigues and combinations against the paramount power, which keep alive the dread of internal wars and foreign invasion, but by those gangs of robbers and murderers which they foster and locate upon their estates to prey upon the more favoured or better governed territories around them.

From those gangs of freebooters who are to be found upon the estate of almost every native chief, no accumulation of movable property of any value is ever for a moment considered safe, and those who happen to have any such are always in dread of losing, not only their property, but their lives along with it, for these gangs, secure in the protection of such chief, are reckless in their attack, and kill all who happen to come in their way.[14]


1. This phrase is meant to include America.

2. Money-lenders naturally have flourished daring the long period of internal peace since the Mutiny. They vary in wealth and position from the humblest 'gombeen man' to the millionaire banker. Many of these money-lenders are now among the largest owners of land in the country. Under native rule interests in land were generally too precarious to be saleable.

The author did not foresee that the growth of private property in land would carry with it the right and desire of one party to sell and of another to buy, and would thus favour the growth of large estates, and, to a considerable extent, counteract the evils of subdivision. Of course, like everything else, the large estates have their evils too. Much nonsense is written about sales of land in India, as well as in Ireland. The two countries have more than the initial letter in common.

3. Theorists declare that it is right that the tax-payers should know what is taken from them, and that, therefore, direct taxes are best; but practical men who have to govern ignorant and suspicious races, resentful of direct taxation, know that indirect taxation is, for such people, the best.

4. This illustration would give a very false idea of modern Indian finance.

5. They have no duty to perform as creditors; but as citizens of an enlightened nation they no doubt perform many of them, very important ones. [W. H. S.] The author's whimsical comparison between stockholders and Adam and Eve, and his notion that the creditors of the nation may be regarded as officials without duties, only obscure a simple matter. The emigration of owners of Consols never assumed very alarming dimensions.

6. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, and the shilling duty which was then left was abolished in 1869. Considering that the author belonged to a land-owning family, his clear perception of the evils caused by the Corn Laws is remarkable.

7. By the 'Western Provinces' the author means the region called later the North-Western Provinces, and now known as the Agra Province in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, with the Delhi Territories, which latter are now partly under the Government of the Panjāb, and partly in the new small Province, or Chief Commissionership of Delhi.