Page Content

On Salt and Tax

Salt Cellar Line Common Salt Credit Paul Samuel White

Salt Cellar in Common Salt, photograph by Paul Samuel White

Common Salt is a show and tell around a table, a live performance made by artists Sheila Ghelani and Sue Palmer. The work has been developed gradually over the past 5 years through accumulation, conversation and research, following a collaborative line of inquiry into nature and empire.  We started by looking at the hedge as a connective border and barrier and soon, quite unexpectedly, we found salt.
Our work explores the colonial history of England and India, taking a 400 year journey from the first Enclosure Act and the start of the East India Company in the 1600s to 21st century narratives of trade, race and culture. Navigating a maze of historical amnesia, through asking questions with speculative answers, Common Salt unravels the connecting threads of empire, nature, salt, borders and collections.
Sheila Ghelani is of mixed Indian/English heritage and Sue Palmer is white British heritage; both our own family histories are woven in, to carry ourselves in amongst others. Accompanied by Shruti box laments, objects and stories are laid out on the surface of a large table for an audience of up to twenty five people.
We made the work specifically for museums and libraries and other art spaces connected to archives and collections.  We have found the histories and legacies of the East India Company and the British Empire are hidden all around us, in the books with their missing chapters, in the unlabelled artefacts. In each place that we show Common Salt, the resonance of the location is layered into our journey, to become part of the 'show and tell' table. 
This outpouring of words is onto a page, which is a kind of table surface. It's an outpouring of salt, about the Salt Tax, and about the history of forgetting, pulling out one thread of many from the live performance.  And it's about how, through the long arc of time and a thin layer of geology, Cheshire salt is connected to India.

S S Begin Common Salt Royal Museums Greenwich Credit John Hunter

Common Salt in the Queen’s Presence Chamber, Queen’s House, Royal Museums Greenwich, in front of the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, December 2019, photograph by John Hunter.

Why Common Salt?
Because Sheila had a dream and woke up with that title in mind.

What brings us together around a table; what is between us; what we have; the land we have held in trust between us over centuries that has been eroded; what connects us; what we can all do together; belonging equally; ordinary; £1 T-shirts; takeaways.

Table salt, for the food we eat alone and together; salt for our cells and to stop us dehydrating; an average supermarket 'heritage' brand priced around 50p; salt cellars made in the 1900s, right when the British in India - Raj meaning rule in Hindustani - was at its height, with its polo ponies, gold and silver; two filigreed salt cellars with two crossing silver fluted spoons; salt for the table.

A commodity taxed by the British; a human necessity used as a means to raise money; translated into gold; carried on ships from India to England; flowing directly into London's Treasury; spreading through affluent families into the city and to the country estates; hot tears for the dead, the missing and the erased.

Where did we start?
We started by picking up a book by Roy Moxham called The Great Hedge of India.

A hedge? Across India?

To secure the levy on a duty of salt ... there grew up gradually a monstrous system, to which it would be almost impossible to find a parallel in any tolerably civilised country.  A Customs line was established, which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2,300 miles; and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men ...
It would have stretched from London to Constantinople ... It consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes ...


Customs Line Reprod Kind Permission Roy Moxham

Map of the Customs Line, from Roy Moxham's The Great Hedge of India. London: Robinson 2001, reproduced with kind permission of the author.

What happened to it?
It disappeared from history. Roy went to look for it.

What was 'the levy on a duty of salt'?
In 1600, Elizabeth I gave a Royal Charter to form the East India Company to begin trading basic commodities: cotton, silk, salt, saltpetre for gunpowder, tea, opium. The shares of that company were owned by wealthy merchants and aristocrats. Given extraordinary privileges, The Honorable East India Company could mint its own money and raise an army.
The East India Company established two principle taxes in India - land and salt. Salt had been taxed in India, but the 'overall burden on the population was minor, and not a hardship. With the British it was to be different'.2

When did the Salt Tax begin?
In the 1750s, Robert Clive led the Company's army to battle at Plassey. The East India Company acquired salt works near Kolkata, an EIC trading post, and began to raise a Salt Tax.

Who was Robert Clive?
Through enforced treaties, coercion and bribery, the East India Company officials amassed incredible wealth from trade and land rentals. At the head of the fortune was Clive - Clive of India - who took control of the Company in 1760 becoming the richest Englishman at 32. Through 'buying' seats in parliament, Clive made himself immune from control by the government, establishing a 'total monopoly to make what profit it could on tobacco, betel nut and salt'.3

Tell us more about salt and money
By 1780, Warren Hastings, the East India Company Governor General of India had brought all the salt production in the Bengal presidency under direct control. The Salt Tax increased by more than 900% in little more than fifteen years, creating severe hardship for many Indians. It remained at this high level of taxation for the next hundred years.

The East India Company became dependent on the significant income it raised from salt. 'The Salt Tax was born out of British greed: ... the individual greed of the servants of the East India Company; later, out of the greed of the Company itself and its shareholders; finally out of the greed of the British government, its parliament, and its electors'.4

What about the British government?
The Company was rich with corruption and nepotism, and in response, The Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, introduced the India Act of 1784, providing joint control by the Company and the British government.

Hand Salt Coin Common Salt Credit Paul Samuel White

Salt and an Anna, one of the East India Company coins, photograph by Paul Samuel White.

How did the Customs line become a hedge?
Customs houses were built in Bengal in 1803 to stop salt being smuggled in tax avoidance, followed by Customs barriers on major roads and rivers; these joined over time to create the Customs Line. 

In 1857, the British Crown took control over India following the first major Indian Revolt. The entire eastern coast and its salt production was controlled by the British. 

The Hedge, seeded along the Customs Line, grew gradually over the decades to create one massive customs barrier to tax salt, 2504 miles long. Octavian Hume, Commissioner of Inland Customs, helped to transform the Hedge, with his passion for detail.  In the decade from 1869 to 1879, it reached an absurd state of stature and perfection:5

..a barrier which, in its most perfect form, is utterly impassable to man or beast ... a hedge, green or dry ... The dry hedge is chiefly composed of masses of dwarf Indian plum ... at a cost of enormous labour: white ants and jungle fires perpetually destroy the dry hedge ...  In its most perfect form the hedge is a live one, from ten to fourteen feet in height, and six to twelve feet thick ...

Who paid the Salt Tax?
All salt passing across the Customs Line was taxed. Salt was freely available to people living on the coast as it could be produced through evaporation, but Indians were forced to buy it from the colonial government. By 1877 the Salt Tax revenue was worth £6.3 million and more per year (approximately 29.1 million rupees) to the British government.

The monopoly on supplies of salt forced compliance - the government was determined to raise the maximum revenue and block illicit supplies. The British were ruthless, imprisoning and torturing Salt Tax defaulters. Thousands of smugglers were sent to prison, others were hanged.

Ending Common Salt At Royal Museums Greenwich Credit John Hunter

Common Salt in the Queen’s Presence Chamber, Royal Museums Greenwich, photograph by John Hunter.

Mala And Cellar Common Salt Credit Sue Palmer

Malas and salt cellar, Common Salt, Royal Museums Greenwich, photograph by Sue Palmer.

Tell us more
Salt is needed by every person, it is essential in preventing dehydration.  The Salt Tax bore most heavily on the poor - the amount of salt needed to sustain a family was worth more than two months wages for an average agricultural labourer.  

From 1876 to 1878 a famine engulfed India - probably the worst in Indian history. Over six and a half million people died, many from the associated effects of dehydration.

In 1879, the Customs Line was abandoned. Just a few years later, it had vanished.

And the Salt Tax?
It continued to be applied by the British government who controlled all production and manufacture of salt at source.

What's this got to do with Cheshire?
In 1835, the British government appointed a salt commission to review the existing Salt Tax. It recommended that special taxes be imposed on Indian salt to enable the sale of imported English salt, setting up a government monopoly on the collection and manufacture through the Salt Act; production of salt was made an offence punishable with six months imprisonment. Cheshire salt, shipped from Liverpool became available at a much cheaper rate, but it was of inferior quality compared to India's salt.
Did the Salt Tax ever come to an end?

In 1930, Gandhi set out to break the salt laws. He left with 78 people to walk to the sea to collect a handful of salt, 241 miles to the sea at Dandi. By the time he arrived, thousands of people were marching with him.  

Gandhi produced 'illegal' salt through evaporation by boiling seawater, declaring, "With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire."  He invited all of his followers to do likewise and they began making salt along the seashore. It was the beginning of the end.

The Salt Tax was finally abolished in 1947, six months before the British left India.

Salt On Table Common Salt At Royal Museums Greenwich Credit John Hunter

Common Salt table top, Royal Museums Greenwich, photograph by John Hunter

Where is the East India Company now?
In our country estates; our spice racks; our fabric patterns; in the foundations of the Lloyds Building; in the dock basin beside Canary Wharf.  

Where is Clive of India now?
In a statue in Whitehall London; in the Clive Museum at Powis Castle with its 300 artefacts and treasures including the bejeweled tiger heads raided from Tipu Sultan.

What about William Pitt the Younger?
The Cheshire Pitt Club, still in existence today, dates back to the Northwich Pitt Club that was founded in 1814, to preserve the memory of William Pitt the Younger. There are only three 'Pitt Clubs' left across the country; Cambridge, London and Cheshire.6 

The purpose of the Club is to discuss the matters of the day in the light of the way William Pitt may have addressed them by displaying integrity, humanity, determination and judgment, in a world that is in danger of forgetting such fundamentals.

As a Tory, Pitt is known for his approach to the free market economy, placing the British Empire on a course of global domination and failing to abolish the slave trade.

The Cheshire Pitt Club has hosted 'prominent speakers' including Sir John Major, William Hague, Lord Lawson, Anne Widdecombe, and Nigel Farage MEP, who gave a presentation in 2010 entitled 'The Death of British Politics'.

Sue Palmer January 2020

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Strachey's report in Moxham, Roy. The Great Hedge of India. London: Robinson 2001, p.3.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Moxham, p.35.

Go to footnote reference 3.

ibid. p.39.

Go to footnote reference 4.

ibid. p.33.

Go to footnote reference 5.

ibid, pp.5-6.

Go to footnote reference 6.

The Cheshire Pitt Club https://www.cheshirepittclub.c...

Sheila Ghelani and Sue Palmer

Sheila Ghelani is an artist of Indian/English mixed heritage, whose solo and collaborative performances, social art works, installations, texts and videos seek to illuminate and make visible the connections between race, ecology, science, history and the present day.

Sue Palmer makes live performances and sound and moving image based artworks, often in collaboration with other artists, people and places. Sue also works in public green space, in parks and gardens, and is the convenor of Art Club From, an experimental making space.

Shelia and Sue regularly collaborate. Common Salt is a table top performance developed over four years of research into the colonial and geographical history of England and India using nature as their guide.

Common Salt On Tour in 2020
Common Salt is on a national tour through 2019-2020 to museums, libraries and arts venues in England, supported by Arts Council England.

SITELINES  & University of Reading at The Museum of English Rural Life, Reading | Wednesday 29th January | 7.00pm | Buy tickets online

OSR Projects, Old School Room, West Coker, Somerset BA22 9BD | Saturday 1st February | 3.00pm & 7.00pm | Buy Tickets Online

Manchester Central Library | Friday 7th February | 11.30am & 2.30pm | Buy tickets online

Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester | Friday 6th March | 4.00pm & 7.00pm | Buy tickets online

Museum of London Docklands | Wednesday 18th March | 3.30pm & 6.30pm

Red Brick Building, Glastonbury | Thursday 26th March | 8pm | Buy tickets online

Holburne Museum, Bath | Friday 27th March | 5.00pm & 7.30pm (part of Up Late)

Urban Room, Folkestone | Saturday 25th April | 3.00pm & 7.00pm
Live Art Development Agency, London | Thursday 23rd April | 4.00pm & 7.00pm

The British Library, London | Monday 18th May | 2.30pm & 6.30pm
2019 Tour: King’s College London, Wells Library Somerset, Cambridge Junction, Frome Library Somerset, Lancaster Maritime Museum (Lancaster Arts), Yeovil Library Somerset, Queen’s House Royal Museums Greenwich.

Common Salt - the book
Will be published in partnership with LADA in July 2020.

Common Salt (A Lament) was made by artist and moving image maker Lucy Cash in collaboration with the artists.