Podcast Episode 265: The Great Hedge of India

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 19th century, an enormous hedge ran for more than a thousand miles across India, installed by the British to enforce a tax on salt. Though it took a Herculean effort to build, today it’s been almost completely forgotten. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe this strange project and reflect on its disappearance from history.

We’ll also exonerate a rooster and puzzle over a racing murderer.


A group of plasterers working in London’s Tate Britain art gallery in 1897 left a message for future generations.

Four chemical elements were discovered in the same Swedish mine.

Sources for our feature on the Great Hedge of India:

Roy Moxham, The Great Hedge of India: The Search for the Living Barrier that Divided a People, 2001.

Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History, 2011.

Sir William Henry Sleeman, Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, 1844.

Shugan Chand Aggarwal, The Salt Industry in India, 1976.

Sir John Strachey, India, 1888.

Ajit K. Neogy, The Paramount Power and the Princely States of India, 1858-1881, 1979.

Henry Francis Pelham, Essays, 1911.

G.S. Chhabra, Advanced Study in the History of Modern India: 1813-1919, 1971.

D.A. Barker, “The Taxation of Salt in India,” The Economic Review 20 (1910), 165-172.

Nicholas Blomley, “Making Private Property: Enclosure, Common Right and the Work of Hedges,” Rural History 18:1 (2007), 1-21.

Barry Lewis, “Village Defenses of the Karnataka Maidan, AD 1600–1800,” South Asian Studies 25:1 (2009), 91-111.

Roy Moxham, “Salt Starvation in British India: Consequences of High Salt Taxation in Bengal Presidency, 1765 to 1878,” Economic and Political Weekly 36:25 (June 23-29, 2001), 2270-2274.

Roy Moxham, “The Great Hedge of India,” in Jantine Schroeder, Radu Botez, and Marine Formentini, Radioactive Waste Management and Constructing Memory for Future Generations: Proceedings of the International Conference and Debate, September 15-17, 2014, Verdun, France, Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2015.

“The Great Hedge of India: A Lost Wonder of the World,” The Long View, BBC Radio 4, March 14, 2017.

Adrian Higgins, “The Odd Tale of Britain’s Wall — a Hedge — Across a Swath of India,” Washington Post, Feb. 13, 2019.

David G.W. Birch, “When Britain Built Its Own Wall: The Great Hedge of India,” iNews, Feb. 9, 2017.

Stephen Pritchard, “Privets on Parade …” Guardian, Jan. 14, 2001.

Nilanjana S. Roy, “Of Indian Elections, Onions and Salt,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 2013.

Maurice Chittenden, “Great Hedge of India Defended the Empire,” Sunday Times, Dec. 10, 2000, 7.

Aneesh Gokhale, “Why British Built the Great Hedge of India,” DNA, Aug. 12 2018.

Roy Moxham, “The Great Hedge of India,” Sunday Telegraph, Jan. 7, 2001, 4.

Annabelle Quince, “Border Walls Around the World,” Rear Vision, ABC Premium News, May 17, 2017.

“Have You Heard of the Salt Hedge?” New Indian Express, March 16, 2015.

Roy Moxham, “Magnificent Obsession,” Weekend Australian, Oct. 5, 2002, B.26.

Matthew Wilson, “In the Thicket of It,” Financial Times, Nov. 12, 2016, 20.

Moxham writes, “My GPS reading at Pali Ghar was 26° 32.2’ N, 79° 09.2’ E. If this reading is put into Google Earth, the embankment of the Hedge is clearly visible – but only if you already know it is there.”

Listener mail:

Jonathan M. Gitlin, “Geeky License Plate Earns Hacker $12,000 in Parking Tickets,” Ars Technica, Aug. 13, 2019.

Brian Barrett, “How a ‘NULL’ License Plate Landed One Hacker in Ticket Hell,” Wired, Aug. 13, 2019.

Kim Willsher, “Maurice the Noisy Rooster Can Keep Crowing, Court Rules,” Guardian, Sept. 5, 2019.

“French Rooster Maurice Wins Battle Over Noise With Neighbours,” BBC News, Sept. 5, 2019.

“If It Quacks Like a Duck: Boisterous Poultry Land French Owner in Court,” Agence France-Presse, Sept. 2, 2019.

Tom Whipple, “Larry the Cat Faces Rival as Jack Russell Puppy Arrives in Downing Street,” Times, Sept. 2 2019.

Amy Walker, “Downing Street Gets New Resident — a Dog Named Dilyn,” Guardian, Sept. 2, 2019.

Hayley Dixon, “Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds to Move Rescued Jack Russell Puppy Into Downing Street,” Telegraph, Sept. 1, 2019.

“Boris Johnson’s New Rescue Puppy Moves Into Downing Street,” BBC News, Sept. 2, 2019.

“Dogs That Keep Mice Away,” Animal & Pest Control Specialist, Dec. 5, 2013.

“Working History of the Jack Russell Terrier,” Jack Russell Terrier Club of America.

Tom Ough, “Sepsis, Incontinence, and Murder Mysteries: A History of Downing Street Pets,” Telegraph, Sept. 2, 2019.

Meagan Flynn, “A Lawsuit Against Maurice the Rooster Divided France. Now a Judge Says He Can Crow in Peace,” Washington Post, Sept 6, 2019.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Dafydd Viney, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 264: Jack Renton and the Saltwater People


In 1868, Scottish sailor Jack Renton found himself the captive of a native people in the Solomon Islands, but through luck and skill he rose to become a respected warrior among them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Renton’s life among the saltwater people and his return to the Western world.

We’ll also catch some more speeders and puzzle over a regrettable book.

See full show notes …


In a March 1963 appearance on the The Tonight Show, Richard Nixon played a piano piece of his own composition. As a child he’d pursued the instrument intensively, moving 100 miles from home at age 12 to stay with his aunt Jane Beeson, who’d studied at the Indianapolis Conservatory of Music. She taught him every day. (I think his reference here to “another piano player in the White House” is a dig at Harry Truman.)

In their 1991 book From the President’s Pen, Larry F. Vrzalik and Michael Minor list a few more Nixon curiosities:

One interesting characteristic of Nixon is that all his life he has had a difficult time coordinating his body. Although he played college football for four years, he warmed the bench because he had ‘two left feet.’ One teammate recalled that anytime Nixon was put in a game ‘we knew a five-yard penalty was coming up’ because in his eagerness Nixon would invariably rush ahead before the play started. In later years Nixon’s habit of clumsily banging into car doors led to a serious knee injury that slowed down his campaigning in 1960, and as president his coordination problems surprised and shocked observers. He was patently incapable of getting the tops off either pill bottles or ceremonial pens and would often resort to trying to bite and gnaw them off. On one occasion, after unsuccessfully attempting to bite off the top of a pill bottle, he finally resorted to stomping on it. At one press conference he raised his hands with the classic gesture for those in the room to stand, but told them ‘would you please be seated.’ On still another and even more embarrassing occasion, while deliver a major speech he pointed to the audience and said ‘I,’ then pointed to himself and said ‘you.’ Nixon was often so physically tense that if anyone happened to touch him on the arm he would jump as if he had been struck by a heavy blow.

(Thanks, Charlie.)

A Clever Solution


In 1627 a group of sailors wanted to communicate a grievance to the captain of one of the King’s ships. Technically this amounted to mutiny, which was punishable by death, so they needed a way to express their solidarity without revealing any one of them as the leader and inviting retribution against him.

The answer was to arrange their 76 signatures in a circle, demanding that their allowances be distributed and the ship be victualed before they would weigh anchor. (I don’t know whether the captain agreed.)

From the U.K. National Archives.

Podcast Episode 263: Memories of Proust


Confined in a Soviet prison camp in 1941, Polish painter Józef Czapski chose a unique way to cope: He lectured to the other prisoners on Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Czapski’s ambitious project and the surprising importance of literature to the prisoners of oppressive regimes.

We’ll also race some lemons and puzzle over a woman’s birthdays.

See full show notes …

An Audible End

world war i armistice signature

World War I’s final ceasefire went into effect at a precise moment: 11:00 a.m. Paris time on Nov. 11, 1918. The French had worked out a way of recording sound signals on film — they used it to infer the position of enemy guns by determining the time between the sound of a shell’s firing and its explosion. This gives us a visual record of the end of the fighting, six representative seconds from the periods before and after the armistice. (Note, though, that the minute immediately before and the one immediately after the ceasefire aren’t shown, “to emphasize the contrast.”)

I don’t have an original source for this — Time magazine credits the U.S. Army Signal Corps.



In 1920, after Lenin delivered a speech in Petrograd to troops departing to fight in the Soviet-Polish war, Russian artist El Lissitzky challenged his architecture students to design a speaker’s platform on a public square. The result was the Lenin Tribune, a rostrum that can bear its speaker aloft to address a crowd of any size. In a letter to the art historian and critic Adolf Behne, Lissitzky wrote:

I have now received some sketches of former works and have reconstructed the design. Therefore I do not sign it as my personal work, but as a workshop production. The diagonally-standing structure of iron latticework supports the movable and collapsible balconies: the upper one for the speaker, the lower one for guests. An elevator takes care of transportation. On top there is a panel intended for slogans during the day and as a projection screen at night. The gesture of the entire speaker’s platform is supposed to enhance the motions of the speaker. (The figure is Lenin.)

Here the message reads PROLETARIAT. Lissitzky later said he regretted not publishing the design when Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International was attracting attention, so that the two might have competed against one another.