HC Deb 22 July 1833 vol 19 cc1069-75

Mr. Bernal brought, up the Report of the Committee on the East-India Charter Bill.

On the Motion that the Amendments be agreed to,

Mr. Wilbraham

moved a clause, prohibiting the exclusive manufacture and sale of salt by the Government of India. At present the manufacture and sale of salt, was a close Government monopoly in India. It was manufactured there at a considerable expense, and in an unhealthy situation. The evil of it was enhanced three or four fold by the monopoly. It was subject also to all kinds of adulteration. The salt of Cheshire, which was the best in the world, might be sent to Calcutta and sold for a much less sum than the salt made in India. The abolition of the monopoly, therefore, would be a great advantage to the inhabitants of India, and it would also be a great advantage to the opulent and extensive community which he represented. Ships required heavy goods to carry to India, and salt would answer the purpose of ballast. It would therefore be equally for the advantage both of the inhabitants of India and of Britain to put an end to this monopoly.

Mr. Ewart

seconded the Motion. There was already a large export of salt from Liverpool to New South Wales, to the United States, and to the Mediterranean; and there could be no doubt that it might be advantageously sent to India. He conceived it would, therefore be very bad policy to cripple the trade between England for the sake of raising a small revenue in India by an odious monopoly.

Mr. Buckingham

begged to tender his support to the proposition of the hon. member for Cheshire (Mr. Wilbraham), and to offer a few remarks in confirmation of the evils to which this monopoly of salt by the India Company gave rise. It was one of the ancient abuses of the country; and, in the time of Warren Hastings and Lord Clive, the salt monopoly was a private perquisite of the servants of the East-India Company, who, in lieu of direct salaries corresponding to their rank or station, had certain shares assigned them in this monopoly, by which they enhanced the cost of salt on some occasions as high as 1,000 per cent above its natural price. This was an evil to be examined in two distinct points of view—the one as it affected the people of India, the other as it affected the people of England; for the monopoly was deeply injurious to both. To the people of India, salt was much more a necessary of life than to us, from the circumstance of their religion prohibiting the use of any but vegetable food. The want of this article, occasioned by its high price, was frequently the cause of disease; and he had himself, in a voyage from the Red Sea to Bombay, witnessed the death of sixteen seamen in a few days, from a disease of which all on board were ignorant, but which, on being described to the medical officers of Bombay, was recognized by them as a disease occasioned by the absence of salt and those other stimulants which can alone render exclusively vegetable diet either nutritious or wholesome. Besides the deficiency of quantity to which the high monopoly price gave rise, there was an evil just as great, occasioned by the system, which was the admixture of saline earths, and other deleterious ingredients, which were almost as unwholesome as the entire absence of the salt for which they were offered as a substitute: and, from this double evil, the privations and sufferings of the poor Hindoos were extreme. But the sufferings occasioned by the process of manufacture were greater still. The salt of Bengal was chiefly made in a district called the Sunderbunds, where the branches of the Ganges run through a flat country, intersected by innumerable channels, liable to constant floods and inundations, and infested in every part with tigers. The people were compelled, under severe restrictions, to work in the salt pans under the scorching heat of a meridian sun, and kept to their labour by sepoys and police guards; and, from all he had heard of the cruelty of their treatment, he must confess, that if he were unfortunately driven to choose between the condition of the African employed in the cultivation of sugar in the West Indies, or the Hindoo employed in the manufacture of salt in the East Indies, he should prefer the former. as being the least miserable of the two, The liability to destruction from floods and tigers, was merely the result of that barbarous system by which India had been hitherto ruled, as a farm held at lease, of which the most was to be racked out of it, at the least present cost, in utter disregard of its future condition. There were, accordingly, neither dykes nor canals, nor embankments, nor any of those securities by which civilized governments protected their lands and their subjects; so that, at some periods of the year, thousands were swept away by inundations, which covered miles of surface, and from the devastations of which only a few escaped by taking shelter in the tallest trees, and lingering out a painfully protracted existence in the branches and the boughs: and, at the drier seasons of the year, the jungles being filled with tigers, they were carried off by these also in considerable numbers. Besides the evils thus inflicted on the makers and the consumers of salt in India, smuggling, upon a most extensive scale, was induced by the high duties on the commodity; and this was attended with all the evils of smuggling in every country—but here presented in an aggravated form. He had himself taken a cargo of 1,200 tons of salt from the coast of Coromandel, at Covelong, near Madras, to the Company's dépôt at Calcutta; and he had reason to know, that on that occasion, the temptation of large profits had induced many of the natives to load smaller vessels and boats with salt, which was smuggled into Bengal; that several of these smugglers had affrays with the police; that many lives were lost on both sides; and that, in addition to the loss of revenue from this cause, the survivors from these combats were often induced to become robbers; from robbers they passed on to become murderers—and then joined the regular banditti or dacoits of Bengal, to carry on a system of plunder and devastation, which generally ended in their apprehension and condemnation to death. But, in addition to this long catalogue of evils inflicted on India by this odious monopoly in an indispensable necessary of life, the injury to the merchants and ship-owners of England was considerable. It must be well known to gentlemen at all conversant with foreign commerce, that a large portion of the cargoes of manufactured goods sent out from this country to India consisted of light articles, occupying considerable space, but not sufficiently weighty to form the entire cargo of any ship; while those articles of metallic manufacture were yet insufficient to fill the necessary bulk required for the ballast requisite to preserve the safe and steady equilibrium of the ship. Now, the salt of Cheshire was an article peculiarly well adapted to this purpose; and it could be laid in at Liverpool, of so good a quality and so low a price, as to be certain of realizing a handsome profit on being taken to India, were it not for the monopoly of that article continued in the hands of the East-India. Company, What was the consequence? That the ships from Liverpool being unable to take this salt, frequently took in common stones as ballast, which not only paid neither freight nor profit, but were attended with a considerable expense to get rid of, after the ship's arrival in India, as they could not be thrown overboard, for that would injure the anchorage and the navigation of the harbours or rivers in which they might lie; and therefore they were obliged to convey them to a distance before they could be deposited on the land or sunk in the sea. At the same time, the ships returning from India, and being equally in need of some heavy and bulky material for the lower portions of their cargoes, were practically as much prohibited from taking on board the sugar of Bengal for the homeward passage, as they were the salt, from Cheshire for the outward voyage, because of the monopoly granted to the West Indies by the extra duty imposed on sugar coming from the East. We were thus crippling our merchants and ship-owners on all sides; and, instead of legislating for their benefit, were absolutely making laws to perpetuate their injuries. Of this he felt assured, that if the Americans had passed a law which prohibited us from exporting salt from Cheshire to India, or importing sugar from Bengal to England, we should have deemed it abundantly sufficient cause for war; and the whole English nation would join us, most cordially, in declaring hostilities against America, and demanding redress. Was it, then, the less an evil because this state of things was the result of laws made by ourselves? He thought not. On the contrary, he considered that a blow aimed at our prosperity by the hand of a professed friend, was more painful and mortifying than a blow struck by an open enemy; and if, as was contended, the Government of England was a paternal Government—if the King were really, as it was professed, the father of his people, and these were as much his children as they were the subjects of his realm—it was high time that we, who, as the legislators of the country, were presumed to be the King's advisers, by our counsel, should carry up our remonstrances to the throne against these intolerable evils, and ask the Royal sanction to legislative acts that should sweep them for ever away.

Mr. Hume

thought the monopoly of opium, as well as that of salt, should be put an end to at once. He had no doubt, that a great many of the diseases with which the poorer classes in Bengal were afflicted were caused by the want of salt. As the Government, he understood, fully admitted the inexpediency of the monopoly, the question was now only one of time, and he should not, therefore, enter into a lengthened discussion on it.

Mr. Charles Grant

admitted, that this subject was well deserving the attention of the House. The hon. Member who had spoken last, truly stated, however, that the question was only one of time. His Majesty's Government did not defend the continuance of the tax. One great object of the present Bill was to separate the government and the commerce of India. Into such a question as the present, however, there were many considerations of caution and prudence entered; no one could deny the expediency of removing the taxes on salt and opium; but it was not to be forgotten, that those taxes produced a revenue of 2,500,000l. of which 1,600,000l. was from salt alone. It was the opinion of the Authorities in India, however, as well as of the Government, that the tax on salt should be got rid of as soon as possible. Under these circumstances, he hoped, that the House would be satisfied, and that the hon. Member would withdraw his Amendment.

Lord Sandon

said, that when he was connected with this branch of the public economy, he had felt satisfied of the necessity for endeavouring to levy the revenue of India in some other way than by imposing a monopoly duty of salt upon the natives; he was now more than ever convinced of that necessity, and he should support any feasible proposition for some change in these respects. However, after the declaration of his right hon. friend, he hoped his hon. friend would feel satisfied, and withdraw his Amendment.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

said, that the prejudices of the Indians were so powerful as to offer a complete bar to the substitution of any other tax in lieu of that on salt, to which they had been so long accustomed. He thought, therefore, that the matter had much better be left to the discretionary power of the local government of India.

Mr. Hume

, in explanation, said, that he by no means wished to get rid of the revenue arising from the duty upon salt, but merely by lowering the tax one-half to increase the consumption of that article, and to supply the deficiency which would arise from the native manufacture by pouring in a sufficient quantity from without.

The Amendment of the hon. member for Cheshire withdrawn, and the Amendments of the Committee agreed to.