Remarks on the present state of the Husbandry and Commerce

About this text

Introductory notes

Henry Thomas Colebrooke born in 1765, was a noted English Orientalist. Colebrooke joined the East India Company in 1782 as a writer and worked his way up. Colebrooke later became the assistant collector of Tirhu and then was placed in charge of survey of resources in Purneah district. Colebrooke during his time in Purneah composed, Remarks on the Husbandry and Commerce of Bengal . The work published in 1795 advocated free trade between India and Britain. Colebrooke by the time following the footsteps of Sir William Jones became one of the founding members of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Colebrooke later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and held an honorary chair of Sanskrit at the Fort William College. Colebrooke also served as the President of Asiatic Society of Bengal and later became of the founding members of Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. Colebrooke now considered to be a pioneer in the field of Indology and Comparative Philology published a series of original works and translations of Ancient Indian texts and scriptures. Colebrooke passed away in the year 1837.

As it has been mentioned above, Colebrooke composed this text when he was serving as a surveyor at the District of Purneah in 1789. The following excerpts from the text have been selected from the sections on Physical Aspects, Inhabitants, Husbandry, Tenancy and land occupancy structure that existed in the province of Bengal. The selected portions of the text offer a glimpse of conditions of the province of Bengal during the early days of East India Company when the such surveys were being made to determine future policies. The Permanent Settlement in Bengal was introduced in a few years after Colebrooke's survey in 1793.

Selection details

As it has been mentioned above, Colebrooke composed this text when he was serving as a surveyor at the District of Purneah in 1789. The following excerpts from the text have been selected from the sections on Physical Aspects, Inhabitants, Husbandry, Tenancy and land occupancy structure that existed in the province of Bengal. The selected portions of the text offer a glimpse of conditions of the province of Bengal during the early days of East India Company when the such surveys were being made to determine future policies. The Permanent Settlement in Bengal was introduced in a few years after Colebrooke's survey in 1793.


[Page 1]


THE regions immediately governed by the Presidency of Fort William, comprehend the Subas of Bengal, and Bahar, with districts of the adjoining Subas of ( 1)1 Illahabad, (2)2Orissa, and (3)3 Berar; and some (4)4 tracts which had maintained their independence even in the most flourishing period of the Mogul Empire. But these in extent are inferior, and in importance bear small proportions to the Province of Bengal; and for this reason in speaking of Bengal, when not expressly limited, we understand all the Provinces over which Great Britain exercises avowed sovereignty in the immediate administration of a Council at Calcutta.

THE first aspect of Bengal, suggests for this kingdom the designation of a champaign country. The elevated tracts it comprehends, are received as [Page 2] an exception to the general uniformity; and inundations in the regions watered by the numerous mouths of the Ganges, seem the consequence of a gradual descent, not necessarily invalidating the notion of a general level.

BUT the physical divisions of Bengal will not be inaccurate, if these be accepted for characters, instead of exceptions. The sacred Ganges flows to the sea through a champaign country limited by chains of mountains, and by elevated tracts, which Bengal touches but in few places, on which it encroaches in fewer.

THE principal stream of the Ganges losing its sanctity, after sending a hallowed (5)5 branch towards the sea, inundates in its subsequent progress the tracts through which it flows. This portion of Bengal, in extent not inconsiderable, is for its produce and manufactures the most valuable.

THE elevated tract occupying the South-west angle of Bengal, inferior in extent, is in the views of commerce and finance, of little note for any productions it now affords. Engaging little attention from the political observer, it might yield. the place in the physical divisions of Bengal, to a distinction. founded on the characteristic produce of different parts of the champaign [Page 3]counrtry. Rice, luxuriant in the tract of inundation, thrives in the southern districts of the champaign country, until in the ascent of the Ganges, it is remarked, gradually to yield the first place in husbandry, to wheat and barley. But the mulberry acclimated in the middle provinces of Bengal, shews a better defined limit, where it meets the culture of the poppy peculiar to the northern and western provinces. This distinction is not insignificant though it cannot accurately apply to many productions. Sugar and indigo, and coarse cloths contrasted to the more delicate fabrics of the tract subject to annual inundation are common to the whole champaign.

THE general soil of Bengal, is clay, with a considerable proportion of silicious sand; fertilized by alimentary salt, and by decayed subslances, animal and vegetable. In the flat country, sand is every where the basis of this stratum of productive soil, it indicates an accession of soil on land gained by the dereliction of watar. The progress of this operation presents itself to observation in the deviations of the great rivers of Bengal, where the event is often sudden, and its date remembered. A period of thirty years, scarcely covers the barren sand with soil to reward the labor of the husbandman; the lapse of a century does not remove it half a span from the surface. In tracts annually inundated the progress is more rapid for obvious (7) 6reasons, which [Page 4] equally explain why such tracts have a greater depth of productive soil, and a greater proportion of clay, than other regions.

IN the western provinces, a compound of calcareous and siliceous earth assumes, in many places, a firm texture approaching to stone; or, strictly speaking, forms a stone named conker*7. Iron ore in the western provinces of Bengal proper, enters into the composition, and gives it a still firmer texture; and, in the acclivity of the western hills of Bengal, forms a shallow stratum supported by a bed of white clay. The stones, which compose the hills, chequering the contiguous level, is the only other exception to general uniformity. Yet, if the variable proportions of clay and sand, and the circumstance of frequent alterations in the course of rivers, be weighed, great inequality of soil may be expected, though it be composed of few substances. But other causes have so much greater influence on vegetation, that the nature of the soil will seldom require particular notice in the sequel of these disquisitions.

[Page 7]


IN India, no bills of mortality, nor registers of births, marriages, and burials, afford data for the calculation. The arguments, by which we are convinced of the great population of Bengal, arise on the results of various speculations; and, are so connected with other topics, that in stating them, we must take a review of the whole subject of the following disquisitions.

THE Inhabitants of Bengal are certainly numerous in proportion to the tillage and manufactures, which employ their labor. Former computations carried the population to eleven millions; and to these a late publication seems to allude, in mentioning the nunmber of twenty millions, for the inhabitants of our territorial possessions in India: the population of our dominions in the Decan being estimated at nine millions.

AN enquiry, instituted in 1789, requiring from the Collectors of distiricts, their opinions on the populations of their respective jurisdictions, founded an estimate of twenty-two (1)8 millions for Bengal and Bahar. Sir William Jones has hinted a higher estimate; and though he has not mentioned the grounds of his opinion, it may be admitted that he has not hazarded a vague [Page 8] and unfounded estimate. We think with him, that twenty four millions (2)9 is at least the present number of the native inhabitants of Bengal and Bahar; and shall subjoin arguments, which might lead us to compute the population at thirty millions. We cannot therefore hesitate to state twenty seven millions for the whole population, including the Zemindary of Benares.

1st. An actual ascertainment (3)10 found 80,914 Raiats holding leases, and 22,324 Artificers paying ground rent in 2,784 Villages (4)11 upon 2,531 square miles . Allowing five to a family, it gives more than 203 to a square mile; and for the whole of the Dewanny Provinces, at that proportion gives a population of 30,291,051; or including Benares, 32,987,500. For the area of Bengal and Bahar is 149,217 square miles, and with Benares not less than 162,500.

THE district in which this ascertainment was made, is not among the most populous of Bengal; but is more populous than the greatest number. In some parts of Bengal, considerable tracts are almost wholly waste: if a fourth of the area were excluded on this ground, the proportion of population on a square mile, resulting from an ascertainment in the district alluded to, might be taken for three-fourths of Bengal.

[Page 9]

BUT it must be remembered, that many and numerous classes do not pay rent, or contribute directly to the revenues. Some possessions are exempted from ground rent; some classes are excused for poverty; others from respect. The tenants of alienated lands are not included in the ascertainment abovementioned: yet the free lands are equal to an eighth of the whole area of the disrict alluded to; and they do not bear a less proportion to the lands of all Bengal. No city, or considerable town, was included in the ascertainment; which, for that further reason, may be acknowledged moderate. Upon the whole we may adhere to the average first suggested, of 200 to a square mile.

[Page 10]

IF a fourth of the area of Bengal be excluded, as before, for tracts nearly or wholly waste; three eighths of the remainder give 45,703 square miles; or (omitting Benares) 41,967 square miles, equal to 81,238,112 begahs of land in tillage and liable for revenue; and if half the free lands be cultivated,. the whole tillage is 94,777,797 begahs, or 31,331,499 acres.

IN some districts, an enquiry undertaken in 1790, ascertained the quantity of land tenanted by near seventy thousand cultivators; and it gave an average of less than eighteen begahs each in actual tillage: for the cultivators paying rent for no more than their actual cultivation, the ascertainment comprehends no lays or fallows.

AT this proportion, the whole tillage of 94,777,797 begahs must be used by 5,265,432 tenants; and adding for artificers, and manufacturers, &c. at the proportion suggested by the ascertainment of 80,914 husbandmen and 22,324 artificers in the districts alluded to in another place, we have 6,718,154 persons paying land-rent, and ground-rent. If each of these be [Page 11] deemed the head of a family, the population at five to a family, might be estimated at 33,590,770.

BUT several rents are not unfrequently paid by the same family; for this reason, the number of husbandmen may be thought overrated, as in the rent-rolls which were abstracted, tenants holding from more than one landholder, or paying two rents to the same proprietor, must unavoidably have stood for two persons. The excess in the estimate arising from this cause is perhaps not fully balanced by the various classes not contributing directly to the rental.

3d. THE same objection occurs to an estimate from the average rents of tenants; it may nevertheless be proper to view the result of a calculation on this ground.

[Page 12]

4th. REMAINS to compare the estimated population with the consumption.

THE diet of an Indian is very simple; the diet of one is the diet of millions, split pulse and salt, relieving the insipidity of plain rice. Two ounces of salt, two pounds of split pulse, and eight pounds of rice, is the [Page 13] usual daily consumption of a family of five persons in easy circumstances, whence we have the average consumption of salt in a year at 9lb. a head.

5th. FROM what has been stated as the daily consumption of a family, an average of nine maunds a head arises for the annual consumption of grain. The use of wheat and barley in some provinces will not affect the calculation; but millet, and other small grains, (which constitute the principal food of the poor, and which are equally nourishing with white corn,) will increase the average

[Page 14]

SEVERAL sorts of pulse are grown for cattle, but bear a small proportion to the general tillage; for the cattle are mostly supported on pastures, and on straw.

Corn is imported from several of the countries which border on Bengal; but the exportation from Bengal exceeds the import; we therefore estimate the produce, from the consumption of the supposed population, at 270 million of maunds; and at 300 millions after adding grain for cattle, to this add a seventh for seed reserved, and the whole produce in grain will be 34,29,57,140 maunds; a very moderate produce for the tillage estimated at 9,47,77,797 begahs.

BUT the Indian husbandry, mixing in the same field with corn, other articles of a very different nature; to compare the produce to the quantity of land, every article must be included in the computation; and for that purpose the grain must be stated at its money value; which we take from the average of many enquiries, in which the cheapest and dearest provinces have been considered.

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THE regular succession of periodical rains, followed by a mild winter, which exempt from frost, is almost as free from rain; and this succeeded by great heat, refreshened occasionally by showers of rain and hail; affords its proper season for every production of tropical and temperate climates. Few are altogether unknown to Bengal. Those which actually engage the industry of the husbandmen are numerous and varied. Of these, rice is the most important. Corn in every country is the first object of agriculture, as the principal food of the inhabitants; in this, where animal food is seldom used, it is especially important.

THE natural seasons of rice are ascertained from the progress of wild rice. It sows itself in the first month of the winter; vegetates with the early moisture at the approach of the rains; ripens during their period; and drops its feed with the commencement of the winter.

A CULTURE calculated to conform to this progress is practised in some districts. The rice is sown in low situations, when nearly desiccated; the soil hardening above the feed, gives no passage to early showers; the grain [Page 20] vegetates at the approach of the rains; and ripens in that season, earlier or later, according as the field is overflown to a less, or greater depth.

THIS method is bad, as it exposes the seed to injury during a long period, in which it should reman inert; the practice is not frequent. Common husbandry sows the rice, at the season when it should naturally vegetate, to gather a crop in the rains; it also with-holds seed, till the second month of that season; and reaps the harvest in the beginning of winter. And the rice of this harvest is esteemed the best, not being liable to early decay.

IN low situations, where the progress of desiccation is slow, and on the shelving banks of lakes which retain moisture till the return of the rains, a singular cultivation sows rice at the end of the rains; and by frequent transplanting, and irrigation, forces it to maturity in the hot season; and in situations nearly similar, sows in the cold season for an early harvest, obtained by a similar method at the commencement of the rains.

[Page 22]

THE plough, the spade of Bengal, and the coarse substitute for the harrow, will remind him of similar implements in Spain. Cattle treading out the corn from the ear, will recall the same practice in the south of Europe where also, he has already remarked the want of barns and of enclosures, the disuse of horses for the plough, the business of domestic economy conducted in the open air, and the dairy supplied by the milk of buffaloes.

The plough is drawn by a single yoke of oxen, guided by the ploughmen himself. Two or three pair of oxen assigned to each plough, relieve each other; until the daily task be completed, Several ploughs in succession deepen the same furrows, or rather scratch the surface; for the plough wants a contrivance for turning the earth, and the share has neither width nor depth to stir a new soil. A second ploughing crosses the first; and a third is sometimes given diagonally to the preceding. These frequently repeated, and followed by the substitute for the harrow, pulverise the surface, and prepare it for the reception of seed. The field must be watched for several days, to defend the seed from the depredations of numerous flocks of birds. This is commonly the occupation of children, stationed to scare the birds from the fresh sown field.

[Page 23]

AFTER the plant has risen, the rapid growth of weeds demand frequent weedings: particularly in the rainy season. For few indigenous herbs vegetating in the dry season, weeding is little, if at all required, for plants which are cultivated in the absence of rain. Viewing the labors of the weeders, the eye is not easily reconciled to see them sitting to their work. The short handled spud, which they use for a hoe, permits no other posture: but however familiar that posture may be to the Indian, his labor is not employed to advantage in this mode of weeding.

THE hook (for the scythe is unknown) reaps every harvest. In this also much unnecessary labor is employed: not merely from the want of a more expeditious implement; but from the practice of selecting the ripest plants which, taught by the harvest of different plants ripening successively, the Indian extends to the harvest of a simple crop. Yet such is the contradictions of custom, that while the peasant returns frequently to one's field to gather the plants as they ripen, he suffers another to stand long after the greatest part of the crop has passed the point of maturity . He justifies his practice upon circumstances which render it impracticable to enter these fields to select the ripe plants without damaging the rest; and, upon the inferiority of crops which mix, with ripe corn, a considerable proportion not fully ripened. Though his excuse be not groundless, his loss is considerable, by the grain which drops before the harvest, in so great a quantity, that if the field remain unsown it will afford a crop by no means contemptible.*12

[Page 24]

THE practice of stacking corn intended to be reserved for seed, or for a late sale, is very unusual. The husk, which covers rice, preserves it so perfectly, that, for this grain, the practice would be superfluous; and the management of rice serving for the type of their whole husbandry, it is neglected by the peasants for other corn. A careless stack which waits the peasant's leisure to thrash it out serves for a convenient disposition, rather than as a defence from the inclemencies of weather. With the first opportunity, his cattle tread out the corn; or his staff thrashes the smaller seeds. The grain is winnowed in the wind; and stored in jars of unbaked earth, in baskets, or in twisted grass, formed into the shape of baskets .

THE want of roads, which indeed could not possibly be provided to give access to every field in every season, does not leave it in the option of the farmer to bring home all his harvests by cattle, but the general disuse of cattle in circumstances which would permit this mode of transport is among the facts which shew a great dispropoition betweent the population and the husbandry.

IRRIGATION is less neglected than facility of transport. In the management of forced rice, dams retain the water on extensive plains; or reserve it in lakes, to water lower lands, as occassion requires. For either purpose, much skill is exerted in regulating the supplies of water. For the same culture, ridges surrounding the field retain water raised by the simple contrivance of a curved canoe swinging from a pole. In other situations ridges are also raised round the field, both to seperate lands, and to regulate the water: particularly in the culture of transplanted rice. Dams in high situations retain the water on considerable tracts. In some provinces water raised by cattle, or by hand, from wells, supply the deficiencies of rain.

[Page 25]

Each of these, being within their compass, is the undertaking of the peasants themselves. More considerable works, not less necessary, are much neglected. Reservoirs, water-courses, and dykes, are more generally in a progress of decay than of improvement.

[Page 29]

THE want of capital, employed in manufactures and agriculture, prevents, in Bengal, the division of labor. Every manufacture, every artist, working for his own account, conducts the whole process of his art from the formation of his tools to the sale of his production. Unable to wait the market or anticipate its demand, he can only follow his regular occupation, as immediately called to it, by the wants of his neighbours. In the intervals, he must apply to some other employment in immediate request: and the labors of agriculture, ever wanted, are the general resource. The mechanic finding himself as fully competent, as the constant cultivator, to the management of common husbandry, is not discouraged from undertaking it at his own risk. Every laborer, every artisan, who has frequent occasion to recur to the labors of the field, becomes a tenant. Such farmers are ill qualified to plan or conduct a well judged course of husbandry, and are idly employed, to the great waste of useful time, in carrying to market the paltry produce of their petty farms.

IF Bengal had a capital in the hand of enterprizing proprietors who employed it in husbandry, manufactures, and internal commerce, these arts would be improved; and, with greater and better productions from the same labor, the situation of the laborers would be less precarious, and more affluent: although the greatest part of the profit might vest with the owners of the capital.

[Page 30]

WITHOUT capital and enterprize, improvement can never be obtained. Precept will never inculcate a better husbandry on the humble unenlightened peasant. It could not, without example, generally engage a wealthier and better informed class. Positive institutions would be of as little avail. The legisiator cannot direct the judgement of his subjects; his business is only to be careful, lest his regulations*13 disturb them in the pursuit of their true interests.

IN Bengal, where the revenue of the state has had the form of land-rent, the management of finances has a more immediate influence on agriculture, than any other part of the administration. The system, which has been adopted of withdrawing from direct interference with the occupants, and leaving them to tenant from land-lords, will contribute more than any of the remediary†14 regulations which have been promulgated, to correct [Page 31] the abuses and evils which had rendered the situation of the cultivator precarious. But not yet having produced its effect, it requires us to review the system of finances, under which abuses had grown, and placed the occupant in a precarious situation, as discouraging to agriculture, as any circumstance yet noticed: for without an ascertained interest for a sufficient period, no person could have an inducement to venture a capital in husbandry.

[Page 33]


WE shall examine this subject ascending from the first occupant.

A NEW settler becomes a raiat if he tenants; but if he assists in husbandry, as a laborer only, he is in another class of cultivators. For the term of raiat, though properly intending a subject generally, is restricted to mean citizens contributing directly to the revenue of the state, whether as tenants of land paying rent, or as traders and artificers paying taxes.

THE new settler may occupy the whole, or a part, of the land, abandoned or deserted by his predecessor, or land surrendered or resigned; or land which has lain one, or more years. If it has lain for a period of three or more years, according as custom may have regulated, it becomes waste, or forest land: and from this, a progress of years regulayed by custom , or by local circumstances, restores it to the first class of arable land.

THE raiat unless content to pay by the custom of the country, and expose himself to exactions under false constructions of the custom, must take out a patch or lease: exceuting at the same time a counterpart.

[Page 34]

UNDER the first tenure, the raiat is held by engagement or by custom, to render a certain weight or measure of grain for his farm, which is ascertained by its measure or its bounds.

IN the second, the crop is divided when gathered; the usual proportion is half produce; other proportions are known, but are more usual in the third tenure. Whatever the proportion be, it is mostly nominal; for deductions are made from the gross crop before the partition, or from the assigned shares after the partition, and these deductions arise from arbitrary imposts.

THE third tenure for payment in land is by estimation of the crop. This is performed by measuring the field, estimating its produce by inspection, or by small trials, calculating the shares according to the rule for the partition, and valuing the landlord's*15 share at the market price, which value, the tenant pays in cash. It is usual to indulge the tenant by a favorable [Page 35] measurement, and a moderate evaluation; for which reason he prefers this tenure to an actual partition, which the landord is also desirous of avoiding, as it is very liable to frauds. In the rule for dividing the crop, whether under special engagements, or by custom, three proportions are known:

Half for the landlord, half for the tenant,
One-third ditto, Two-fifths ditto,
Two-thirds ditto, Three-fifths ditto,

THESE proportions, and others less common, are all subject to taxes and deductions similar to those of other tenures; and in consequence another proportion, engrafted on equal partition, has in some places been fixed by Government, in lieu of all taxes: as, nine-sixteenths for the landlord, and seven-sixteenths for the tenant.

UNDER this tenure the peasant may not reap his crop without his land lord's permission*16; but by the landlord delaying to attend for the partition or estimation, the harvest may suffer. For this reason, or to defraud his landlord, the raiat sometimes privately gathers the harvest. On these occasions it becomes necessary to measure the fields, and estimate the produce which has been embezzled, according to the fertility presumed on a comparison to the lands in the neighbourhood.

[Page 36]

THE rates ought to be uniform as far as circumstances permit, and the rents of all tenants within the village or district, be regulated by one table. As the soil however must be unequal, the rates vary not only according to the articles of produce and number of harvests gathered off the same field within the year, but according to soil and situtation: as sandy, exposed to inundation, or to drought; annually overflown, adjoining to, or remote from the village, &c. All these varations, whether by produce or soil, constitute the rates which compose the table. Other variations are admitted for subdivisions of districts, and of villages. But in some places the rates do not vary by the soil and produce; on the contrary one uniform rate is applied to the whole land occupied by the tenant.

[Page 42]

IN the unquiet times, which preceded, the Company's acquisition of the Dewanny, arbitrary power respected neither prescriptive rights, nor established usages. The management, first adopted under the British authority, had no tendency to restore order; and, when the servants of the Company undertook to conduct the detail of internal administration, they found the whole system embarrassed and confused.

ANXIOUS to secure for their employers all the avaihible resources of their new acquisitions, but without intending a wrong to individuals, they entered on enquiries, with a degree of diligence, which was not rewarded with adequate success, in unravelling the intricaries of the revenue, by ascertaining local usages, nor in tracing, by a reference to its institutes, the system of administration established under the Mogul Government.

THESE enquiries were suggested by a question which was early started "of what nature was the landed property of Bengal, to whom it belonged, "and what privileges appertained to other classes?'' Various opinions were entertained. Some attributed to the sovereign, the lordship of the soil; but restricted this property by admitting that the peasantry, as holding immediately of the prince, had a permanent interest in the land, by immemorial usage. Others were of opinion*17, that the Zemindars enjoyed a proprietary right in the land, of an hereditary nature, and considered the peasantry, as having no positive right to retain the land, against the will and ap[Page 43]probation of the immediate superior. Many could perceive no propreitary right in any, but the peasant occupying the soil, they held him to be the natural proprietor of the land, but bound to contribute to the support of the state, from which he had protection.

IN one point of view, the Zemindars' descendants of ancient independent Rajahs, or as the successors of their descendants, seemed to have been tributary princes. In another light, they appeared only officers of Government. Perhaps their real character was mixed of both; and.they might, not inaptly, have been compared to kings, nominated by the Roman republic, to administer conquered kingdoms.

THIS can not obviously apply to any, but to the Rajahs of great Zemindarries. Numerous landholders, subordinate to these, as well as others independent of them, cannot evidently be traced to a similar origin.

IN examining the question, it was presupposed that a property in the soil, similar to that which is vested of right, or by fiction, in the sovereign, or in some class of his subjects, in every state of Europe, must vest in some class of the inhabitants of Hindustan, either sovereign or subject. If it were denied to the Zemindar (a denomination, which readily suggested the term of landholder, for its equivalent), the sovereign has been thought the only member of the state, to whom that property could be attributed.

BESIDES the presumption arising on the literal interpretation of the name, the hereditary succession to Zemindarries pointed out these, for the real proprietors. And although the succession had not followed the rules of inheritance established by law for landed property, and admitted in prac[Page 44]tice for landed estates of which the revenue had been granted away by Government; and although the hereditary succession to office of accounts*18 was as regular and as familiar as to Zemindarries; the zealous advocates for the rights of Zemindars deemed the arguement conclusive, or appealed to humanity in support of it. For, perceiving no competetor but the sovereign for lordship of the soil, it escaped them, that the rights of more numerous classes might be involved in the question and that the arguement to humanity might well be retorted.

HOWEVER insufficient the arguments might be in themselves, yet assisted by considerations of expediency, they decided the question; and Government acknowledged the Zemindars, proprietors of the soil.

BUT it has now been admitted by a very high authority†19 that the sovereign was superior of the soil; that the Zemindars were officers of revenue, justice, and police; that the office was frequently, but not necessarily hereditary; that the cultivator of the soil, attached to his possession with the right to cultivate it, was subject to payments varying according to particular agreements and local customs that in general, he continued on the spot, but that the proportion to be paid to the state was to be judged of by the Zemindar; and that the right of the Raiat have been gradually abridged, &c.

[Page 59]

AN inferior and subordinate class of Propreitors hold petty Estates. In the western provinces, where the Office of the first*20 receiver of rents has in some instances become hereditary, the class of inferior Propreitors may have had their origin in the succession of heirs being admitted to the subordinate offices of collection under the Zemindar. But this certainly is not the origin of the petty properties in the eastern districts of Bengal. These seem rather to have been an extension of the rights of occupants, from vague permanence to a declared, hereditary, and even transferable interest. They all bear a fixed quit rent for portions of land to be inherited in regular sucession; and some were understood to authorise the transfer by sale or gift, and consequently conferred every right which constitutes a real property. Others, not authorising a transfer by sale or gift, conferred an imperfect and dependant property, which nevertheless was inheritable in regular succession. But both, by abuse, became liable to variable assessment, in common with the Lands of other occupants.

[Page 60]

THE untransferable properties still however remained a little superior to the common right of occupancy which ceased with possession, whereas the hereditary title authorized the Talookdar or his heir to resume possession, though his actual occupancy had been interrupted.

[Page 61]

IT may even be doubted whether subdivision of property in arable land be not an evil, though it were not carried further than may afford to the propreitor an humble subsistence. The Indian, by nature inactive, is too much disposed to rest satisfied in indolence on the produce of his land, neither applying to husbandry on his own land, nor to any other occupation to assist his income. Straitened in his circumstances, he exacts the utmost rent from his tenant. The husbandman who uses the land composing such petty properties, whether a tenant, or himself the propreitor, is in a wretched and indignent situation, compared to the tenants of more considerable propreitors. These propreitors, unless impelled by the difficulties of an excessive contribution to the re[Page 62]venue, pursue the interest in allowing to their tenants favorable terms. A class of wealthy citizens contributes to the prosperity of the state, by their encouragement of elegant arts; though the greatest prosperity of the nation is found in the consumption of the people at large, when general case permits the general consumption of more than the necessaries of life. In Bengal neither general nor particular wealth exists, to add to the consumption of the commonalty, or encourage elegancies in a superior class; this consideration we shall have occasion to resume; we have here only to remark, that the consumption of the mere necessaries of life, by a class of unemployed propreitors, contributes nothing to general prosperity; it shows only an unprofitable population.

THE present situation of the propreitors of larger estates does not permit them to allow the indulgence and accomodation of the tenants, which might be expected on estimating their income. Responsible to government for a tax professedly equal to ten-elevenths of the expected rents of their estates, they have no probable surplus above their expenditure, to compensate risk. In any calamity, a moderate tax must leave to the proprietor some income. On the contrary, a small calamity must bear down one who is assessed with ten-elevenths of his receipts. Any calamity, any accident, [Page 63] even a delay in his recoveries, involves a Zemindar in difficulties from which no economy or attention can retrieve him. Every jail*21 filled with propreitors confined for arrears, every Gazette, with advertisements of lands to be sold for revenue, prove the difficulties of their situation: sufficiently obvious on the spot, it will become more evident to a remote enquirer by a comparison to Europe.

THE landlord's rents in the British islands are fivefold of the neat revenue of Government. In Bengal, the revenue exceeds the whole land rent according to some estimates. The land revenue alone is nearly equal to four-tenths of the gross rents of land; it is certainly more than four-tenths of the gross rent liable for revenue. Pursuing the comparison to gross produce, the disproportion is less, though the circumstance be no alleviation to the landholder. The gross land produce in the British islands exceeds two hundred millions, from which is paid thirty millions, including with the gross revenue of the state, poor's rates and tythes, excepting however lay tythes, which rather constitute a co-ordinate property in the rents, than an impost on the people. The gross land produce of Bengal we estimate at thirty-three million sterling, and contributions of every nature at a fourth of the sum.

IT should appear from the general view, that the situation of the people at large, in so far is worse than in Great Britian; for they contribute nearly in the proportion of a fourth of the land produce; in Great Britain, a seventh. And, from the mode in which it is required in Bengal, a great hardship is felt by particular classes. The consideration of their circumstances we shall have occassion to resume; we are here led to examine in what proportion the gross produce we have estimated rewards the [Page 64] labor employed for its production, and in what degree of ease, it supports the classes who subsist on labor. The consumption of the commonalty is the wealth of the nation; and the country may be deemed flourishing, in proportion as the people at large are in an easy condition. The general mode of life, compared to what may be deemed resonable wants, will shew whether the people at large are well or ill supported; considering at the same time the reward of labor, to determine whether voluntary deprivation, on real poverty, refuses them gratification of their wants.

[Page 67]


WE have described the peasants as applying the labor, they give to husbandry, solely to land used on their own account, and have mentioned a class of tenantry monopolizing land, to relet it to the actual cultivator at an advanced rent or for half produce; but it must be understood that, though this too generally describes the whole tenantry, peasants are not wanting, who superintend the culture of their lands performed by the labor of sevants or hired laborers: restrained by prejudice from personal labor, or permitted by the circumstances to content themselves with superintending the management, or at least calling in the assistance of hired labor in aid of their own. Reference had to the quantity of land tenanted, perhaps the greatest part is held by tenants who hire labor. But, their servants and laborers using land also on their own account, the peasants, in respect to number, were truly described as laboring unassisted on the lands they use.

A CULTIVATOR employing servants, entertains one for every plough, paying monthly wages, which on an average do not exceed one rupee per mensem; in a cheap district, we have ascertained the monthly wages so low as eight annas. But the task, on a medium of a bega a day, is completed [Page 68] by noon. The cattle is then left to the herdsman's care, and the ploughman follows other occupations the rest of the day, mostly the cultivation of some land on his own account; and this he generally tenants at half produce from his employer. The quantity of land, commonly used by the ploughman, is ascertained by the usage of some districts, which authorize a specific quantity of land to be underlet by tenants, namely two begahs per plough, equal to three*22 begahs of the standard to which we reduce the variable measures of land.

IF the herd be sufficient to employ one person, a servant is entertained; and receives, in money, food, and clothing, to the value of one rupee and a half per mensem. The same herdsman however generally tends the cattle of several peasants, receiving per head a monthly allowance equal to bout half an anna. One herdsman can tend fifty oxen or cows.

WHERE several ploughs are kept, the peasant usually has a pair of oxen particuarly assigned to the implement which supplies the purpose of a harrow: for this is thought to require stronger cattle than are sufficient for the plough.

A PLOUGH complete, costs less than a rupee. The price of a grooved beam, used as a harrow to break and level the ground, is yet more inconsiderable. The cattle employed in Husbandry are of the smallest kind: they cost on an average not more than†23 five rupees each.

[Page 69]

THE price of this labor may also be taken on the usual hire of a plough, which we state on the medium result of our enquiries at two annas per diem.

THE same cattle, work an implement which bears some resemblance to the harrow, but is used for rice and some other cultures to thin a luxuriant vegetation, and disperse the plants equally in the field, serving at the same time to remove the weeds.

FOR a hand weeding, the labourers are very generally paid in grain, instead of money. The usual daily allowance is from two to three seer of grain. They bring their own hoes, which are small spuds, and of which the cost is very trifling. Twenty labourers may weed a begah a day .

FOR transplanting, the allowance, and the labor performed, are nearly the same. No tool is required for transplanting rice, the whole operation being performed by the hand; but for other cultures, where a tool is requisite in planting, an implement resembling a hoe on a long handle, or one like a chissel, also on a long handle, is employed.

FOR hand hoeing: the large hoe which in Bengal serves the purpose of a spade, is employed. It is wide and curved, and set on the handle at an acute angle, which compels the laborer tostoop low to his work. The same tool serves for clearing old lays, preparatory to opening them with the plough, and for other purposes for which a spade would be useful. The pay for digging, and generally for all country labor, is on the same allowance, as already mentioned of two to three seer per diem.

[Page 70]

BUT reaping is generally performed by the piece, the reapers being hired at a sheave in sixteen, or if they also carry in the harvest at a sheave in eight, but the whole expence of gathering the harvest, may be paid with one measure of grain on fix, which provides for the labor of reaping, carrying, winnowing, measuring, and storing the crop.

THE thrashing is not included, for corn is not thrashed, but trodden out by the cattle of the farm.

THOUGH rice and pulse may find a market in the husk, and the business of husking rice and spitting pulse generally belong to the first purchaser, yet, not unfrequently employing the peasants leisure, it may be counted among the labors of the cottage.

IT is executed with a wooden pestle and mortar, or rice is husked under a beater of simple contrivance, worked by a pedal. When the husk has been removed by long beating on the dry rice, it is preferred for home consumption. If perviously scalded, it is better adapted for preservation, and has been preferred for foreign commerce. As the expence of fuel is nearly equal to the œconomy of labor, the allowance of husking rice, is nearly uniform, at a contract for returning, in clean rice, five-eighths of the weight delivered of rice, in the husk. The surplus, with the chaff or bran, pays the labor.

WE shall not have formed a just notion of the reward of country labor, without comparing the price of labor to what remains to the cultivator on half produce, in this comparison, it will be unnecessary to notice, the small deductions ufually made from the whole produce before partition. Some [Page 71] are favorable to the cultivator, as they pay some of his small expences; others unfavorable, as they are taxes for the measurement of the produce or for religious appropriations. The advantage and disadvantage may be nearly balanced, and we consider him as obtaining no more than an exact half of the produce to reward his labor, and defray his expences.

[Page 72]

THE peasant cultivating for half produce, is consequently not rewarded for his labor, so well as hired laborers; and if it be further considered, that in the necessity of anticipating his crop, for seed and subsistence, and [Page 72] of borrowing for both, as well as for his cattle and for the implements of husbandry, at the usurious advance of a quarter, if repaid with the succeeding harvest, and of half if repaid later, we cannot wonder at the scenes of indignent distress, which this class of cultivators exhibit; nor that they are often compelled, by an accumulating debt, to emigrate from province to province.

IT is obvious, that, where the produce is greater in proportion to the seed and to the quantity of Land, the sum of labor remaining the same, this partition of crop, may leave to the peasant full payment for his labor; on the other hand, where it is less, it may be absolutely unequal to afford the simplest necessaries. The latter extends so far, that in a considerable part of the Lands, the cultivation for this proportion of produce is utterly impracticable. We therefore took a higher produce, and estimated less labor, than the general average suggested. But this must be now noticed, with the requisite return of profit on the expence advanced, to compare produce with money rents.

IN the Husbandry of corn and small grains, it has been already stated, that a considerable proportion of the land yields several crops in the year; much indeed yields only one; and on the other hand, the practice explained of crowding crops seems ill judged, and returns less in proportion to labor and expence, than successive cultivation. We may therefore assume, as the middle course of Husbandry, two annual crops on each field; one of white corn, and another of pulse, oil seed, or millet. Not that, on a medium, land actually produces two annual crops, but the greater expense of cultivating two separate portions, for their respective crops at two different seasons, is nearly compensated by the profit of obtaining in some instances [Page 73] more than two crops from the same land where circumstances permit, at the same time that the quantity of land actually used, is more than would be required, if all land uniformly yielded two crops.

This is a selection from the original text


agriculture, calamity, class, crops, food, grain, inundation, rain, rice, scarcity, waste, wealth, wheat, zamindar

Source text


Author: H.T.Colebrooke

Publication date: 1795

Original date(s) covered: 1789-1795

Edition: 1st Edition

Place of publication: Calcutta

Provenance/location: This text was transcribed from images available at Internet Archive: Original date(s) covered: 1789-1795

Digital edition

Original author(s): H T Colebrooke

Language: English

Selection used:

  • 1 ) pages 1 to 4
  • 2 ) pages 7 to 14
  • 3 ) pages 19 to 20
  • 4 ) pages 22 to 25
  • 5 ) pages 29 to 31
  • 6 ) pages 33 to 36
  • 7 ) pages 42 to 44
  • 8 ) pages 59 to 64
  • 9 ) pages 67 to 73


Texts collected by: Ayesha Mukherjee, Amlan Das Gupta, Azarmi Dukht Safavi

Texts transcribed by: Muhammad Irshad Alam, Bonisha Bhattacharya, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Muhammad Ehteshamuddin, Kahkashan Khalil, Sarbajit Mitra

Texts encoded by: Bonisha Bhattacharya, Shreya Bose, Lucy Corley, Kinshuk Das, Bedbyas Datta, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Sarbajit Mitra, Josh Monk, Reesoom Pal

Encoding checking by: Hannah Petrie, Gary Stringer, Charlotte Tupman

Genre: India > nonfiction prose > memoirs

For more information about the project, contact Dr Ayesha Mukherjee at the University of Exeter.