LOVERS of detail may like the following view of Begam Sumroo's fief, as it appeared when it lapsed on her death. The facts and figures are from the report furnished to the Revenue Board in 1840, by the officer deputed to make the necessary fiscal settlement. This gentleman begins by saying that the assessments on the land were annual, but their average rates about one-third higher than those which prevailed on the neighbouring British district. In those days, the British took two-thirds of the net rental, so we see what was left to the Begam's tenants. The settlement officer at once reduced the total demand of land revenue from nearly seven lakhs (6,91,388) to little more than five. But, he did more than that, for he swept away the customs duties, which he thus describes: — "They were levied on all kinds of property, and equally on exports and imports; animals, wearing apparel, and clothes of every description; hides, cotton, sugar-cane, spices, and all other produce; all were subjected to a transit duty, in and out. Transfers of lands and houses, and sugar works, also paid duty; the latter very high."
The good side of this system has been already glanced at (Part III. Chap. ii.). It was strictly patriarchal. The staple crop (sugar) was grown on advances from the Begam: and, if a man's bullocks died, or he required the usual implements of husbandry, he received a loan from the Treasury, which he was strictly compelled to apply to its legitimate purpose. The revenue officers made an annual tour through their respective tracts in the ploughing season; sometimes encouraging, and oftener compelling the inhabitants to cultivate. A writer in the Meerut Universal Magazine stated about the same time, that the actual presence in the fields of soldiers with fixed bayonets was sometimes required for this purpose.
The settlement officer adds that the advances to agriculturists were always recovered at the close of the year, together with interest at 24 per cent. The cultivators were, in fact, rack-rented up to the minimum of subsistence. but this much was insured to them; in other words, they were predial serfs. "To maintain such system," he proceeds, "required much tact; and, with the energy of the Begam's administration, this was not wanting: but when her increasing age and infirmities devolved the uncontrolled management on her heir, the factitious nature of her system was clearly demonstrated." The result of these last few years was, that one-third of the estate of which the fief consisted fell under "direct management;" the plain meaning of which is that they were, more or less, abandoned by their owners, and by the better class of the peasantry, and tilled by a sort of serfs.
"Nothing, in fact," concludes this portion of the Report "could more satisfactorily have shown the estimation in which the British rule is held by those who do not enjoy its blessings than the rapid return of the population to their homes, which followed immediately on the lapse." (Trevor Plowden, Esq., to Board of Revenue, Reports of Revenue Settlement, N. W.P., vol. i.)
This, be it remembered, is the picture of a fief in the heart of our own provinces, as swayed in quite recent times, by a ruler of Christian creed desirous of British friendship.