Tackling New Threats to Caribbean Coral Reefs
by Emma Doyle
The Caribbean Salt Trade
From Brutal Business to Boutiques
by Chris Morvan
We don’t know exactly when mankind realized that salt was important. What we do know is that as early as the Bronze Age, thousands of years BC (before Christ), or to use the fashionable non-Christian term, BCE (Before the Common Era), there were what are known as “salt roads”, which led from coastal salt-producing areas to more populated regions and cities. There were also marine salt routes, taking the precious cargo overseas so it could end up far, far from home.
To be a salt-producing area required low-lying land near the sea, and salt was probably discovered by accident as a positive by-product of flooding, with pools of sea water evaporating in the sun and leaving this strange white crust which, someone noticed, enhanced the flavor of food. And if you used a lot of it, it acted as a preservative too, in the days before refrigeration.
The Caribbean contains many suitable places for salt production, such as the Cayman Islands, St. Martin/St. Maarten, Bonaire, and Venezuela’s Araya Peninsula, but it was farther north that the salt trade made its greatest impact.
The Turks & Caicos Islands, up near the Bahamas and therefore within striking distance of the US, was a major producer until comparatively recently. And the king of them all made no bones about it, rejoicing in the name Salt Cay.
Were it not for the regional advantages of sun and sea (if, say, it were off the coast of Denmark or near the Falklands), Salt Cay might be described as bleak. But it does have those Caribbean charms, so shipwrecked mariners probably considered themselves lucky to be washed ashore here, until they investigated the possibility of growing things in the dry, barren soil.
But once the idea of salt as a precious commodity had set the gold doubloons spinning in merchants’ eyes it was a different story. By the late 1600s the production of “white gold” had become big business here and the island still features the salinas, large rectangular fields bounded by low stone walls to collect the salt water and connected by sluices — gates that enabled the partially evaporated water to be pumped down the line so another batch could be started. And so the process continued until you came to a field of crusty white stuff that would be raked up and shovelled into mounds.
Neighbouring Grand Turk, capital of the Turks & Caicos, was another significant player in the salt market and its salinas are still there, too, reminders of a previous era. Islands where the salt trade flourished often have something or other named in remembrance: Grand Turk’s little epicenter around Front Street features a popular bar called the Saltraker, while in St. Maarten it’s a roundabout in Philipsburg.
The Turks & Caicos Islands are a British Overseas Territory, and in the past much of their business was conducted by the mother country. This included the production of national identifiers such as postage stamps, and eventually there were calls for a national flag. The story is told of the time some pictures were sent to London — suggestions for artwork for the flag. These included mounds of salt. One was sent back with a small door drawn on it by some wag who thought they looked like igloos, and an igloo has to have an entrance. In fact salt mounds could be much bigger than any igloo.
That, though, is one of the few happy tales of salt production, because in past centuries it was a brutal business, with slaves brought in to do the dirty work. They worked from dawn till dusk in the roasting sun, sleeping in wooden shacks, either on the floor or on benches, and constantly nursing the inevitable sores caused by working in their bare feet, with salt literally rubbed into the wounds.
The landscape around salt-producing areas is notably short of shade, because shade means trees and trees mean leaves, which could blow into the drying salt and have to be picked out. Trees also encourage rain, which is the last thing you need when your salt mounds have developed a nice crust and are ready to be loaded onto ships.
With no docks or deep water harbors to make the loading process easy, smaller vessels, known as lighters, came close to pick up the cargo and these took their loads out to where the oceangoing ships waited.
The lucrative Caribbean salt trade was badly disrupted by the Second World War, with shipping routes suddenly shut down, and, as is the way of things, the world moved on. There are other ways or producing salt. “Rock salt” exists in solid seams underground, the dried-up remnants of ancient salty lakes and small seas, and the salt can either be mined, much like coal, or the chambers flooded and the salty fluid pumped out, to be evaporated by modern means.
After the war, representatives of one of the world’s leading purveyors of salt and condiments attempted to cut a deal with Grand Turk as a whole, but the local businesses were all small and individual, and no agreement was reached whereby they might join together for the greater good. The industry limped on before fizzling out in the mid-1960s. Production on Salt Cay survived another ten years or so.
Where once upon a time salt was just salt, now the supermarket shelves teem with names such as Maldon, kosher and pink Himalayan. The Caribbean? That was all coconuts and pineapples, wasn’t it?
Nowadays both Grand Turk and particularly Salt Cay are sleepy places. The White House, home of the Harriott family, who dominated the Salt Cay industry, is still there and in the hands of descendants. You can take a boat ride to the Salt Cay from Grand Turk or find yourself having lunch there as part of a whale-watching trip, but you won’t see much action on the smaller island — or the larger one, for that matter. While Grand Turk remains the capital, most of the tourism is now in Providenciales, 15 minutes away by plane.
Having said that, in recent years a new salt-based operation has been running in Salt Cay, producing small amounts of culinary salt and homespun luxury products such as perfumed soaps and bath salts. Run by Cynthia Johnstone, this cottage industry aims to provide much-needed work for local people, and the process could hardly be further removed from the grim reality of the original, with just a little leisurely raking involved and most of the photos on the company’s website (saltcaysaltworks.com) showing the staff sitting comfortably indoors.
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