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Salt


It is difficult to overstate the importance of salt to early European settlers and seamen who inhabited and sailed through the Caribbean.

Salt was so prized in ancient times that Romans used it as part of wages given to the legions that controlled the known world. At the time, salt traded ounce-for-ounce with gold. The term in Latin for these salt payments was salarium argentum, or salt-money. This phrase is the basis for the word salary.

Schooner

There were salt pans in the Caribbean long before Salt Island became productive. The Arawak name for St. Maarten is Sualouiga and means Land of Salt, so called for its many natural salt pans. The end of the 15th Century marked modern Europe’s discovery of the Grand Banks and its teeming cod fishery. Methods of preserving the fish during long voyages back to the continent became a necessity.

Though salting fish and other foods to preserve them had been a common procedure for centuries, it came into its own after the great voyages of discovery and salt production necessarily boomed.

A cod catch could be preserved for months if first dried in the sun then packed between layers of course salt. To prepare it for dinner, all the cook did was soak the dried fish in fresh water for a few days, changing the water every so often to remove excess salt. Once rehydrated, it was prepared into any number of dishes, many of which are still cooked today.

The relative scarcity of large schooling food-fish in the Caribbean basin contributed to the growth in the 19th Century of a shipping industry based on the importation of salt cod from the Canadian Maritimes and the shipping of salt, sugar, molasses and rum back north. This trade, formerly carried out by a famous fleet of tern schooners, persists today and “sal’ fish” still is a staple of the Virgin Islands diet.

The little island’s salt industry was so important that at the turn of the 20th Century more than 75 people worked full time there. Though the invention of refrigeration put the brakes on commercial salt production in the British Virgin Islands, the tradition of maintaining and harvesting the salt continued by Norwell Durant up until his death in 2004. In the old days, the tradition included a fiesta the night before the springtime salt harvest, after which the general public was given two days to bag up as much salt as they could. The harvesters were obliged to give a third of their take to the crown and unauthorized harvesters were fined.

Today there are more than 70 families that claim ownership to the island, but an old gentleman named Durant was the final resident ending the tradition of harvesting salt on Salt Island.

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