There’s Gold in Them There Mounds

A look at TCI’s once-formidable salt industry.

By Chris Morvan

In the Turks & Caicos Islands in the early part of the 21st century, the only real “industry” is tourism. What the country produces at the moment is intangible, consisting largely of wonderful memories. But go back just a generation and you’ll find that some of these Islands did produce a commodity, a thing you could hold in your hand and say “this is what we make.” That commodity was something that can still be found in every home in every country: salt.

Basic, inexpensive, unglamorous salt. It’s everywhere, and it is taken completely for granted. But it doesn’t appear by magic, and when Salt Cay and Grand Turk were world leaders in its production it was a tough business to be in.

Toiling in the salt ponds

It was back-breaking toil to rake salt in the relentless sun.

Tough, that is, for the workers who spent their days in hard physical labour. Even after the original source of workers—slavery—had been abolished, conditions were bad due to the very nature of the process. If the production of salt relies on the sun evaporating water to leave salt crystals and these then have to be collected and transported to the docks and loaded onto ships, it follows that the work, too, was carried out in the fierce glare that we’re encouraged to stay out of these days for fear of dehydration, skin cancer and other health risks.

What the slaves had to endure is almost unthinkable to us today—and we probably don’t know the half of it. What we do know, though, comes from sources including the writings of Mary Prince, a slave who was brought to Grand Turk from Bermuda and suffered here before finally making her way to London and freedom.

The slaves were housed in primitive wooden buildings that have been likened to cattle sheds. They slept on the floor or on hard wooden benches. The principal health problem seems to have been sores on their feet caused by working without footwear and the salt preventing sores and wounds from healing. The spartan conditions in the slaves’ accommodation meant that those with such wounds could never get comfortable because there was nothing soft to rest their feet on, unless they managed to bring in some dry grass or other vegetation. The effects of the relentless sun beating down on them day after day we can only imagine, and there was no eye protection.

The dominance of the trade is immediately summed up by the name Salt Cay: that little island might not have had much going for it in the general scheme of things, but what it did have were low-lying areas which flooded with seawater. Some entrepreneur put two and two together and came up with four in big, white capital letters.

It was Bermudans who first spotted the potential of the Turks Islands in this respect. Their own country didn’t have the physical layout—the topography—for salt production, but these dry little places, not far away and at that time unpopulated, did. The Bermudans began to visit the Islands and by the mid-1670s, Grand Turk and Salt Cay were in the export business. At first there wasn’t much competition and the merchants used what was naturally available, but soon efforts were made to increase efficiency and productivity. So began the process of giving some structure to what was happening. Low walls were built to enclose the salinas and create rectangular ponds. Gates for controlling the flow of water (sluice gates) were installed, with primitive pumps (originally operated by hand and then powered by windmills) to move the liquid from one area to another as it became more concentrated via evaporation until there was nothing left but salt. Then it was a case of collecting the salt, raking it into piles and hauling it in carts drawn by donkeys away from the salinas and back to the sea from where it had come. But now it was crystallised and protected in bags, being stored if necessary in salthouses until a ship arrived to take it away. The bags of salt were loaded onto “lighters”—smaller craft that could get in close to the shore, as there were no deep water harbors and the ships that were to make the voyages to other countries had to anchor well offshore.

Salt at loading dock in Grand Turk

Donkey-drawn carts brought salt from the salinas to the dock areas to be loaded on ships for transport elsewhere.

Back on land, since the object of the exercise was to remove water from the mixture, rain was obviously the enemy—the last thing anyone wanted was for a heap of the finished product to be turned back to mush or even liquid, so it is no coincidence that the salt-producing islands have few trees. In addition to the relationship between trees and rainfall (forests can produce rain and rain nourishes trees), you certainly didn’t want leaves blowing into the salinas and storage areas and having to be picked out of the goods.

A story often told is of the designing of the Turks & Caicos’s first flag, which included mounds of salt. Back in England as the design lay around in an office, someone, presumably with no idea where the Islands were situated, took a white pile for an igloo and helpfully inked in a door.

The golden years were through the 19th century and into the 20th, with a foreboding hiatus during the Second World War, when nothing was exported and therefore no revenue came in. Oswaldo Ariza, a mine of local information, remembers how salt crystals would become mixed with the chalky rock used for improving Grand Turk’s dusty tracks and created “diamond roads” that sparkled in the sun.

The fortunes of the Turks & Caicos had been built on salt, and by the time the hostilities had ended, the world had changed. Salt was now being mined, either in the manner of coal, with labourers underground wielding picks and shovels, or by flooding seams until salt had been dissolved and pumping it out that way. One thing was for sure, as Mr. Ariza remembers it; many of the traditional markets for Turks Islands salt were now either making their own or buying it from other sources. At the end of the war, all the stockpiled salt went to, of all places, Japan.

Carl Coverley may now be retired, but at one time, from the late 1950s until the industry ground to a halt in Grand Turk in 1965 (Salt Cay soldiered on for another 10 years), he was a crusher operator, responsible for breaking up big, hard lumps of salt that had formed as it dried or as it sat in mounds and gravity compacted it. Mr. Coverley worked on “fishery salt”—the kind that was used to preserve fish in the old-fashioned way that had enabled fishermen to travel from as far away as the UK to the rich waters of Newfoundland, Canada, and take their catch perhaps thousands of miles to be sold or traded for other goods. The other type was table salt, which was required to be in a more delicate, neat state.

As we sit outside his house on Grand Turk, with the Bohio Dive Resort in the distance, Mr. Coverley reminisces about the three-masted schooners that did the bulk of the work between Grand Turk and Canada. The names of colleagues and notable industry figures come back to him and he recalls a time when salt baron Ted Frith thought he would have to cancel one entire consignment because a shaft had broken on the shift. Carl’s colleague Ernest Jones saved the day with his engineering skills, declaring that he could fix it there and then—and he did.

Mr. Coverley recalls that salt mounds could be as high as 25 feet (nearly 8 meters) and photographs suggest they could have been bigger than that. Although a crust formed on the outside to give them a little stability, there were occasionally horrible accidents. Even without such events, it wasn’t until the final few years of the industry that salt workers began to wear rubber boots, or at least “wompers” (crude footwear made from old car tyres). “And you could catch hell from the salt, it was so bright in your eyes, like a welding torch,” Mr. Coverley says with a shake of his head.

Even as recently as the early 1960s, the public was woefully underinformed about health and safety issues, and excessive consumption of salt harmed the health of customers just as producing it harmed the workers. The link between salt taken in or on food and high blood pressure might be drummed into us now, but back then all our parents and grandparents were concerned with was whether they needed another handful to make the food taste better.

Mr. Coverley and his fellows were on relatively big money at that time: £3.10s (just under $5) a week for five days from 6 AM to 4 PM plus Saturday morning. If that doesn’t sound too impressive, the crusher operator can remember a few years earlier when it had been seven shillings (much less than one dollar), so it must indeed have seemed like they were going up in the world.

Sadly, modern developments in the whirlwind of the 20th century spelled the end for the local salt trade. As a preservative it was rendered obsolete by advances in canning and refrigeration, along with high speed air transport, which could get perishables from source to market in a matter of hours rather than weeks. There was, Mr. Coverley recalls, the possibility of selling out to Morton’s, the international salt giant that has rolled with the punches, adapted to change and is still very much alive. But when that company came calling, the fragmented local salt community—a salina here, a shed there —failed to unite and Morton’s went elsewhere.

All that really remains of this part of the Islands’ heritage is the memory—and even that is fading as the characters who were part of the story disappear into history.

The Salt House on Grand Turk

The Salt House on Grand Turk is modeled on a typical salt storage building. It contains extensive information boards telling the story of the industry.

More information about the TCI’s salt industry can be found at the Turks & Caicos National Museum and the Salt House, both in Grand Turk. The National Museum, the country’s wide-ranging treasury of information and artefacts, is housed in historic Guinep House on Front Street. The Salt House was built at the same time as the cruise center as a focus for tourists interested in this aspect of the island’s history. It is in the style of a typical salt shed, sits at the edge of a salina and contains extensive information boards telling the story of the industry and of Mary Prince. Also, along with the tourist merchandise, there are modern salt-based products made in Salt Cay.

Many thanks for their help with this article to: Oswaldo Ariza, Carl Coverley, Phyllis Hayward and John Hilton.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography (myparadisephoto.com) created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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