Raking Up the Past

Salt production on the Turks & Caicos Islands (Part 1)

Story & Postcard Images Courtesy Jeff Dodge

Salt was the most important industry on the Turks & Caicos Islands for almost 300 years. Salt was of critical importance, not only for culinary purposes, but to preserve meat and fish. Since salt production involved so many people and occupied so much land, it would be a photographer’s obvious subject.  Consequently, picture postcards made from early photographs of these islands included pictures of the salt production process. All the postcards included in this article were printed from photographs taken between 1905 and 1933.

This postcard depicts raking salt on Grand Turk Island. Notice the jail and library in background. (Circa 1906.)

The discovery that the Turks Islands were well suited for the commercial production of salt by the solar evaporation of seawater came about accidently.

Shipping between Bermuda and the West Indies was common during the early 1600s. During these passages, Bermudian vessels would sometimes stop at Grand Turk or Salt Cay to salvage cargoes from ships wrecked on the reefs near these islands. The practice of “wrecking” began in Bermuda in the early 17th century and the practice soon extended to the Caribbean.

The Turks & Caicos Islands were uninhabited in the 1660s—the Lucayan population had been gone for more than a century. The Islands were not only unpopulated, but were unclaimed by any other country. It was during this wrecking activity on the Turks Islands that Bermudians noticed that salt collected in naturally occurring shallow pans or ponds after seawater held in them evaporated in the sun.

Bermudians began collecting salt by hand from these shallow depressions on the Turks Islands on an informal basis in the 1660s. By 1673 salt collection became more organized—first on Salt Cay and five years later on Grand Turk. In the beginning, Bermudians and their slaves occupied the Turks Islands on a seasonal basis—arriving in March and returning to Bermuda in November. The summer months provided the Bermudian “salt rakers” with the weather conditions needed to extract salt from seawater by solar evaporation—hot temperatures, little rain and steady trade winds.

The success of the Bermudian salt merchants did not go unnoticed by the Spanish in Santo Domingo or the French in Hispaniola. Between the years 1710 and 1783, they repeatedly attacked the Turks Islands, the ships carrying salt and the salt rakers working the salt ponds. In 1764 Great Britain declared the Islands a British possession. 

In 1767, Andrew Symmer from Nassau was appointed as the King’s Agent on Grand Turk. He devised the Royal Regulations that year. These regulations, approved in 1781, established rules of governance for the Turks Islands and for the salt industry. The Head Right System that outlined who had the right to work the salt ponds was part of these regulations. Under the Head Right System, shares of the salt ponds were issued each February to every adult, including slaves, living on Grand Turk and Salt Cay. The shares issued to slaves however, actually went to the slave owner.

Agent Symmer’s activities during his 30-year tenure served to ensure that the Islands would eventually become part of the Bahamas, which they did in 1799. The Islands were variously under the control of the Bahamian government or the Jamaican government until 1973. 

Great Britain’s Emancipation Act of 1834 freed over 1,900 slaves on the Turks Islands. In theory, freed slaves, under the Head Right System, would be given shares in the salt ponds. Since this was not favorable to the former slave owners, a leasehold system was introduced in 1845. Those with money (former slave owners) remained in control of the ponds while freed slaves, having no money, were no better off than before emancipation. Many remained working for their former owners.

At the end of 1861, following two years of dreadful salt yields and the low prices salt commanded, lessees found themselves unable to pay the rent for the salt properties they leased from the government. A committee of lessees at Grand Turk and Salt Cay was formed and in 1862 the leasehold system was replaced by a freehold system. The government made up their loss of rental revenue with an ad valorem royalty imposed on salt exports.

Salt production

This postcard bears an image of East Harbour on South Caicos circa 1906. East Harbour would eventually become the largest producer of salt on the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Systematic salt production began on Salt Cay and Grand Turk in the 1670s. East Harbour (Cockburn Harbour) on South Caicos began salt production about 1848. East Harbour would eventually become the largest producer of salt on the Islands. 

In 1857 salt production on West Caicos was explored. A company was formed, land was leased from the government and a railway and wharf were built. Three years later these attempts to produce salt on West Caicos ended as the company in charge was no longer solvent.  

The Bermudians organized and improved the salt collection process in the 1670s by constructing sluices to keep out the sea and building stone walls around the naturally occurring salt ponds. They also constructed new ponds and built canals to bring water from the sea to flood their ponds. 

Seawater coming from the ocean through canals entered public ponds as large as five acres and 12 to 18 inches deep. When the seawater in the public ponds registered 30º on a salometer (a device that measures the percentage of salt in solution), it was sent through sluices to smaller, privately owned ponds. These ponds were known as “weak ponds” or No. 1 ponds. The brine or “pickle” remained in a No. 1 pond until it  measured 60º on the salometer. This took about 20 days. 

  When the pickle measured 60º, it was moved to a “strong pond” or a No. 2 pond. At this point, the volume of seawater had been reduced by 50%. The pickle remained in the No. 2 pond for another 15 to 20 days until it measured 90º on a salometer. The pickle was then pink in color.

This postcard depicts a hand-operated water wheel for “turning pickle,” circa 1910.

Since the salt ponds were at the same elevation, water wheels were used to move pickle from pond to pond. Water wheels were either hand-operated or wind-powered. Hand-operated water wheels were portable and could be moved from one pond to another as needed.

This postcard shows the salt pans circa 1906. Salt raked into small piles is ready to be moved to storage areas or to salt sheds.

Wind-powered water wheels were heavy and could not be moved. Kids would sometimes ride on them as though they were riding on a carousel. 

From pond No. 2, the pickle was moved to shallow salt pans where it would begin to crystalize after 15 to 20 days. It was ready to rake after another 20 to 25 days. Toothed wooden rakes were used to break up the salt crystals and rake them into small piles.

Salt raked into piles next to the salt pans would then be loaded on donkey carts or wheelbarrows and moved to outdoor storage areas near the beach or to salt sheds. 

The next issue of the Astrolabe will continue the story of the salt industry on the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Thanks to Nigel Sadler of Sands of Time Consultancy for providing information on the Royal Regulations of 1767.

Jeff Dodge spent a year at the Naval Base on Grand Turk in 1966. He returned in the 1990s with his wife for a diving vacation. A visit to the Museum led by Brian Riggs, spurred his interest in collecting early picture postcards of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

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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 ( 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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