Soualiga, the Land of Salt
By Roland and Laura Richardson
Created by a process as natural as it is mysterious, salt is a gift of nature that for uncountable centuries has been at the very heart of St.Martin-St.Maarten history. The Land of Salt, Soualiga, the island’s earliest name given by the Amerindian people, reflects clearly how much it impressed them.
Without salt, mankind and all the animal kingdom would perish. It has influenced every civilization throughout the course of history. Salt was the chief preservative that allowed sustenance through times that would have been famine. It was a currency traded for goods and hard-earned wages. It graced the tables of kings for their health and protection. It was carried by brides and grooms with promise of fertility. To trace the history of salt is to trace the history of man.
As the islands only natural resource, salt was our first truly organized industry. When a small landing party of Dutchmen arrived on St. Martin in 1624 and discovered the Great Bay pond, they might as well have struck gold. The French discovered that the pond in Grand Case was worth their return to the island after surviving a hurricane’s wrath in 1629. To these spare forces, salt’s promise of fertility, health, protection and prosperity was lure enough to found this community that remains today shared by these two nations.
The salt industry of St. Martin/Sint Maarten preceded and outlived indigo, tobacco, sugar, cotton, and every other economic effort undertaken here. Its quantity and high quality made it sought after and this brought us contact and exchange with the outside world. Though hard and often painful labor, it offered the joy of congregation, nourished our pride and shaped our identity.
Mrs. Jane Elizabeth Human from French Quarter reminisced before her death at age 104, “the money from the salt was sweet.”
Excerpts from the document that follows, written in 1839, offer an extraordinary record of St. Martin history, describing the official commencement of the 1789 salt harvest in Great Bay, Philipsburg. During this same year described, construction of Fort Louis was completed in Marigot, while in Paris, the public storming of Bastille on July 14, 1789 broke new ground for Western democracy.
---------------- Salt Factory by Sir Roland Richardson
--------The report was commissioned by the Commander of the Netherlands part of St.Martin and signed by Abraham Cannegeiter and Richard Robinson Richardson, and reads,
“The opening of the pond on the first day of reaping salt in the year 1789 in this colony, which the undersigned pleasingly remember, was a beautiful sight. The whole length of the southern shore, nearly one mile, was crowded with the inhabitants of both which could not have been less in number that six or seven thousand persons, five hundred flats stood ready, with their laborers alongside them so that at the given signal, each flat had some fanciful flag and the negro women, who were laborers in them, had their many colored handkerchiefs fixed to small poles, and waved them in the air.
Our national flag the emblem of her glory, industry and commercial enterprise, was heisted at the fort in honor of the occasion. The salt pond before, was beautiful white with salt and promised a glorious crop, and the sun having risen in all his glory, as though he claimed the torrid zone for his exclusive empire, was the moment for the signal gun to be fired from the fort, announcing that the pond might be entered, the shouts of the whole assemblage greeted the intelligence, and each flat pushed off, eager to be the first to load and to return, and throw a basket of salt on the pond side, when to receive a small customary reward which was more value as the triumph of superior industry, than from any other motive; some idea may be formed of the great value of a salt crop in this island, by considering the size of flats employed, which vary from 15 to 25 feet long, and from 8 to 12 feet wide, they are perfectly flat bottomed, and made of the lightest wood, so that when filled with salt, carrying from 25 to 40 barrels each flat, they do not require more than eight inches of water to float them. From 12 to 15 laborers, men and women are required to one flat, and each laborer is reckoned to pick ten barrels.” …
To understand the value of this industry, the riches were tallied on tax alone.
Their notes continue:
“In quantity of salt reaped during the crop of 1789 may be conceived from the extent of the situation, on which the heaps were placed, the whole extent of the pond side, as has already been mentioned, as allotments, nearly one English mile in length, had heaps of salt, each touching the other, not one heap containing less than one thousand barrels, the greater number, from four to five thousand, and one individual had a heap exceeding one hundred thousand barrels. It was estimated at the time, that over three millions of barrels were reaped.”
“….from the month of July 1789, to that of May 1790 a period of only eleven months, there was collected by dutyon salt thirty thousand guilders, and from the same source of information, that from the month of May 1789 to that of November 1792, only thirty one months, there was shipped from the port of Great Bay, seven hundred and five thousand barrels, from which the colonial government received two hundred and sixty thousand, nine hundred and ninety eight guilders.”
This was the peak generation for the salt industry on St Martin-St.Maarten, throughout the same period of radical shifts in economics that birthed democracy in Europe and North America. Thereafter, the decline of the salt industry is documented. It is only later through the efforts of Francois Perrinon that the salt ponds of Grand Case, Chevrise and latter that of Bretagne or Orient on the French side are developed. There was also occasional salt reaping in Red Pond in the Low Lands, but it only produced in time of great drought.
Francois Auguste Perrinon, a Navy Commander from Martinique, arrived in St.Martin in 1833. He established a company to exploit the salt basins of St.Martin on June 18th, 1844. This concession, granted in 1842, concerned the salt basins of Grand Case and Bretagne. Although, he did not speak English, Perrinon’s undertaking was considered a success, and it served as the basic argument for his stand against slavery. Perrinon employed free blacks and slaves, whom he paid equally, and put them to work side by side. He organized work on the salt ponds in a military disciplined manner, with promotion to higher grades. Faced with the decline of the sugar industry, this exploitation of the salt basins was a most welcome means of economic change and growth. Perrinon, established a company in Amsterdam called the “Salt Processing Company of Saint Martin”, in order to exploit the Great Salt Pond in Philipsburg in 1858, and work on the Foga factory was completed in 1862, one year after Francois Perrinon’s death.
St. Martin’s salt was awarded the Diplome de Grand Prix as the Best Product in the Bruselles Universal Exposition of 1910. It was exported to France, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Nova Scotia, but mostly to New England in the U.S.A. to be was used for the preservation of meat and cod fish. For a short time some was shipped to Canada for use in the roads in winter. After being in relatively continuous production from the 17th century, salt production ended in the Great Salt Pond of Philipsburg in 1949, but struggled on until the 1960s in Grand Case.
Today the salt ponds of St. Martin are tranquil pools of water reflecting the changing stations of the sun and moon, the eternal passing of the clouds, and time. They are an ecosystem unique as the element they contain most, a maternal sanctuary for each new season’s wildlife. Sleeping, buried in the thick mud at the ponds’ depths, are the smells and sights and sounds of our forefathers’ dreams.
Sir Roland and Laura Richardson happily invite you to discover their beautiful gallery in Marigot at a charming Creole landmark building with private garden. They would be delighted to hear from you!
Magic Jack, Tel: 1-443-982-0683
Visit their beautiful gallery at:
Roland Richardson Gallery Museum
#6 rue de la Republique, Marigot, St. Martin
Where Fine Art, History and Nature abound!
(c) copyright Laura and Roland Richardson 2013