Story by Julian Putley
Used for seasoning and food preservation, salt reaped from the pond at Salt Island was
at one time a valuable commodity..
In days gone by the Southern Cays was the name given to those islands on the south side of the Sir Francis Drake Channel. They comprise Ginger, Cooper, Salt, Peter and Norman Islands. Ginger has never been inhabited but those Virgin Islanders residing on the other four were known as being hardy souls; resilient and self sufficient; relying on fishing and subsistence farming, such as it was.
Salt Island had one advantage over the others. As the name implies there was salt there and in the days of yesteryear salt was a valuable commodity. Salt was not only used for seasoning food but was also a preservative. Before the days of refrigeration it was very much in demand – for salting beef, pork, other meat and fish. In bygone days many boats would arrive off the settlement to reap salt for fishing expeditions. Even today in the BVI saltfish is a favorite food.
Salt Island's salt ponds are different to many in the area in that there is no visible access from the sea into the ponds. In an unusual geological scenario seawater enters one pond through the ground, composed of permeable sediment, mainly sand and coral rubble and then can enter the main pond by a canal. The canal can be blocked off at any time to restrict seawater passing into this main pond to allow evaporation to take place so that eventually saltwater crystals are allowed to form. This is why the harvesting of the salt always took place in the dry season where a thick rim of salt could be observed around the perimeter of the pond. A fickle season of late rains could be disastrous for the salt ponds; a steady dry season was essential.
Today there is but one ceremony on Salt Island and that is a celebration by friends and descendants of Salt Islanders held on or around July 4th annually. But in days gone by it was a different story. The harvesting of the salt usually took place in late April and prior to the official opening a bacchanal comprising eating, singing and dancing took place.
The official "breaking of the salt" was heralded by the administrator firing a pistol shot into the air. This was an early morning event, around 5:30 am, which allowed the public to reap salt freely for the following two days. In good years 1000 lbs of salt was collected and a fleet of fishing boats would anchor off the island to collect the valuable preservative.
After the two days of "open season" the reaping of salt was restricted to the islands' residents, numbering up to a hundred at various times during its history. An appointed government agent was responsible for administering the rules governing the salt and its harvesting, created by legislation extending back to the Government Salt Pond Ordinance, which vested ownership to the Crown. The law stated that one bag of salt was payable to the government for every three collected. Fines were to be levied on miscreants. This custom changed after the sinking of the RMS Rhone, as we shall see.
Forty years ago, in 1974, the population of Salt Island had diminished to eight hardy souls. The government agent at the time was Clarence Smith and the annual ceremony was still rigidly adhered to. Clarence's sister-in law was Clementine who actively partook of the proceedings and that year, as usual, she guided the small group of officials to the edge of the pond where she then waded into the acrid, saline water to demonstrate the method of salt collection, a technique not as simple as might be imagined, with various grades of texture to be determined.
Besides being very much involved in the small community; tending livestock, fishing and harvesting salt, she also raised nine children in an environment that could not be described as easy. In 1985 Clementine was awarded the British Empire Medal for meritorious civil service and again in 1996 she was honored for social and cultural contributions to the BVI by the F. Pickering Memorial Foundation. What a truly redoubtable Virgin Islander! Clementine Smith died in 1998 and is buried in a small grave site on the island marked by piles of conch shells and coral.
Other Salt Islanders moved away to provide education for their children and to earn a living wage. Daisy Durante was born on Salt Island and now lives on Tortola. She went to school in East End where she stayed with friends and like many BV Islanders she later found work in the more prosperous US Virgin Islands. Daisy's cousin Norwell Durante, formerly a boat captain, loved Salt Island and was the last to permanently reside there. I well remember him selling tourists brown bags of the famous Salt Island sea salt and a polished conch shell while he proudly explained the history of his island home. Norwell passed away in 2004, and is fondly remembered by many.
Salt Island is not only remembered for its resolute inhabitants but also for a famous shipwreck which came to grief on Salt Island in October 1867. The wreck of the RMS Rhone, a combination sail and steam ship, is renowned as the best dive site in the Caribbean with thousands of scuba enthusiasts enjoying a thrilling and unique dive experience. But on that day in October 1867 it was anything but a thrilling experience as hurricane force winds and huge seas drove the ship, with its terrified passengers and crew onto the rocks at Lee Bay. It's hard to imagine the devastation it must have caused the small settlement on Salt Island but historical records show that inhabitants of the island provided succor for survivors and were instrumental in providing final resting places for the deceased that washed up on the island. Apparently all personal belongings and valuables were collected and handed over to government officials. Queen Victoria (or her representative) was so impressed and grateful for the islanders' integrity that she ceded ownership to the inhabitants and their descendants in perpetuity. A new requirement of only one bag of salt per year was decreed, and this for only ceremonial purposes. A total of 124 passengers and crew lost their lives while some 23 were saved.
Today Salt Island provides a unique experience – a glimpse into the past. There are no restaurants, beach bars or watersports. The island offers some great hikes and spectacular views and something quite different – a chance to reflect on life in a different era. An era when survival and happiness were contingent on hard work, shared dependencies and solid values.