White gold: how salt made and unmade the Turks and Caicos Islands

The remains of a windmill, once used to pump brine into the salt pans of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Photo credit: www.amphibioustravel.com.

Salt is so commonplace today, so cheap and readily available, that it is hard to remember how hard to come by it once was. The Roman forces who arrived in Britain in the first century C.E reported that the only way the local tribes could obtain it was to pour brine onto red-hot charcoal, then scrape off the crystals that formed on the wood as the water hissed and evaporated. These were the same forces that, according to a tradition dating to the time of Pliny the Elder, gave us the word “salary” because they once received their wages in the stuff.

Salt was crucially important until very recently not merely as a condiment (though of course it is a vital foodstuff; hearts cannot beat and nerve impulses cannot fire without it), but also as a preservative. Before the invention of refrigeration, only the seemingly magical properties of salt could prevent slaughtered animals and fish hauled from the sea from rotting into stinking inedibility. It was especially important to the shipping industry, which fed its sailors on salt pork, salt beef and salt fish. The best salt meat was packed in barrels of the granules–though it could also be boiled in seawater, resulting in a far inferior product that, thanks to the scarcity of fresh water aboard wooden sailing ships, was then often cooked in brine as well, reaching the sailors as a broth so hideously salty that crystals formed on the sides of their bowls. The demand for salt to preserve fish was so vast that the Newfoundland cod fishery alone needed 25,000 tons of the stuff a year.

Raking salt on the Turks and Caicos Islands in about 1900.

All this demand created places that specialized in producing what was known colloquially as “white gold.” The illustration above shows one remnant of the trade in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a sleepy Caribbean backwater that, from 1678 to 1964, subsisted almost entirely on the profits of the salt trade, and was very nearly destroyed by its collapse. The islands’ history is one of ingenuity in harsh circumstances and of the dangers of over-dependence on a single trade. It also provides an object lesson in economic reality, for the natural products of the earth and sky rarely make those who actually tap them rich.

The islands, long a neglected part of the British empire, lie in the northern reaches of the Caribbean, far from the major trade routes; their chief call on the world’s notice, before salt extraction began, was a disputed claim to be the spot where Christopher Columbus made landfall on his first voyage across the Atlantic. Whether Columbus’s first glimpse of the New World really was the island of Grand Turk (as the local islanders, but few others, insist), there is no doubt about the impact the Spaniards had once they began to exploit their new tropical empire. The indigenous population of the Turks and Caicos—estimated to have numbered several tens of thousands of peaceable Lucayan Amerindians—made a readily exploitable source of slave labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines the conquistadores established on Haiti. Within two decades of its discovery, the slave trade and the importation of diseases to which the Lucayans possessed practically no resistance (a large part of the European portion of what is termed the Columbian Exchange), had reduced that once-flourishing community to a single elderly man. Continue reading

“Kipper und wipper”: rogue traders, rogue princes, rogue nuns and the German financial meltdown of 1621-23

A German mint hard at work producing debased coinage designed to be palmed off on the nearest neighbouring state, c.1620

The great German hyperinflation of 1923 is passing out of living memory now, but that doesn’t mean that it has been forgotten. Indeed, you don’t have to go too far to hear it cited as a terrible example of what can happen when a government lets the economy spin out of control, and the episode still remains a minor feature of the British history curriculum, studied – briefly – by 15 and 16 year olds taking their GCSE. In consequence, a surprisingly large number of Brits can recall at least some of the details of that period. They may remember, for instance, that at its peak German inflation hit 325,000,000 percent, while the exchange rate plummeted from 9 marks to 4.2 billion marks to the dollar. They may recall that it became cheaper to decorate a room with high-denomination banknotes than with wallpaper; or that when thieves robbed a worker who had used a wheelbarrow to cart off the billions of reichsmarks that were his week’s wages, it was reported that they stole the wheelbarrow but left the useless wads of cash piled on the kerb. Others have had one or other of the famous photos taken in this period burned into their memories, such as one that shows a German housewife firing her boiler with an imposing pile of worthless notes [below left].

It’s easy, in these circumstances, to suppose that 1923 was a uniquely strange and terrible episode, but the truth is that it was not. Indeed, the German hyperinflation was not even the worst of the twentieth century; its Hungarian equivalent, dating to 1945-46, was so much more severe that prices in Budapest began to double every 15 hours. (At the peak of this crisis, the Hungarian government was forced to announce the latest inflation rate via radio each morning, so workers could negotiate a new pay scale with their bosses, and issue the largest denomination banknote ever to be legal tender: the 100 quintillion (1020) pengo note. When the debased currency was finally withdrawn, the total value of all the cash then in circulation in the country was reckoned at 1/10th of a cent. [Bomberger & Makinen pp.801-24; Judt p.87])   Nor was 1923 even the first time that Germany had experienced an uncontrollable rise in prices. It had also happened long before, back in the early years of the 17th century. And that hyperinflation (which is generally known by its evocative German name, the kipper- und wipperzeit) was a whole lot stranger and more colourful than what happened in 1923. More

The strange tale of the Warsaw basilisk

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

Few creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk: a crested snake, hatched from a cock’s egg, that was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example to the right comes from a German bestiary, but the earliest description that we have was given by Pliny the Elder, who described the basilisk in his pioneering Natural History (79AD) – the 37 volumes of which he completed shortly before being suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly nonetheless. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny wrote, “but advances loftily and upright” – a description that accords with the popular notion that the basilisk is the king of serpents – and “kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits rocks, such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was native to Libya, it was said, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.

The Roman poet Lucan was one of the first authors to describe the basilisk. His work stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

The Roman poet Lucan stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

Pliny is not the only ancient author to mention the basilisk. The Roman poet Lucan, writing only a few years later, described another characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster – the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to its venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair.

The basilisk was popular in medieval bestiaries, and it was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. More

The Shogun’s reluctant ambassadors

March 1839: the Japanese cargo ship Cho-ja maru, dismasted and without her rudder, wallows in the Pacific shortly before her surviving crew were picked up by the American whaler James Loper. Artist unknown; Sonkei Archives, Tokyo

When Matthew Perry sailed his squadron of warships into Edo Bay in July 1853 – and compelled the local authorities, under threat of bombardment, to accept a trade treaty with the United States – Japan had been a closed society for well over two centuries. Under the policy known as Sakoku (“locking the country”), practically all trade with the outside world had been strictly prohibited. Christianity was banned, foreigners already in Japan were expelled, and others were forbidden, on pain of death, from entering imperial territory. The Japanese, similarly, were not permitted to leave. For 220 years, the country remained almost entirely isolated, mostly peaceful, and profoundly mysterious and alluring to outsiders.

Whatever the reasons for Japan’s self-imposed seclusion – they are all too frequently reduced to fear of fast-encroaching Christianity, though inevitably they were quite a bit more complex than that [Boxer pp.308-400; Eiichi pp.21-58] – Sakoku produced peculiar results. Japan’s only formal foreign relations were with Korea; strictly limited trade was carried on, but the only westerners allowed anywhere on Japanese territory were the Dutch, and they were favoured largely because, being Calvinists, they had no interest in converting anyone to their religion. Dutch traders, in turn, were restricted to a single “factory,” or base, located on an island just off Nagasaki and chosen to ensure that there could be no easy intercourse with the locals. A few Japanese, specially trained to act as interpreters, had access to the factory, and one or two Dutch merchants, on special occasions, travelled to Edo, the capital, in palanquins. But all but a tiny handful of Japanese had never seen a European and had no access to western thoughts or ideas. Dutch woollen cloth (the principal import) was scarce and hence fashionable and highly sought-after. For the most part, however, it was easy for the Japanese to believe that their visitors were very different to them – indeed, quite possibly, not human:

Most Japanese regarded foreigners (and particularly Europeans) as a special variety of goblin that bore only superficial resemblance to a normal human being. The usual name given to the Dutch was komo or “red hairs,” a name intended more to suggest a demonic being than to describe the actual coloring of the foreigners’ hair. The Portuguese had also at one time been declared by the shogunate to possess “cat’s eyes, huge noses, red hair and shrike’s-tongues” … More