The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Attempts to revitalize the Salt Industry

ATTEMPTS TO REVITALIZE THE SALT INDUSTRY

BY; WILL JOHNSON

 

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The Great Salt Pond as it looked in full production.

In a report by Local Councilors Abraham Cannegieter and Richard Robinson Richardson dated December 10th 1839 they take an in depth look at the possibilities being pursued to revitalize the Salt Industry.

In an attempt to find the original copy of the Treaty of Concordia of March 13th 1648 they also provide much information as to the state of the island of St. Martin and the salt industry at the time.

 

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Salt heaped up on the salt lots in Philipsburg waiting for export.

“The originators of the plan for grants in the salt pond, were alone actuated from the motive, that they beheld with regret, so valuable a resource of wealth entirely unimproved, they saw the colony entirely deteriorating, and that so rapidly, that it bid fair to be very soon entirely ruined. They were well acquainted that the revenue of the colony so far from meeting the expenses, were much behind hand, knowing this, they were necessarily convinced that the Colonial Government could not give any assistance whatever to public improvements. They hoped that the inhabitants of the Island, without distinguishing between Dutch or French, by joining together in a public company, and each one contributing his mite from the small remnant of property left to them from the ravages of misfortune, and untoward events, might derive some benefit from the salt pond in question. For this purpose, and in accordance with the recommendation of the originators of the scheme, His Honor the Commander of the colony, gave public notice, to all, and every inhabitant, that they might join together in a company, and contribute by purchasing shares in the same. Responding to this public notice, several of the inhabitants subscribed, among whom were every class of free subjects, they formed a company, and called themselves the “Saint Martin Salt Company”. Each share was unanimously agreed upon, to be fixed at the value of one hundred guilders but in order to assist the most indigent, as low as one eight of a share was allowed to be taken, and in consequence of money being hard to be procured from every shareholder it was permitted to be paid for, in labour or materials, for the making of the company dam, mill saw. From this plain statement of the case, it must be very evident that no base, or unworthy self-interested motive actuated the measure, besides the part of the salt pond from which concessions were bought, namely the Eastern, and northern Shores, so far from being prejudicial to the center of the salt pond, would be a protection from the streams of fresh water into the pond from the surrounding hills, some of which streams are far from being inconsiderable.

 

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Construction on the Rolandus Canal to carry the fresh water past the Salt Pond out to the sea.

There is not a doubt but the dams of the several salt companies materially served to bring forward the salt crop in the general pond in the Year 1837. Every one acquainted with the circumstances of the grants in question must allow, that it seemed to have been an interposition of divine providence at the time, to prevent the utter ruin of the colony, for in consequence of the very severe drought with which the colony was visited at that period, the sugar crop had entirely failed, provisions for the feeding of the slaves excessively high in price, the merchants in consequence of not having a prospect for immediate payment, afraid to give credit and added to all other miseries the gloomy consideration that slave property became only nominal, because from the locality of the colony, the slaves can whenever they please, abscond to the neighbouring English Island of Anguilla and be made free. The only means therefore by which they could be retained in this colony, were that they should be made happy, and if possible, contented in their station, and that means should be provided for their support.

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Another dyke built to keep out the flood waters from the valley of Cul-de-Sac

In the town of Philipsburg at the time, there was at least one hundred slaves, who by their industry contributed to maintain their owners and themselves, these people found employment in the construction of the Dams, and were paid by the St. Martins Salt Company, a half guilder per day for each labourer. Carpenters also found employment and several planters who had not the means to feed their slaves, also hired them at the St. Martins Salt Company’s work, thus were they prevented from starving, or absconding from the plantations, and quitting the Island. It is true that in consequence of the exertions of the said company, several individuals were stimulated to follow the example, and made application for concessions, which so long as they were confined to that part of the salt pond, already mentioned, and could not be prejudicial to any general interest, were complied with, and granted to them; but as soon as application was made by some individuals for a concession on the southern shore, next to Philipsburg and which might have led to the injury of the inhabitants generally in the Island an intimation was given to His Honor the Commander of the Colony of the circumstances and His Honor with most prudential care gave notice that no grants would be given, which could interfere with the center of the pond, or which might be prejudicial to the reaping of salt therefrom, and which was strictly adhered to.

 

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The Salt Pond as it would look when the salt was “ripe’ for harvest.

Before that the undersigned endeavor to answer the several questions submitted for their consideration, they deem it necessary to give a short description of the salt pond in question. Which will be found they think, essential to make their explanations better understood. In the Dutch part of this Island, the town of Philipsburg has on its Northern side this salt pond which from the ad measurement of the late Doctor Samuel Fahlberg, is three miles in circumference, but this must be well understood, to be when the pond is filled with water, because when it has dried out sufficiently for the making of salt, at least it is abridged of one fifth of its expanse. This pond it is scarcely to be doubted was formerly a part of the sea of Great Bay, because the narrow Isthmus of sand on which the town of Philipsburg is located, is constantly progressing on the sea, and a bar which is opposite the town, about half a mile distance perceptibly becomes shallower, more particularly so after a southern gale, which blows directly into this bay. The decrease of water has been very great since the earth-quake of 1755 which was experienced very severely in this Island, and produced a very extraordinary phenomenon. The Sea left the shores of Great Bay, and went to a considerable distance beyond the bar aforementioned. Its movement was so rapid abovementioned, the movement was so rapid and instantaneous that fishes were left on the sand; its return was equal in velocity, and for some few moments threatened the destruction of the town. The undersigned received this information from persons of the highest respectability and who were eye witnesses of the fact.

 

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Hard work carrying the salt and up that primitive ladder to heap it up.

From the Western part of the town of Philipsburg, the Isthmus continues, but much narrower, and in a northern direction joins the main land. It is northern strip of san which separates the salt pond from a fresh water pond, or which might with more proprietary be called a small river, which takes its rise in the mountains of Cul de Sac and running through that division of the island, is ordinarily a trifling rivulet, and while pent up in that narrow valley does not expand much, when it reaches the open space at the southern bounds of Cul de Sac it diverges, taking an easterly course and having an open space expands itself, and seeks its way to the ocean. This space was fully wide, and sufficient formerly for the purpose in every season of the Year, and required to be so after very heavy falls of rain, when the rivulet in Cul de Sac overflows the entire surface of the bottom of that valley, and runs down with tremendous rapidity, carrying everything before it. On the shores of the aforementioned, and described narrow strip of sand were growing large trees, whose roots entwined together, supported the sand bank, and the river unobstructed, discharged itself at all times into the Sea, at the western extremity of the town of Philipsburg, and that without the possibility of doing any damage to the salt pond, from which it was effectually separated by nature. We do not therefore find any complaint of its having done so in former days of the colony; but in the year 1778 the Colonia Government had a Stone Bridge built across the Fresh Pond, to connect the main land of the southern shore, to the sand bank opposite.

 

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The bridge which served more as a dam and would periodically flood the Salt Pond with too much fresh water.

Instead of having this bridge constructed with one, or at most two wide arches sufficient to allow the water to flow at all times unimpeded to the Sea, it would not appear, that the projectors of the bridge were sufficiently aware of the power of the stream as they only constructed the bridge with three small openings in it, each of them only seven feet wide and four feet high. The consequence of which was, that as soon as the water in a tremendous fall of rain found itself unable to have vent through the small openings of the bridge, and became on a level with the top of the bridge, which was several feet higher than the sand bank on the northern extremity, it necessarily recoiled and flowed over into the salt pond. The Colonial Government of that day must have soon discovered the error of the arches of the bridge, and in order as they conceived, to prevent the possibility of the water ever flowing into the salt pond, they had a wall built all along the sand bank. This work was done by contract, and instead of the wall being higher raised than the bridge, with a deep and strong foundation to it, and sufficiently wide to resist the immense force of water, with which it would at times have to contend, it was only built on the surface of the sand, and only of the trifling width, at the top of it, of two feet, and much lower at the northern extremity than the bridge. In order likewise to build this wall the trees were cut down, and thus the narrow sandbank rendered too weak to sustain the pressure of water against it, so that even when there was not sufficient water in the fresh pond to make it overflow in the salt pond, as it could not run into the sea, it filtered through the coarse sand bank and thus found its way into the salt pond. The consequence of such ill-advised measures were that in the Year 1792 when was experienced in this Island, a very severe hurricane accompanied by an immense fall of rain, the rivulets from Cul de Sac came down so rapidly, and with such greater velocity than it could not find vent, through the small arches of the bridge, that it recoiled on the sand bank, and broke away the northern extremity of it, sweeping away the wall with it, forced itself into the salt pond, and so filled it with fresh water. At the time, it endangered the safety of the Isthmus on which the town of Philipsburg stands, and to prevent it from forcing its way through, a small canal was obliged to be made at the eastern part of the town, which gave a vent for the time to the salt pond into the Sea.

 

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The long wall dyke which was built below the level of the bridge and proved to be of no use during the periodic floods.

From this year 1792, no attention whatever was given to repair the damage done to the sand bank or dyke as it is called; nevertheless in the year 1797 such was the duration of the drought, that the cul de sac rivulet became dry, and the salt pond that year gave an immense crop of salt, and the continued drought allowed the reaping of it for one Year, after which such a vast quantity of rain fell, that the salt pond was once more filled with rain water and the breach in the dyke so deepened as to have eight feet water in it. In this condition it remained until the Year 1805, when the Governor and Council of the Dutch part entered into a contract with Messieurs Gerald du Clouz, and Edward Scott, to erect a dyke, to separate effectually the salt pond from the fresh one, and agreed to pay them for the same, two thousand two hundred dollars, payable from the revenues of the first salt crop. Those gentlemen complied with their engagement, but as the source of mischief remained unaltered by the bridge across the fresh pond being higher than the Dyke, the consequence was, that in the Year 1806 in the month of September, when this island experienced a fall of rain of three days continuance, that the dyke was carried away. It had been constructed with floodgates, but such was the consternation at the time, that they were never thought of until the destruction of the Dyke. Moral of the story

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Up until the early nineteen sixties locals could wade out into the Salt Pond and get enough salt for home use.

for present day St. Martin: “The More things change the more they remain the same.”

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When the salt in the pans were ripe for harvest.

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