The Other White Gold: Salt, Slaves, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and British Colonialism

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IN ONE OF the more famous slave narratives--in part because it was the first published account by a woman--Bermuda-born Mary Prince reported that "my master sent me away to Turk's Island. I was not permitted to see my mother or father, or poor sisters and brothers, to say good bye, though going away to a strange land, [where I] might never see them again." This unnamed slave owner had sold Prince to one of the holders of the salt ponds on present-day Grand Turk. Prince described long hours and grueling labor involved in salt raking. "I was given a half barrel and a shovel, and had to stand up to my knees in the water, from four o'clock in the morning till nine." After a rushed break to gulp down a bit of corn, she and her fellow laborers "worked through the heat of the day; the sun flaming upon our heads like fire, and raising salt blisters.... Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone, afflicting ... great torment." Continuing her brief description of labor in the salt works, she recounted that "we then shovelled up the salt in large heaps" and "sometimes we had to work all night, measuring salt to load a vessel; or turning a machine to draw water out of the sea for the salt-making."

When allotted time to sleep, they "were so full of the salt boils that [they] could get no rest lying upon the bare boards" serving as poor substitutes for beds. In desperation, they "went into the bush and cut the long soft grass" to make "trusses for [their] legs and feet." (1)

Working on Grand Turk brought further tortures, one a variation on the common practice of pouring salt into wounds. "Old Daniel's" lame hip kept him from matching the work pace of his fellow slaves. Their owner, said Prince,

   would order him to be stripped and laid down on the ground, and
   have him beaten with a rod of rough briar till his skin was quite
   red and raw. He would then call for a bucket of salt, and fling
   [it] upon the raw flesh till the man writhed on the ground like a
   worm, and screamed aloud with agony. This poor man's wounds were
   never healed.... I have often seen them full of maggots, which
   increased his torments to an intolerable degree. He was an object
   of pity and terror to the whole gang of slaves, and in his
   wretched case we saw, each of us, our own lot, if we should live
   to be as old.

Prince did not grow as old as Daniel on Grand Turk, but she did work its salt ponds for about ten years and, as she said, "saw and heard much that was very very bad at that place." (2)

Prince's all-too-short description makes it clear that salt, like sugar, yielded misery as well as money. The accounts of Mary Prince and her fellow salt rakers in the Bahamian Archipelago and on several islands in the West Indies form part of the ever-expanding literature on the institution of slavery--that linchpin in the trans-Atlantic and Caribbean economies from the seventeenth century through emancipation. The numbers of slaves involved in salt production did not rival those on the sugar islands. In 1822, for example, Turks and Caicos Islands reported just over 1,900 slaves. (3) But their importance exceeds their numbers. Focusing on the work they did and, when the record allows it, the conditions they endured will open a window on the lives and experiences of the people in the salt ponds upon whose backs substantial profits were made. It will also provide a more inclusive understanding of slavery in the western hemisphere and the web of lucrative commercial relationships that linked Africans, Europeans, and the inhabitants of the West Indies and mainland North America.

Scholars have already elaborated the importance of sugar to the making of "New World" slavery; the rise of the planter class in the Antilles; the rise and fall of the Atlantic slave trade; and the centrality of sugar, molasses, and rum to the trans-Atlantic economy. …