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From rocks to riches.

AUBIQUITOUS WHITE CRYSTAL Was once widely smuggled under sail from the Caribbean coast of South America back to Europe, where it spread to every comer. Millions of people used it compulsively, while others shunned it as a poison. Respectable businessmen grew rich from the traffic and military personnel tried to halt it. it controlled island governments, became a burning issue among powerful nations, and saved the Dutch economy from collapse.

Of course, the subject is salt. Compared to the legendary Caribbean cargos of gold, silver and pearls, plain old salt lacks a little savor. Its innate sex appeal must rank somewhere near guano as one of the least glamorous cargoes ever to fill a ship's hold ... but it had its day.

Almost 400 years ago the Dutch were sailing nonstop from Holland to the West Indies to fetch it back, and not just one or two bold ships, but hundreds annually. It was at once routine commerce and high adventure. It was smuggled out of Spanish territory, fleets did battle, throats were slit--all over salt. The story makes a good yam for travellers in the West Indies who wonder, as they wander by derelict old salt pans and crumbled coral block buildings on some remote cay, just what brought men to labor under the sun on such far-flung rocks.

The magnificent old fort at the end of Venezuela's Araya Peninsula still stands as a mute symbol to that era. Its massive battlements have been cracked and toppled in places by earthquake, but they remain largely intact, brooding over the sunblasted, windstruck barrens. The question posed by this grand structure is ... why here, in such a remote and pointless place, presiding over such a shabby town? A clue appears when one climbs the fort's walls and looks past the town to see the huge lavender salt lake that lies a few hundred yards from the sea.

Salt had greater value in the days before canning and refrigeration, when the best way to preserve meat or fish was either to pickle it in brine or salt and dry it. All long voyages depended on a store of salt meat packed in barrels, and on shore salt fish was staple fare for common people for centuries. The Basques and Portuguese, who not long after Columbus were crossing the Atlantic to fish the Newfoundland banks, brought their catches home packed in brine. But it was the Dutch whose very nationhood depended on a reliable supply of salt. Towards the close of the 16th century their herring fishery employed 1,000 vessels and 30,000 men; to them it was "the mother of all commerce." They exported their phenomenal catches all over Europe, especially to the Catholic south, where every meatless Friday made the Low Country Calvinists that much richer.

The Dutch had always relied on Iberian salt, in a smooth, symbiotic trade that carried herring to Spain and salt back to the Netherlands. Smooth, that is, until the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain flared up in the late 1500s. Spain cut off the rebels' salt supply and in one fell swoop seized 100 Dutch ships anchored from La Coruna to Cadiz, including 30 salt carriers.

The prospect of watching their herring rot--and their country along with it--sent the enterprising Dutch in search of new sources. The Mediterranean had lots of salt, but getting it through the Spanish-controlled Straits of Gibraltar required both stormy weather and good luck. The Dutch searched the African Atlantic coast, but found shoals extending far offshore, and the few available harbors were all subject to Spanish attack. They fetched salt from as far south as Ilheu do Sal in the Cape Verdes, but the quality was mediocre and the return trip against wind and currents took months.

Finally, the Dutch decided that the best way to get salt was to cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean coast of present-day Venezuela and steal it point blank from their enemy. At the end of the Araya Peninsula, on a sparsely inhabited desert coast, lay an immense bed of pure, concentrated white salt, hard by a convenient anchorage. A Spanish friar writing aroung 1620 described it thus:

Three leagues from the city of Cumana

lie the salt beds of Araya, the

most abundant and the richest in

salt to be found in the universe, for

under the water lies rock salt in such

quantities that if a hundred boats or

galleons finish loading there, as has

often been seen, and another hundred

arrive, there is cargo for all of

them and one notices no diminution

in consequence of the earlier cargos

... it is so concentrated that the foreigners

profit by the fact in their

countries and make three boatloads

out of one; whenever they use it they

dilute it for salting down, it is so


The "hundred boats or galleons" referred largely to Dutch vessels. Cut off from Iberia in 1585, they discovered Araya's potential by 1590, and within a decade 100 Dutch ships were loading salt there annually. By 1603, 200 salt ships were making the crossing to Holland each year. What sweetened the salt was the act of robbing it from the despised Spanish crown-unpaid, untaxed, in broad daylight. This was Araya's brief moment on the world stage.

Of course, the salt had always been there, but the Carib Indians wouldn't touch it and shook their heads to see the white man "poisoning" his food. The Spanish, although they didn't need more salt, denied it to others. They were effectively able to protect their claim during the first half of the 16th century because the lucrative pearling fisheries nearby drew a strong Spanish presence.

By the latter 1500s, however, the oyster beds had been terminally ransacked, then hit hard by disease. The pious believed God was punishing the rapacity of the pearling entrepeneurs, who had worked their Bahamian Indian pearl divers to their death and to extinction as a people. In any case, most Spaniards either flocked to the golden rape of Mexico and Peru or drifted away. Araya and environs were left baking under the sun, a boom gone bust; once a focal point, now a backwater. The only two remaining Spanish settlements worth mentioning were Isla Margarita and the town of Cumana, located to either side of Araya but too small and neglected to stem the sudden influx of Dutch shipping.

From 1595 on, Atlantic crossings became routine procedure for the Dutch salt fleet, whose typical 300-ton burden fluyts could make the round trip in four to five months. The fluyt was a recent breakthrough in Dutch shipbuilding design that sailed faster, carried more cargo and needed less crew than conventional ships of the time. With their timbers pickled by their cargo, the salt freighters had a reputation for rot-free hulls.

They left the Netherlands in squadrons, for protection and mutual assistance, and shaped their course south towards the tradewinds, bypassing the Spanish-held Canaries, and then drove west before the wind across the Atlantic to the island of Margarita. Once round the ragged peaks of the Macanao, they soon picked up the glint of Punta Araya's long, low sandspit glistening between the swells. They would roar down its lee and drop anchor in the roadstead north of the bluffs.

With ships securely anchored, the work parties went ashore with tools and supplies to set up a temporary camp consisting of shade, workshop and kitchen. Here they assembled wheelbarrows and flatbottomed rafts from supplies embarked for the purpose. Guards had to be set up on the heights overlooking possible Spanish approaches. With men, equipment and livestock ashore, the ship could be thoroughly cleaned out and the hold readied to receive the cargo.

This lay less than a foot beneath the shallow waters of the warm pink lake. Men waded out and pried up chunks of rock salt with iron digging bars, then loaded them into flat rafts and hauled them ashore. A procession of wheelbarrows carried the salt to longboats at the beach, which ferried it out to the waiting ships.

During the day the sandstone hills radiated heat and the sun glared off the saltpiles and the dazzling waters of the lagoon. The morning air was calm, but the afternoon blew a hot gale off the desert till dark. To avoid the worst of the day's heat the men worked at night, so the dark was illuminated by torchlight and alive with the activity of longboats rowing back and forth, block and tackles squealing, men shouting orders and oaths as the salt was heaved up on deck and down into the hold. Torches flickered and smoked on the water and on shore, lining the route from salt bed to ship.

With all the salt below hatches, the sailed north for the Mona Passage to exit the Caribbean between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. As the green Antilles faded in their wake, the long open sea voyage home began--briskly up through the trades, languishing a spell in the horse latitudes and finally catching the strong westerlies that swept them home again. From Holland and back again it took them as little as 16 weeks riding the North Atlantic's great circular drifts of wind and current.

Araya's location in a sparsely inhabited backwater far windward of the important Spanish centers gave the interlopers a large measure of protection. They outnumbered and outgunned the local Spanish forces, and since vessels of the day had minimal windward ability, no fleet sent from Havana or Cartagena could work its way up to Araya against the stiff prevailing winds and currents. The only likely threat would be an armada sent to the Indies from Spain that could easily put in at Araya to clean house en route to its final destination. In the meantime, Araya was a jolly haven for any vessel that called Spain enemy, and it inevitably turned into a nest of smugglers and pirates as well as salt poachers.

The Dutch waxed notorious as the Caribbean's foremost practitioners of the ancient art of smuggling, old as government itself. In those days it worked like this: The Spanish crown forbade its subjects to trade with anyone but the royally authorized monopoly. The monopoly charged ruinous prices, lacked sufficient stock of goods and couldn't be bothered to supply adequately outlying comers of the realm like Cumana and Margarita. Into this breach poured the enterprising Dutch, sailing factory outlets straight from the source countries of northern Europe with boatloads of manufactures--tools, books, fabrics, glassware, hardware, as well as wine, slaves from Africa, what have you--all at competitive prices. To top it off, they offered credit and accepted payment in the goods of the region.

In the coastal areas south and west of Araya that meant fine tobacco. The Dutch smuggled so much of it out of Venezuela to Holland that the Spanish government finally forbade the cultivation of tobacco anywhere near Araya. The authorities at Cumana burned fields and jailed growers. Contemporary sources and our own experience in modern times suggest that new fields back up in the mountains promptly produced more tobacco, which was smuggled past bribed officials to Dutch fluyts anchored in deserted coves with their guns primed and their crews wide awake.

Such smugglers were honest enough by their own lights, but others used Araya as a base for outright piracy. The Spanish boats carrying coastal commerce were frequently raided, resulting in shortages of maize and other food staples. Officials travelling to Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo faced grave risks. The situation became intolerable, and the new governor at Cumana, Don Diego Suarez Amaya, itched to take action.

Governor Suarez had spent 25 years in the king's forces, serving by land and sea against Turk, Dutch and English. He arrived at his post around 1600, but a year passed before the old soldier dared to inspect the Araya salt beds, such was the strength of the enemy. From his wood and thatch capital he could sometimes see up to 40 foreign ships anchored off the coast--it was a personal affront!

Longing for a decisive stroke, the governor petitioned the king to station three galleys with 200 soldiers at Cumana under his personal command. He planned to hide them in a mangrove creek around the comer from Araya, then sally out at night to attack the anchored ships while their crews were ashore loading salt ... cut their cables, set them afire, and strand their crews where the desert would help the Spanish to finish them off.

The idea found favor at court, where the number of galleys was raised to eight, but in the end they were never built--too costly, and no match for the 40 heavily gunned ships they might well encounter off Araya. One can imagine the governor's disappointment as he glared 6ut at his occupied territory, contemplating a glorious action dashed by cautious plume-pushers.

Soon he put another idea before the king: Why not poison the salt? If the king would send him, in great secrecy, a large amount of poison, he would plug the inlet from the sea, pour in the deadly compound, and then let the Dutch salt their herring with that. "This would cause great damage to Holland, Zeeland and England," he assured the king. His sovereign no doubt reflected that since Catholics were great consumers of salt fish, the scheme--if it worked at all--would kill the faithful along with the rebels, not to mention destroying a natural wonder and a resource that might yet prove useful.

In 1605 Spain finally reacted, sending a fleet of 14 galleons and 2,500 men under the command of Don Luis Fajardo with orders to put in at Araya and put the fear of God into the heretics. On a bad day for the Dutch, Fajardo appeared off the roadstead, managing to block off escape for nine ships and their crews. Some of his captives he drowned, others he condemned to the galleys, and the rest he hanged on the heights just above the anchorage. Daniel de Moucheron--self-proclaimed "Lord of the Araya Salt Beds"--was hanged highest of all, and gave his name to the Heights of Daniel where he drew his last gasp.

Fajardo stayed a month and managed to net 12 more salt carriers which sailed unsuspectingly into the harbor. But after he disappeared down the coast, the old routine resumed. The likelihood of the fleet beating back to Araya was remote, so once again the interlopers flourished while complaints redoubled. A truce in the hostilities between Spain and the rebel Dutch took the edge off their antagonism, but the onset of the Thirty Years War turned up the heat once again.

Things came to a head in 1621 when the newly formed Dutch West India Company made plans to take Araya. Word reached Spain through its efficient network of spies, and at long last the crown bowed to necessity, dug deep into its coffers, and built the powerful fortress of Santiago de Araya. The fort was manned by 200 infantry and 25 artillerymen, with a master gunner who polished the 40 cannons of bronze and cast iron and watched for a chance to use them. That was not long in coming. When the Dutch heard about the construction of the fort, they armed 43 salineros (as the Spanish called the salt ships) with extra cannon and men, and sent them to the attack.

They suffered a bitter repulse; 300 Dutchmen died, including their general and four of their captains. Several months later, another Dutch armada of similar size tried again, with equally dismal results. The fortress was invulnerable to any amount of broadsides. In 1623, over a hundred vessels were turned away, and the Dutch had to face the fact that the days of free and easy salt were over.

Still, the Dutch weren't about to give up their Caribbean connection, and if they couldn't get their salt from Araya, they would produce it somewhere else further removed from Spanish interference. Finding such a place in the "Spanish lake" proved to be quite a trick, but the Dutch were determined, and went to work on several fronts.

Fifty miles west of Cumana the Dutch found safe anchorage near convenient salt ponds. They erected a fort and dock by the Unare River, and in alliance with the local Cumanagoto Indians, began mining the salt. Even today, a cove near Puerto La Cruz is known on nautical charts as Dutchman's Cove. Another salt site lay 60 miles northwest of Unare in the startlingly clear water of the southern Caribbean. On Isla Tortuga, a low desert island of fine white sand beaches and rocky scrub, the Dutch found natural flats close to the sea that, with hard work, could be made into salt pans. Soon Dutch vessels could be found anchored off the island and the mainland, trading and taking on salt as if they were in their own country.

While the Dutch may have been back in business, the Spanish were hot in pursuit. In 1632, Benito Arias Montana, a captain at Caracas outraged by reports of the flagrant intrusions, embarked 140 men in six longboats and crossed over to Tortuga. Hiding in the mangroves of a nearby lagoon, they observed two Dutch ships, one of them a large vessel of 600 tons and 22 guns, anchored close off the southern coast. That night they overwhelmed the vessels in a surprise attack, killed the few Dutch aboard, and sailed the ships home in triumph with 3000 fanegas of salt in the hold.

Promoted to governor and captain-general of Nueva Andalucia, Arias Montana launched attacks from Cumana that made him the scourge of the salt smugglers. In 1633 he enlisted Indian allies and marched on the fort at Unare. Ten ships were anchored there when he arrived. Outmaneuvering the Dutch force, he took the fort, massacred its defenders, tore it down and carried off its guns. In the same year, he returned to Tortuga and drove the interlopers off the island.

But the stakes were high and the Dutch persistant. By 1638 they were not only back but stronger than ever, with the salt works repaired and protected by a fort with a stockade. When a powerful force of Cumanaians arrived at the island in piraguas, they found eight ships loading salt. A pitched battle led to the slaughter of the "luteranos," after which the fort was demolished. This time the victors thoroughly destroyed the laboriously constructed salt pans, and the Dutch gave it up as a hopeless endeavor.

Meanwhile, in a remote corner of the Caribbean lay the insignificant island of St. Martin, with a large salt pond just behind the beach at the head of a commodious harbor. Once again, the Dutch built a fort, sectioned off the pond into pans, and by 1631 had loaded 81 ships with potent white salt.

Since the English and French, as well at the Dutch, were moving into this area and establishing settlements in the nearby islands, the Spanish decided to fortify and garrison St. Martin. It proved to be dreary, miserable duty for the men, marooned in a sea of enemies who daily grew bolder. Letters from the island to the king strike a pathetic note--a Dutch corsair had robbed the soldiers' pay from the vessel bringing it; they hadn't been resupplied or relieved in over a year and a half; the sterility of the soil and the lack of rain mocked their efforts to grow food; and ...

It has pleased God to send us in two

months three hurricanes that have

ruined everything, and while the

second left us with little hope having

thrown to earth all the houses, barracks

and storehouses ... with extraordinary

diligence we had succeeded

in repairing much of the

damage when the third one came, so

much more furious that nothing was

left standing, not even a tree on the

island ...

Eventually the Spanish gave up on holding the Lesser Antilles and left them to their fate at the hands of her rivals. The Dutch ended up with the half of St. Maarten they most valued--the part with the salt pond and harbor--as well as nearby Saba and Statia. They also took Bonaire, off the coast of Venezuela, for its vast salt lagoon inhabited by countless thousand flamingos, along with Curacao and Aruba. The Netherlands Antilles that sailors love thus took shape around its salt pans.

Times change. Relations have much improved between the descendents of the former combatants. Venezuela's small boats now bring not soldiers but fruits and vegetables to the Dutch islands, and its people have helped shape the islands' population, language and culture. For their part, Curacaoans enjoy flying to Caracas for a weekend of big city sophistication in the cool highlands. And all things considered, it's just as well the king didn't let Governor Suarez Amaya poison the salt beds. Today they supply all of Venezuela with good, cheap salt.

Today a wanderer by boat can see many remnants of the salt trade throughout the West Indies. The names of many islands hearken back to the old days: Salt Island in the British Virgins, Salt Cay in the Turks and Caicos, Cay Sal Bank off Florida, and Cay Sal at Los Roques off Venezuela are just a few. Defunct salt works and ruined salt pans dot the islands from Trinidad to Key West. But you can still trade a bottle of rum for a bag of salt in Anguilla at Sandy Ground, and freighters now pull up to docks at Araya and Bonaire to load the tons of salt piled like snowy mountains on the shore, often the first mark of land from the offing.


In the very heart of old Seville, standing between the soaring Giralda cathedral and the ancient Alcazar fortress, there is a time machine--or as close an approximation to one as the world has yet produced. The housing is in stone, the interior casing of marble, the movable parts number in the millions, and it takes hundreds of skilled operators to make it run. The Archivo General de Indias, known in countless footnotes as the AGI, is one of the world's great storehouses of the past. There, Spain keeps the bulk of the documents emanating from its "enterprise of the Indies," from Columbus to Bolivar to Teddy Roosevelt. Most of the information on Araya, the struggle for salt and the sweep of Spanish-American history, ultimately comes from the AGI.

The building containing the archives is most appropriate to its purpose. A fine structure in a beautiful city, it was originally built as a merchants' exchange when Seville was Europe's wealthiest center. The building exudes dignity and power. A heavy black iron chain sets it off from its courtyard, and its broad staircase and upper salon is all rosy marble inlaid with black, flawlessly fitted and carved. Rich varnished wood, shiny brass and old leather accentuate the interiors, and one seems transported back to the 16th century by the stone walls, parchment documents and church bells pealing the intervals. Only the date on the calendar is out of place--and, of course, the computers at the main desk.

Unlike many archives, the AGI entrusts researchers with original documents, not just photocopies. Orders are placed at the computer and brought to one's table by men in dark suits. Presented with a bundle of documents bound by linen straps, known as a legajo, one unties the straps, folds back the embossed covers and encounters a stack of weathered folios that fulfill every romantic expectation. The manuscripts on Araya date from the late 1500s. Their edges are frayed, the pages stained with seawater, some of them tom in half or partly missing, but the parchment is of such fine quality that it has withstood the test of centuries better than the paper in books printed 40 years ago. The past literally clings to the documents. Rarely read legajos contain grains of sand between the folios, originally scattered over the ink to blot it. Many of the documents from 400 years ago bear remnants of their wax seals. Since most of the documents were penned by professional scribes, the handwriting is often quite beautiful, but more artistic than legible to the uninitiated. Script styles of the times range from unadorned to the hopelessly ornate, profuse with flourishes. Encadenada script, true to its name, resembles long chains of loops, like a page filled with "e's" and "I's." The use of abbreviations, contractions and symbols abounds, and varies from scribe to scribe. As with most disciplines there is no substitute for practice, and when one notices a puzzled-looking white-haired professor trying to decipher a phrase, one realizes that it's like seamanship or marriage--you never learn it all.

The researchers might be priests in cassocks or Ph.D. candidates in jeans and leather jackets, but a good many are history professors on sabbatical. In the winter of 1989-1990, they included a jovial Jesuit from Montevideo, a pretty profesora from Guadelajara, an English authority on colonial mining, an Australian archaeologist working on Peruvian grave sites, two young historians preparing for Santo Domingo's 500th-year celebration ... and people from every country in the Americas, as well as Europe, the Philippines and well beyond. Some had spent 40 years in the Archives; the archaeologist had come for ten days while on vacation.

A handful of professional investigators work there for hire, searching out new information on Columbus' ships for National Geographic, compiling geneology guides for specialty publishers, or determing which Pacific island reef sank a Manila galleon with a fortune in porcelain aboard. Probably the best-known instance of AGI research led to the discovery of the wreck of the ship Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which yielded up a treasure of gold and jewels and received worldwide publicity. But the real, ongoing mission of the AGI is carried out by men and women of all ages and races, dedicated to the unravelling of our interlocked histories.

Peter Muilenberg is a freelance author and avid sailor currently moored in Seville.
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Title Annotation:includes article on The Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain; salt
Author:Muilenburg, Peter
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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