Salt in modern history
Commerce bred technological advance. Hamlets became towns, then industrial cities, yielding our world today. Scientists of the Enlightenment discovered the properties of salt that have been extended and refined in the centuries since. The unfolding of modernity, however, has been uneven around the globe. Everywhere, salt played an important role.
Salt played a key role in the history of West Africa, particularly during the trading empire of Mali in the 13th through 16th centuries. The legendary city of was the key trading center for the gold-salt trade until Portuguese trading ships proved more economical. And these Saharan salt caravans continue today. But salt is no longer traded ounce-for-ounce for gold.
Throughout the Americas, from centuries before Europeans arrived, salt has been an important part of the economics, history and culture of native peoples. Colonists were quick to set up saltworks and pioneers chose paths westward to ensure access to salt. To the south, the Spanish encountered an operating salt industry when they toppled the Aztecs and Incas. At the time of the U.S. Civil War, 3,000 workers produced over 225,000 tons of salt in the United States. Today, double that number of workers produces 100 times more salt. <more >
China was a pioneer in salt production, sinking deep bamboo shafts to extract brine and boil it – about 4,000 years ago! As Chinese engineers built the huge new Three Gorges Dam, the government commissioned a major effort to identify and preserve historical sites that would have been flooded and China.org offers some of their findings about salt production in ancient China. Indian society had a separate caste of salt-diggers, though the country’s place in salt history was indelibly imprinted in world history in the struggle for independence from colonial Britain. The British planted the Great Hedge across India to prevent tax-evading salt smuggling and implemented a salt starvation policy, but were trumped by Mahatma Ghandi’s non-violent resistance epitomized by his famous march to the sea to make (untaxed) salt.
It may be sufficient, and certainly well-illustrates salt’s historic importance in Europe, to note that Michelin has produced a map of all the salt museums across the continent. Picking up where the Romans left off in building saltworks, salt remained economically important in many European countries, particularly the UK, Germany, Austria, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Russia and elsewhere. <more >