Scientifically, salt is an innocuous substance created when a sodium atom bonds with a chloride atom: NaCl. This simple definition belies the influence of a mineral that has substantially affected global economics, exploration and politics for centuries.
Salt’s early use as a food preservative enabled the establishment of humanity’s earliest trade routes, some of which stretched across entire continents. As a result, salt quickly became both a form of money and the basis of taxation. The ancient Greeks used salt to buy slaves (and originated the phrase “not worth his salt” to describe underperforming chattel). The Romans used salt to pay soldiers their “salarium,” resulting in our word “salary.”
The Chinese made the greatest use of salt in building their economy. As far back as 2200 B.C., records suggest the emperor Yu had established a tax on the mineral. In 300 B.C., the first written text of a “salt administration,” the Guanzi, suggested that fixing the price of salt would allow the government to import and sell it at a profit. Salt taxes even contributed to financing the Great Wall of China. A seventh-century B.C. Chinese text aptly notes that “salt has the singularly important power to maintain the basic economy of our state.”
When Marco Polo of Venice (itself a city that drew its wealth from the salt trade) traveled to China with his father and uncle, he discovered that hardened cakes of salt stamped with the likeness of the khan were used as money in Kain-du, while salt provided a rich source of income in other provinces and thus a reliable stream of revenue for the emperor.
With regard to the city of Kinsay and its environs, Polo said: “First there is the salt, which brings in a great revenue. For it produces every year, in round numbers, fourscore tomans of gold; and the toman is worth 70,000 saggi of gold, so that the total value of the fourscore tomans will be five millions and six hundred thousand saggi of gold, each saggio being worth more than a gold florin or ducat; in sooth, a vast sum of money!” Although many scholars have disputed that Polo actually went to China, author Hans Ulrich Vogel argues in his book “Marco Polo Was in China” that the explorer’s detailed accounts of salt administration can be used to verify his travels there.
Europeans also made use of salt taxation. In 1259, the French King Charles of Anjou issued a tax known as “la gabelle” that equally taxed all citizens, rich and poor, for their salt use. In his book “Salt: A World History,” Mark Kurlansky describes industrious female smugglers who tried to avoid the tax by creating “faux culs,” or “false rears,” in which to hide salt, hoping they wouldn’t be searched in such an intimate area.
By the late 1700s, more than 3,000 French citizens had been imprisoned for salt crimes. In 1789, the French people cried foul over these and other injustices -- salt alone didn’t cause the French Revolution, but it became a potent symbol of government abuse.
Across the Atlantic, American colonists also recognized the economic power of salt. When John Smith helped establish the Jamestown settlement, in the Colony of Virginia, he made certain that salt works were in place to supply the settlers with the ingredient needed to preserve cod and bring profit. Subsequent settlements in New England and beyond relied heavily on the salt trade, which raised a red flag for England, ever eager to keep its colonies from seeking autonomy.
During the American Revolution, British naval blockades caused desperate salt shortages; worse, the British destroyed American salt works. As a result, medical treatment was compromised, gunpowder couldn’t be made and foods couldn’t be preserved for travel. The soldiers suffered greatly.
After the war, Americans would often recall the dismal effects of the salt shortage, which revisited them during the War of 1812. Fears of future blockades were part of the impetus for building the Erie Canal, which connected Lake Erie with the Hudson River. Funded in large part by a 12 1/2 cents-per-bushel salt tax, the canal became known as “the ditch that salt built,” helping to make New York City the nation’s commercial capital.
The next time Americans fought over salt, however, it would be with each other. As the Civil War broke out, President Abraham Lincoln blockaded all Southern ports. With salt production roughly one sixth that of the North, the Southern states and their military struggled to make ends meet. The critical battles in Saltville, Virginia, and the Northern capture of the South’s crucial Florida salt works contributed to the North’s victory four months later.
In 1930, the most memorable salt skirmish of modern times occurred in India when a flat salt tax was levied against rich and poor alike. The clear inequity of the act led Mohandas Gandhi to observe, “There is no article like salt, outside water, by taxing which the state can reach even the starving millions, the sick, the maimed and the utterly helpless. The tax constitutes, therefore, the most inhuman poll tax that ingenuity of man can devise.” In a nonviolent protest known as the Dandi Salt March, Gandhi and his followers hiked to the Arabian Sea where they boiled sea water to make their own salt. Gandhi’s actions and the devotion of the people to his cause eventually helped the country break free from British rule.
Gandhi was acting on an astute political insight that salt offered more than monetary worth. Throughout human history, it has translated into power and control.
(Lesley Jacobs Solmonson is the author of “Gin: A Global History” and the co-founder of 12bottlebar.com. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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