to the history page! Today we will continue our riveting study of Ibiza's salt
pans during medieval times. As you will remember from last week's instalment,
the salt industry was considered a collective good, a 'summum bonum' as it were,
whose proceeds should be employed for the benefit of the citizenry at large. At
least that is the light in which the Catalan conquerors envisaged the situation.
(Despite their continual warmongering they were really quite an idealistic bunch.)
Hence, all salt-generated revenues went toward the creation and maintenance of
a town hall (then called "university") as well as the upkeep of a small
fighting corps to defend the island against marauding Moors and Turks.
course, the instituting of a political apparatus was self-serving for the conquerors
as well. It legitimized their dominance over the area and provided a vehicle through
which to implant and enforce legislation, especially since the warlords were not
often present on Ibicenco soil. And too, the institutionalization of the island
was an essential step in linking it to its new alma mater, the small but stalwart
Romantic that I am, I always tend to take
a bleeding-heart stance on these matters, feeling that people should be helped
in more immediate ways than simply living under the protective umbrella of statehood.
However, even I will admit that in those wild days, government protection was
as urgent a need as victuals, clothing and shelter.
can it be denied that the conquistadors were extremely lenient in the exaction
of payment from their serfs. In the early years there were several public annulments
of debt in which all islanders, regardless of the amount owed, were absolved from
their arrears. In an admirable show of generosity, accounts across the board were
brought to zero, and everyone was given a fresh start. So, if pressed, I would
have to say that Montgrí and his fellow knights did have the highest common
good at heart.
This did not stop them, however, from taking
a 10% commission on all salt-generated profits. And although the actual saltworks
were located in one of Montgrí's 'quartons', the annuity produced was divided
equally amongst the three knights - which was certainly fair play on Montgrí's
part. They took it in turns to deal with the red tape, so that each year one of
the knights (or his agent) was allotted the chore of going to the university to
collect the amount due. He would then see to it that the shares were distributed
among his colleagues. I burn to know if the service at the university was as leisurely
then as it is today at the town halls; but somehow that particular detail of bureaucracy
has escaped the record.
that we have explored the ethical and political implications of feudal salt production,
we will turn out attention to the common man's experience of it. Probably the
best word to describe this would be gruelling.
torturous and insufferable would also do, but lest I sound too over-blown I'll
stick to gruelling. The task of salt harvesting was undertaken in the searing
heat of summer - July, August and usually part of September. By this time the
evaporation of seawater from the pans was at its maximum and each bed was lined
with crystal residue. Men would come from all over the island to rake out the
crystalized salt and transport it, on foot, to the shore where boats of many countries
(especially the northlands, Holland and Genoa) waited to receive their cargoes.
long queue of workers would carry the salt on top of their heads in tightly woven
baskets. When freshly raked, the crystals still retained some of the seawater
from the pans so that, despite protective towelling, this liquid would seep down
into the labourer's eyes, causing extreme burning. Red-eyed and squinting they
would bear up under their heavy loads, trudging doggedly down to the sea as the
sun hammered into them. Remember that, as a mineral, salt has the same density
as rock. The continuous muscular strain of balancing such weight could literally
break a man's back - or, at the very least, stiffen his neck for life.
addition to these hardships, the men did not have the luxury of returning home
at the end of a long day's work. The labour teams (called vendès) hailed
from the Four Corners of the island and would usually stay in local barracks until
the season's work was done. The slowness of travel made it counter-productive
for them to leave the pans. It was for this reason that, in the mid-18th century,
a small church (the San Francisco Chapel, see our LiveIbiza Archive article
Weekly Edition 007 of Saturday 14th April 2001) was built in the vicinity. At
least the workers would not have to go without the comfort of spiritual ministration.
With the passing of the centuries the salt-loading
area has changed from place to place. In the 13th century it was located on the
stretch of Playa d'en Bossa known as Sal Rossa. There was no quay to load up at,
so the boats would drop anchor at some distance from the shore. Rowboats filled
with salt would then shuttle out and back, stocking the boats batch by batch.
By this method, it took several days to load just a single boat and required many
rowers. These rowers often turned out to be slaves who, in antiquity, pretty much
had the rowing market cornered. The strongest slaves, curiously called 'bags of
bones', were chosen for this difficult task. In these cases, the slave's owner
would receive the wages for his chattel's labour.
was protected by a tower (still standing) to guard against the pirates who always
lurked in the offing. The present-day tower dates back to the 16th century when
it was rebuilt on the ruins of a previous one. The site was also endowed with
cisterns of fresh rainwater where sailors could replenish their supplies.
As time went by, ships got bigger and bigger,
rendering the shuttle method rather futile. Finally, in the 19th century a loading
dock was built at Es Cavallet. While the dock was a vast improvement over the
old system, its placement was unfortunate. Exposure to whipping winds and high
waves soon destroyed it.
The dock then was rebuilt at its
present-day location of Sa Cova Llarga, better known as La Canal. A translation
of the original name into English, "The Long Cove", confirms that the
site was better protected against inclemency than Es Cavallet had been. Before
long, islanders began referring to the site as La Canal ("the loading channel")
because from afar on-lookers could see the stream of salt rushing down the chute
into the boats. According to locals, this stream looked more like a cascade of
frothy water than it did solid matter.
One final note is
that the salt trade has brought more to Ibiza than just business. In the early
days of antibiotics, penicillin was almost impossible to come by on the island.
But, freighters putting in for salt always had a supply on board. The chronically
ill, mostly suffers of tuberculosis, would go to La Canal to buy their rations
of this health-restoring medicine.
owes much to seafarers. Through a good stroke of timing, we will be afforded the
chance to study how this collective sense of gratitude has expressed itself in
local custom. The fast-approaching celebration of 'Our Lady of the Seas' will
be our next topic. See you then,