Drive south on the E.G.G. Boulevard on any given day and it is easy to see evidence of salt in the making. It is a simple, time-tested process that mixes seawater, wind and sun to produce mounds of pure white NaCl. But more than that, this iniquitous compound is a cultural thread, an inexplicable link that weaves back in island history for more than 350 years.
It was in 1636 when Holland rousted Bonaire away from the Spain after the Spaniards had cut off the supply of this essential mineral to the Lowlands. Once a Dutch fleet captured the ABC Islands, they gained control of Bonaire’s coveted salt deposits. Enter the Dutch West Indies Company, an aggressive, Amsterdam-based merchant monopoly that thrived in the slave trade and reaped the Caribbean’s natural resource wealth. These were the days before refrigeration, and salt was vital for preserving meat and fish. It was a fundamental commodity that allowed Mother Holland to safely feed the sailors of her enormous worldwide fleet.
During the 1600s the Dutch enslaved Africans and shipped them to Bonaire where they worked alongside Indians and convicts harvesting salt. Today, abandoned slave quarters along the coastal road are testament this oppressive time in the island’s history. Up to six workers would sleep in one of these rock huts after a grueling day of hard labor under the blazing sun. Gaze through a slave hut window to the tranquil blue sea and it is hard to imagine the agony these people endured for centuries.
Over the next two hundred years Bonaire’s salt industry prospered, first under the Dutch West Indies Company, and later under direct governmental control. Trading ships would moor outside the reef, and small boats were sent ashore to pick up the goods. Fires were burned to guide the sailors to one of four loading sites – Rode Pan (Red Pond), Witte Pan (White Pond), Blauwe Pan (Blue Pond), and Oranje Pan (Orange Pond). These names represented the colors of the Dutch flag and the Royal House of Orange.
Legend has it that women were the ones who transferred the salt to the boats. Two men would lift a heavy basket of salt and place it on top of a woman’s head. She would then balance the load while walking a plank to the end of a makeshift pier and place the salt in a small boat. Once full, four men would pull the boat on a long rope stretched between the pier and the trading ship waiting beyond the reef, and deliver the salt. Some captains of these ships described the women as ‘mermaids from the sea’. A working song, Man pa makutu di Maria or Give a hand to the basket of Maria documented their noble story of strength and labor. It was later sung as a lullaby to children of the island.
By the 1830s, Bonaire’s production had grown so large that obelisk towers were built near each of four salt ponds, thus replacing the need for shore fires. Flags were hoisted to the tops of these pointed pillars when a load was ready for pickup. Each obelisk took the symbolic color of its respective pond, but it also denoted where a specific grade of salt could be loaded. The coastal road is still dotted with these colorful, stone structures.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the salt industry fell on hard times. Slavery was finally abolished and international competition sharply reduced profits. In 1870, E.B.F. Hellmund purchased the island’s nine salt ponds from the government. Afterwards, the salt industry languished for nearly a century.
“You must remember, the original salt ponds were very primitive,” says Paulina “Popi’ Rodriguez, an administrative secretary at Cargill. “They were salt flats where the water simply dried up and then the salt was harvested. In our modern era, it is about guiding the flow of the water and getting a high quality salt. To get high purity, you must manage the water.”
In 1963 the Antilles International Salt Company, a subsidiary of the International Salt Company, bought the salt ponds. By 1972 they shipped their first load of Bonaire salt. Rodriguez, who has work at the salt works for nearly 35 years, remembers the first loading. “I was just a young girl, but everyone came down from Playa to watch. It was very exciting.”
The modern era experienced several setbacks in salt production. In 1988 Hurricane Joan brought excessive amounts of rain that washed out dikes, damaged pond floors and killed many flamingos. Eleven years later Hurricane Lenny roared toward Bonaire. “Lenny was scary for me because of the surge,” remembers Popi Rodriguez. “It was strange. There was no wind or rain like Joan, but the sea came all the way to the piles and collapsed them. It was devastating.”
Ownership of the salt works changed through the decades from the Antilles International Salt Company to Akzo, which eventually merged into Akzo Nobel. US-based Cargill Corporation bought the operation in 1997 and currently employs 46 people. That makes it one of the major employers on Bonaire and it contributes over $5 million annually to the local economy. “Roughly 60% of our employees are mechanics,” says plant manager Gary Rimmey. “These guys are gifted. They can rebuild anything, and I mean anything, without many resources. They are who allow us to produce the salt.”
After spending a couple of days at Cargill, I soon found out that there is only one four-letter word beyond salt that is on everyone’s mind, rust. The corrosive nature of salt invades everything at the solar salt works—machinery, electronics, and cars, even people. Rust even dictates what kind of machinery is purchased to survive this brutal environment. “We rarely buy new equipment,” adds Rimmey. “We can bring a new piece here and it will rust out in 4 years. Or we can bring in cheaper used equipment and it will rust out in 3 years. But with our maintenance staff, we keep the machinery going. We often look for old style engines that don’t have electronic ignitions and other bells and whistles because our climate just destroys those kinds of electronics.”
Most other workers at Cargill are involved in the production of salt. While the operation on Bonaire is not large compared to salt operations worldwide, the salt produced here is has an international reputation for its high quality and purity. “In my opinion, we make the best solar salt in the world so that gives us a bit of a competitive edge in the world marketplace,” claims Rimmey. “But we’re also competitive because of our workers here on Bonaire. We have a mature staff with a lot of experience. It’s a pleasure to work with these people. They are real professionals.”
In the next issue of the Bonaire Reporter, Part 3 of Crystal Gold examines the environmental importance of the salt works and concludes with the recent loading of the cargo ship, the Michael A, bound for the Dominican Republic with Bonaire salt.