Salt: A World History
By Mark Kurlansky
Salt had the economic significance of oil for most of human history. Understand that fact, and the history of salt suddenly becomes a fascinating insight into war, revolution and the collapse of empires.
This book literally changed my understanding of the how humble old salt shaped the world. This insight into the how history has been shaped by salt had such a profound effect I read the book a second time as soon as I first finished it.
I confess I was a reluctant starter on this book when my wife first recommended it. A few pages into it though and I was hooked.
Before electricity and refrigeration were invented, the best way to preserve meat and other foods was salt. It was also a key ingredient in the curing of leather.
Salt had such importance that the word salary is linked to how wages were once paid in salt. The origins of the word soldier are also tied to a person who was paid in salt.
While nations now build their oil reserves before they can go to war, for millennia they had to build their salt reserves so sufficient food could be preserved for the forces being sent into battle.
Salt was often taxed by nations and empires and the tendency to place an impost on this essential item changed the course of history.
The unrest that flared into the French Revolution was sparked by indignation about the disparity in salt taxes between regions in France. In regions where salt was scarce, it was worth up to 20 times more than in salt producing regions. Despite the death penalty being applied for smuggling salt between regions, many were tempted and paid the pr ice. Outrage ensued and the monarchy was toppled.
In India in 1930, the Salt Tax essentially made it illegal to sell or produce salt in competition with the established British monopoly on salt production. Workers were prohibited to freely collect their own salt from the coasts of India and they were forced to buy salt they couldn’t afford. Mahatma Ghandi’s inflicted a powerful blow to the British Empire when he led a 240 mile non-violent march to protest the plight of the sub-continent’s salt workers and the taxes imposed by the Raj.
The quest for salt also played a crucial role in a number of battles in the American Civil War and the loss of Avery Island in Louisiana was a heavy blow to the Confederacy. Many soldiers died trying to preserve the South’s salt resources and given the huge loss of human life in the conflict, salt workers were probably very thankful they were exempt from being drafted into the army.
These are just a few of the forgotten realities of history that Mark Kurlansky has brilliantly detailed in his book.
|Photo by Dullhunk|