July 25, 2013
In the summer of 1791, Alexander Hamilton received a visitor.
Maria Reynolds, a 23-year-old blonde, came to Hamilton’s Philadelphia residence to ask for help. Her husband, James Reynolds, had abandoned her—not that it was a significant loss, for Reynolds had grossly mistreated her before absconding. Hamilton, just 34, was serving as secretary of the United States treasury and was himself a New Yorker; she thought he would surely be able to help her return to that city, where she could resettle among friends and relatives.
Hamilton was eager to be of service, but, he recounted later, it was not possible at the moment of her visit, so he arranged to visit her that evening, money in hand.
When he arrived at the Reynolds home, Maria led him into an upstairs bedroom. A conversation followed, at which point Hamilton felt certain that “other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable” to Maria Reynolds.
And thus began an affair that would put Alexander Hamilton at the front of a long line of American politicians forced to apologize publicly for their private behavior.
Hamilton (whose wife and children were vacationing with relatives in Albany) and Maria Reynolds saw each other regularly throughout the summer and fall of 1791—until James Reynolds returned to the scene and instantly saw the profit potential in the situation. December 15, Hamilton received an urgent note from his mistress:
I have not tim to tell you the cause of my present troubles only that Mr. has rote you this morning and I know not wether you have got the letter or not and he has swore that If you do not answer It or If he dose not se or hear from you to day he will write Mrs. Hamilton he has just Gone oute and I am a Lone I think you had better come here one moment that you May know the Cause then you will the better know how to act Oh my God I feel more for you than myself and wish I had never been born to give you so mutch unhappiness do not rite to him no not a Line but come here soon do not send or leave any thing in his power.
Two days later, Hamilton received a letter from James Reynolds that accused him of destroying a happy home and proposed a solution:
Its true its in your power to do a great deal for me, but its out of your power to do any thing that will Restore to me my Happiness again for if you should give me all you possess would not do it. god knowes I love the woman and wish every blessing may attend her, you have bin the Cause of Winning her love, and I Dont think I Can be Reconciled to live with Her, when I know I hant her love. now Sir I have Considered on the matter Serously. I have this preposial to make to you. give me the Sum Of thousand dollars and I will leve the town and take my daughter with me and go where my Friend Shant here from me and leve her to Yourself to do for her as you thing proper. I hope you wont think my request is in a view of making Me Satisfaction for the injury done me. for there is nothing that you Can do will compensate for it.
Rather than leave town (and his new mark), James Reynolds allowed the relationship to continue. A pattern was established in which Maria Reynolds (by this time likely complicit in her husband’s scheme) would write to Hamilton, entreating him to visit when her husband was out of the house:
I have kept my bed those tow days past but find my self mutch better at presant though yet full distreesed and shall till I se you fretting was the Cause of my Illness I thought you had been told to stay away from our house and yesterday with tears I my Eyes I beged Mr. once more to permit your visits and he told upon his honnour that he had not said anything to you and that It was your own fault believe me I scarce knew how to beleeve my senses and if my seturation was insupportable before I heard this It was now more so fear prevents my saing more only that I shal be miserable till I se you and if my dear freend has the Least Esteeme for the unhappy Maria whos greateest fault Is Loveing him he will come as soon as he shall get this and till that time My breast will be the seate of pain and woe
P. S. If you cannot come this Evening to stay just come only for one moment as I shal be Lone Mr. is going to sup with a friend from New York.
After such trysts occurred, James Reynolds would dispatch a request for funds—rather than demand sums comparable to his initial request of $1,000 dollars (which Hamilton paid), he would request $30 or $40, never explicitly mentioning Hamilton’s relationship with Maria but referring often to Hamilton’s promise to be a friend to him.
James Reynolds, who had become increasingly involved in a dubious plan to purchase on the cheap the pension and back-pay claims of Revolutionary War soldiers, found himself on the wrong side of the law in November 1792, and was imprisoned for committing forgery. Naturally, he called upon his old friend Hamilton, but the latter refused to help. Reynolds, enraged, got word to Hamilton’s Republican rivals that he had information of a sort that could bring down the Federalist hero.
James Monroe, accompanied by fellow Congressmen Frederick Muhlenberg and Abraham Venable, visited Reynolds in jail and his wife at their home and heard the tale of Alexander Hamilton, seducer and homewrecker, a cad who had practically ordered Reynolds to share his wife’s favors. What’s more, Reynolds claimed, the speculation scheme in which he’d been implicated also involved the treasury secretary. (Omitted were Reynolds’ regular requests for money from Hamilton.)
Political enemy he might have been, but Hamilton was still a respected government official, and so Monroe and Muhlenberg, in December 1792, approached him with the Reynolds’ story, bearing letters Maria Reynolds claimed he had sent her.
Aware of what being implicated in a nefarious financial plot could do to his career (and the fledgling nation’s economy), Hamilton admitted that he’d had an affair with Maria Reynolds, and that he’d been a fool to allow it (and the extortion) to continue. Satisfied that Hamilton was innocent of any wrongdoing beyond adultery, Monroe and Muhlenberg agreed to keep what they’d learned private. And that, Hamilton thought, was that.
James Monroe had a secret of his own, though.
While he kept Hamilton’s affair from the public, he did make a copy of the letters Maria Reynolds had given him and sent them to Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s chief adversary and a man whose own sexual conduct was hardly above reproach. The Republican clerk of the House of Representatives, John Beckley, may also have surreptitiously copied them.
In a 1796 essay, Hamilton (who had ceded his secretaryship of the treasury to Oliver Wolcott in 1795 and was acting as an adviser to Federalist politicians) impugned Jefferson’s private life, writing that the Virginian’s “simplicity and humility afford but a flimsy veil to the internal evidences of aristocratic splendor, sensuality, and epicureanism.” He would get his comeuppance in June 1797, when James Callender’s The History of the United States for 1796 was published.
Callender, a Republican and a proto-muckraker, had become privy to the contents of Hamilton’s letters to Reynolds (Hamilton would blame Monroe and Jefferson, though it is more likely Beckley was the source, though he had left his clerk’s position). Callender’s pamphlet alleged that Hamilton had been guilty of involvement in the speculation scheme and was more licentious than any moral person could imagine. “In the secretary’s bucket of chastity,” Callender asserted, “a drop more or less was not to be perceived.”
Callender’s accusations and his access to materials related to the affair left Hamilton in a tight spot—to deny all the charges would be an easily proven falsehood. The affair with Maria Reynolds could destroy his marriage, not to mention his hard-won social standing (he had married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of one of New York’s most prominent families, and a match many thought advantageous to Hamilton). But to be implicated in a financial scandal was, to Hamilton, simply unthinkable. As Secretary of the Treasury, he’d been the architect of early American fiscal policy. To be branded as corrupt would not only end his career, but also threaten the future of the Federalist Party.
Left with few other options, Hamilton decided to confess to his indiscretions with Maria Reynolds and use that confession as proof that on all other fronts, he had nothing to hide. But his admission of guilt would be far more revealing than anyone could have guessed.
Hamilton’s pamphlet Observations on Certain Documents had a simple purpose: in telling his side of the story and offering letters from James and Maria Reynolds for public review, he would argue that he had been the victim of an elaborate scam, and that his only real crime had been an “irregular and indelicate amour.” To do this, Hamilton started from the beginning, recounting his original meeting with Maria Reynolds and the trysts that followed. The pamphlet included revelations sure to humiliate Elizabeth Hamilton—that he and Maria had brought their affair into the Hamilton family home, and that Hamilton had encouraged his wife to remain in Albany so that he could see Maria without explanation.
Letters from Maria to Hamilton were breathless and full of errors (“I once take up the pen to solicit The favor of seing again oh Col hamilton what have I done that you should thus Neglect me”). How would Elizabeth Hamilton react to being betrayed by her husband with such a woman?
Still, Hamilton pressed on in his pamphlet, presenting a series of letters from both Reynoldses that made Hamilton, renowned for his cleverness, seem positively simple. On May 2, 1792, James Reynolds forbade Hamilton from seeing Maria ever again; on June 2, Maria wrote to beg Hamilton to return to her; a week after that, James Reynolds asked to borrow $300, more than double the amount he usually asked for. (Hamilton obliged.)
Hamilton, for his part, threw himself at the mercy of the reading public:
This confession is not made without a blush. I cannot be the apologist of any vice because the ardor of passion may have made it mine. I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity, and love. But that bosom will approve, that, even at so great an expense, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public, too, will, I trust, excuse the confession. The necessity of it to my defence against a more heinous charge could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum.
While the airing of his dirty laundry was surely humiliating to Hamilton (and his wife, whom the Aurora, a Republican newspaper, asserted must have been just as wicked to have such a husband), it worked—the blackmail letters from Reynolds dispelled any suggestion of Hamilton’s involvement in the speculation scheme.
Still, Hamilton’s reputation was in tatters. Talk of further political office effectively ceased. He blamed Monroe, whom he halfheartedly tried to bait into challenging him to a duel. (Monroe refused.) This grudge would be carried by Elizabeth Hamilton, who, upon meeting Monroe before his death in
18251831, treated him coolly on her late husband’s behalf. She had, by all accounts, forgiven her husband, and would spend the next fifty years trying to undo the damage of Hamilton’s last decade of life.
Hamilton’s fate, of course, is well-known, though in a way the Reynolds affair followed him to his last day. Some time before the publication of his pamphlet, Hamilton’s former mistress Maria Reynolds sued her husband for divorce. The attorney that guided her through that process was Aaron Burr.
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton, Penguin Books, 2005; Hamilton, Alexander. Observations on Certain Documents, 1797; Callender, James. History of the United States in 1796, 1796; Brodie, Fawn McKay. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, W.W. Norton & Co., 1975; Collins, Paul. Duel With the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery, Crown, 2013; McCraw, Thomas K., The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy, Belknap Press, 2012, Rosenfeld, Richard M. American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998.
March 1, 2013
In July of 1852, a 32-year-old novelist named Herman Melville had high hopes for his new novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, despite the book’s mixed reviews and tepid sales. That month he took a steamer to Nantucket for his first visit to the Massachusetts island, home port of his novel’s mythic protagonist, Captain Ahab, and his ship, the Pequod. Like a tourist, Melville met local dignitaries, dined out and took in the sights of the village he had previously only imagined.
And on his last day on Nantucket he met the broken-down 60-year-old man who had captained the Essex, the ship that had been attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in an 1820 incident that had inspired Melville’s novel. Captain George Pollard Jr. was just 29 years old when the Essex went down, and he survived and returned to Nantucket to captain a second whaling ship, Two Brothers. But when that ship wrecked on a coral reef two years later, the captain was marked as unlucky at sea—a “Jonah”—and no owner would trust a ship to him again. Pollard lived out his remaining years on land, as the village night watchman.
Melville had written about Pollard briefly in Moby-Dick, and only with regard to the whale sinking his ship. During his visit, Melville later wrote, the two merely “exchanged some words.” But Melville knew Pollard’s ordeal at sea did not end with the sinking of the Essex, and he was not about to evoke the horrific memories that the captain surely carried with him. “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”
Pollard had told the full story to fellow captains over a dinner shortly after his rescue from the Essex ordeal, and to a missionary named George Bennet. To Bennet, the tale was like a confession. Certainly, it was grim: 92 days and sleepless nights at sea in a leaking boat with no food, his surviving crew going mad beneath the unforgiving sun, eventual cannibalism and the harrowing fate of two teenage boys, including Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin. “But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection,” Pollard told the missionary. “I hardly know what I say.”
The trouble for Essex began, as Melville knew, on August 14, 1819, just two days after it left Nantucket on a whaling voyage that was supposed to last two and a half years. The 87-foot-long ship was hit by a squall that destroyed its topgallant sail and nearly sank it. Still, Pollard continued, making it to Cape Horn five weeks later. But the 20-man crew found the waters off South America nearly fished out, so they decided to sail for distant whaling grounds in the South Pacific, far from any shores.
To restock, the Essex anchored at Charles Island in the Galapagos, where the crew collected sixty 100-pound tortoises. As a prank, one of the crew set a fire, which, in the dry season, quickly spread. Pollard’s men barely escaped, having to run through flames, and a day after they set sail, they could still see smoke from the burning island. Pollard was furious, and swore vengeance on whoever set the fire. Many years later Charles Island was still a blackened wasteland, and the fire was believed to have caused the extinction of both the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.
By November of 1820, after months of a prosperous voyage and a thousand miles from the nearest land, whaleboats from the Essex had harpooned whales that dragged them out toward the horizon in what the crew called “Nantucket sleigh rides.” Owen Chase, the 23-year-old first mate, had stayed aboard the Essex to make repairs while Pollard went whaling. It was Chase who spotted a very big whale—85 feet in length, he estimated—lying quietly in the distance, its head facing the ship. Then, after two or three spouts, the giant made straight for the Essex, “coming down for us at great celerity,” Chase would recall—at about three knots. The whale smashed head-on into the ship with “such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.”
The whale passed underneath the ship and began thrashing in the water. “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase recalled. Then the whale disappeared. The crew was addressing the hole in the ship and getting the pumps working when one man cried out, “Here he is—he is making for us again.” Chase spotted the whale, his head half out of water, bearing down at great speed—this time at six knots, Chase thought. This time it hit the bow directly under the cathead and disappeared for good.
The water rushed into the ship so fast, the only thing the crew could do was lower the boats and try fill them with navigational instruments, bread, water and supplies before the Essex turned over on its side.
Pollard saw his ship in distress from a distance, then returned to see the Essex in ruin. Dumbfounded, he asked, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”
“We have been stove by a whale,” his first mate answered.
Another boat returned, and the men sat in silence, their captain still pale and speechless. Some, Chase observed, “had no idea of the extent of their deplorable situation.”
The men were unwilling to leave the doomed Essex as it slowly foundered, and Pollard tried to come up with a plan. In all, there were three boats and 20 men. They calculated that the closest land was the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, and Pollard wanted to set off for them—but in one of the most ironic decisions in nautical history, Chase and the crew convinced him that those islands were peopled with cannibals and that the crew’s best chance for survival would be to sail south. The distance to land would be far greater, but they might catch the trade winds or be spotted by another whaling ship. Only Pollard seemed to understand the implications of steering clear of the islands. (According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, although rumors of cannibalism persisted, traders had been visiting the islands without incident.)
Thus they left the Essex aboard their 20-foot boats. They were challenged almost from the start. Saltwater saturated the bread, and the men began to dehydrate as they ate their daily rations. The sun was ravaging. Pollard’s boat was attacked by a killer whale. They spotted land—Henderson Island—two weeks later, but it was barren. After another week the men began to run out of supplies. Still, three of them decided they’d rather take their chances on land than climb back into a boat. No one could blame them. And besides, it would stretch the provisions for the men in the boats.
By mid-December, after weeks at sea, the boats began to take on water, more whales menaced the men at night, and by January, the paltry rations began to take their toll. On Chase’s boat, one man went mad, stood up and demanded a dinner napkin and water, then fell into “most horrid and frightful convulsions” before perishing the next morning. “Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital” of what came next, Chase wrote. The crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.” They then roasted the man’s organs on a flat stone and ate them.
Over the coming week, three more sailors died, and their bodies were cooked and eaten. One boat disappeared, and then Chase’s and Pollard’s boats lost sight of each other. The rations of human flesh did not last long, and the more the survivors ate, the hungrier they felt. On both boats the men became too weak to talk. The four men on Pollard’s boat reasoned that without more food, they would die. On February 6, 1821—nine weeks after they’d bidden farewell to the Essex—Charles Ramsdell, a teenager, proposed they draw lots to determine who would be eaten next. It was the custom of the sea, dating back, at least in recorded instance, to the first half of the 17th century. The men in Pollard’s boat accepted Ramsdell’s suggestion, and the lot fell to young Owen Coffin, the captain’s first cousin.
Pollard had promised the boy’s mother he’d look out for him. “My lad, my lad!” the captain now shouted, “if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.” Pollard even offered to step in for the boy, but Coffin would have none of it. “I like it as well as any other,” he said.
Ramsdell drew the lot that required him to shoot his friend. He paused a long time. But then Coffin rested his head on the boat’s gunwale and Ramsdell pulled the trigger.
“He was soon dispatched,” Pollard would say, “and nothing of him left.”
By February 18, after 89 days at sea, the last three men on Chase’s boat spotted a sail in the distance. After a frantic chase, they managed to catch the English ship Indian and were rescued.
Three hundred miles away, Pollard’s boat carried only its captain and Charles Ramsdell. They had only the bones of the last crewmen to perish, which they smashed on the bottom of the boat so that they could eat the marrow. As the days passed the two men obsessed over the bones scattered on the boat’s floor. Almost a week after Chase and his men had been rescued, a crewman aboard the American ship Dauphin spotted Pollard’s boat. Wretched and confused, Pollard and Ramsdell did not rejoice at their rescue, but simply turned to the bottom of their boat and stuffed bones into their pockets. Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”
The five Essex survivors were reunited in Valparaiso, where they recuperated before sailing back for Nantucket. As Philbrick writes, Pollard had recovered enough to join several captains for dinner, and he told them the entire story of the Essex wreck and his three harrowing months at sea. One of the captains present returned to his room and wrote everything down, calling Pollard’s account “the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge.”
Years later, the third boat was discovered on Ducie Island; three skeletons were aboard. Miraculously, the three men who chose to stay on Henderson Island survived for nearly four months, mostly on shellfish and bird eggs, until an Australian ship rescued them.
Once they arrived in Nantucket, the surviving crewmen of the Essex were welcomed, largely without judgment. Cannibalism in the most dire of circumstances, it was reasoned, was a custom of the sea. (In similar incidents, survivors declined to eat the flesh of the dead but used it as bait for fish. But Philbrick notes that the men of the Essex were in waters largely devoid of marine life at the surface.)
Captain Pollard, however, was not as easily forgiven, because he had eaten his cousin. (One scholar later referred to the act as “gastronomic incest.”) Owen Coffin’s mother could not abide being in the captain’s presence. Once his days at sea were over, Pollard spent the rest of his life in Nantucket. Once a year, on the anniversary of the wreck of the Essex, he was said to have locked himself in his room and fasted in honor of his lost crewmen.
By 1852, Melville and Moby-Dick had begun their own slide into obscurity. Despite the author’s hopes, his book sold but a few thousand copies in his lifetime, and Melville, after a few more failed attempts at novels, settled into a reclusive life and spent 19 years as a customs inspector in New York City. He drank and suffered the death of his two sons. Depressed, he abandoned novels for poetry. But George Pollard’s fate was never far from his mind. In his poem Clarel he writes of
A night patrolman on the quay
Watching the bales till morning hour
Through fair and foul. Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.
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Books: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale, 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers. Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, 2000, Penguin Books. Thomas Nickerson, The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, 2000, Penguin Classics. Owen Chase, Narrative of the Whale-Ship Essex of Nantucket, 2006, A RIA Press Edition. Alex MacCormick, The Mammoth Book of Maneaters, 2003, Carroll & Graf Publishers. Joseph S. Cummins, Cannibals: Shocking True Tales of the Last Taboo on Land and at Sea, 2001, The Lyons Press. Evan L. Balkan, Shipwrecked: Deadly Adventures and Disasters at Sea, 2008, Menasha Ridge Press.
Articles: “The Whale and the Horror,” by Nathaniel Philbrick, Vanity Fair, May, 2000. “Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist?” by Susan Beegel, The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/hn/HN-fall1991-beegel.html. ”Herman Melville and Nantucket,” The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/faq/melville.html. Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, “Biography: Herman Melville,” American Experience, PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/whaling-melville/. “No Moby-Dick: A Real Captain, Twice Doomed,” by Jesse McKinley, New York Times, February 11, 2011. “The Essex Disaster,” by Walter Karp, American Heritage, April/May, 1983, Volume 34, Issue 3. “Essex (whaleship),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essex_(whaleship). ”Account of the Ship Essex Sinking, 1819-1821., Thomas Nickerson, http://www.galapagos.to/TEXTS/NICKERSON.HTM
February 19, 2013
There is a place in South America that was once the end of the earth. It lies close to the 35th parallel, where the Maule River empties into the Pacific Ocean, and in the first years of the 16th century it marked the spot at which the Empire of the Incas ended and a strange and unknown world began.
South of the Maule, the Incas thought, lay a land of mystery and darkness. It was a place where the Pacific’s waters chilled and turned from blue to black, and where indigenous peoples struggled to claw the basest of livings from a hostile environment. It was also where the witches lived and evil came from. The Incas called this land “the Place of Seagulls.”
Today, the Place of Seagulls begins at a spot 700 miles due south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, and stretches for another 1,200 miles all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the “land of fire” so accurately described by Lucas Bridges as “the uttermost part of the earth.” Even now, the region remains sparsely inhabited—and at its lonely heart lies the island of Chiloé: rain-soaked and rainbow-strewn, matted with untamed virgin forest and possessed of a distinct and interesting history. First visited by Europeans in 1567, Chiloé was long known for piracy and privateering. In the 19th century, when Latin America revolted against imperial rule, the island remained loyal to Spain. And in 1880, a little more than half a century after it was finally incorporated into Chile, it was also the scene of a remarkable trial—the last significant witch trial, probably, anywhere in the world.
January 2, 2013
Breaking on the wheel was the most horrific punishment ever visited on a convicted criminal. It was a form of crucifixion, but with several cruel refinements; in its evolved form, a prisoner was strapped, spreadeagled, to a large cartwheel that was placed axle-first in the earth so that it formed a rotating platform a few feet above the ground. The wheel was then slowly rotated while an executioner methodically crushed the bones in the condemned man’s body, starting with his fingers and toes and working inexorably inward. An experienced headsman would take pride in ensuring that his victim remained conscious throughout the procedure, and when his work was done, the wheel would be hoisted upright and fixed in the soil, leaving the condemned to hang there until he died from shock and internal bleeding a few hours or a few days later.
“Breaking” was reserved for the most dangerous of criminals: traitors, mass killers and rebellious slaves whose plots threatened the lives of their masters and their masters’ families. Yet in the case of one man who endured the punishment, a slave known as Prince Klaas, doubts remain about the extent of the elaborate conspiracy he was convicted of organizing on the West Indian island of Antigua in 1736. The planters who uncovered the plot, and who executed Klaas and 87 of his fellow slaves for conceiving of it, believed it had as its object the massacre of all 3,800 whites on the island. Most historians have agreed with their verdict, but others think the panicky British rulers of the island exaggerated the dangers of a lesser plot—and a few doubt any conspiracy existed outside the minds of Antigua’s magistrates.
December 14, 2012
Salt is so commonplace today, so cheap and readily available, that it is hard to remember how hard to come by it once was. The Roman forces who arrived in Britain in the first century C.E reported that the only way the local tribes could obtain it was to pour brine onto red-hot charcoal, then scrape off the crystals that formed on the wood as the water hissed and evaporated. These were the same forces that, according to a tradition dating to the time of Pliny the Elder, gave us the word “salary” because they once received their wages in the stuff.
Salt was crucially important until very recently not merely as a condiment (though of course it is a vital foodstuff; hearts cannot beat and nerve impulses cannot fire without it), but also as a preservative. Before the invention of refrigeration, only the seemingly magical properties of salt could prevent slaughtered animals and fish hauled from the sea from rotting into stinking inedibility. It was especially important to the shipping industry, which fed its sailors on salt pork, salt beef and salt fish. The best salt meat was packed in barrels of the granules–though it could also be boiled in seawater, resulting in a far inferior product that, thanks to the scarcity of fresh water aboard wooden sailing ships, was then often cooked in brine as well, reaching the sailors as a broth so hideously salty that crystals formed on the sides of their bowls. The demand for salt to preserve fish was so vast that the Newfoundland cod fishery alone needed 25,000 tons of the stuff a year.
All this demand created places that specialized in producing what was known colloquially as “white gold.” The illustration above shows one remnant of the trade in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a sleepy Caribbean backwater that, from 1678 to 1964, subsisted almost entirely on the profits of the salt trade, and was very nearly destroyed by its collapse. The islands’ history is one of ingenuity in harsh circumstances and of the dangers of over-dependence on a single trade. It also provides an object lesson in economic reality, for the natural products of the earth and sky rarely make those who actually tap them rich.
The islands, long a neglected part of the British empire, lie in the northern reaches of the Caribbean, far from the major trade routes; their chief call on the world’s notice, before salt extraction began, was a disputed claim to be the spot where Christopher Columbus made landfall on his first voyage across the Atlantic. Whether Columbus’s first glimpse of the New World really was the island of Grand Turk (as the local islanders, but few others, insist), there is no doubt about the impact the Spaniards had once they began to exploit their new tropical empire. The indigenous population of the Turks and Caicos—estimated to have numbered several tens of thousands of peaceable Lucayan Amerindians—made a readily exploitable source of slave labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines the conquistadores established on Haiti. Within two decades of its discovery, the slave trade and the importation of diseases to which the Lucayans possessed practically no resistance (a large part of the European portion of what is termed the Columbian Exchange), had reduced that once-flourishing community to a single elderly man. (More…)