When Spanish sea captain Juan de Bermudez first set foot on the shore of Bermuda so named after him, little did he know the repercussions of his discovery and how it would influence and set in motion the future economy and lifestyle of the Turks and Caicos Islands some 740 miles away..
The early pioneers of Bermuda were excited to cultivate the land as tobacco plantations to meet the demand of British merchants that sold the highly prized tobacco as a medicinal cure for almost every ailment. Books were written on the magical properties of tobacco and throughout the 1600s it was so popular in Europe that tobacco was synonymous with money as a trading mechanism.
Unable to compete with the North American that could cultivate tobacco more cheaply, the settlers and adventurers turned their attention to the Turks islands where they saw a great opportunity to harvest salt which formed naturally in the many shallow Salinas on the island of Grand Turk and the adjacent island of Salt Cay.
Bermudan style salt merchant homes were built in the early 1800s. The salt was stored in vast basements for protection from the rains and the white merchants lived on the second floor with many windows that would catch the breeze from the constant trade winds, providing respite from the midday sun.
The ‘Brown House” salt Merchants home built in 1820 by Captain Jones from Bemuda.
And so it was that the pioneers along with their established boat building skills, excess slaves, will and determination settled the Turks Islands in their quest to capture the salt market and become rich by supplying the world with ‘white’ gold.
Despite the many ferocious hurricanes, invasions, wars and plagues the settlers persevered in this quest for over three hundred years building a rich and colorful culture.
A culture that bonded the mixed races through elaborate storytelling, days salt raking in the ponds, building sloops, drinking bush tea and practicing bush medicine all inspired by the old negro slaves captured from the shores of Africa and beyond.
Accompanied by shakers and whistles and anything else that would produce sound, the men would often serenade the ladies providing entertainment and a much needed distraction from the sometimes hostile and harsh environment, overseers and salt merchants that kept rigid time.
Music and dance was an integral part of daily life. The players would use every day objects to strike up a cacophony of sounds that later became known as the Turks and Caicos ‘rib saw’ music.
In fact the main instrument of the ‘rib saw’ band was and still is a common hand held carpenter’s saw, stroked across the serrated teeth with a metal object creating an unusual melody in harmony with the syncopated beat of the “rim,” a simple drum made from stretched cowhide.
From the wide East verandas the merchants would look out over the vast Salinas and watch the raker’s gather salt, shovel it on the mule and cart and move the heavy load along the ‘pickle’ packed roads to the salt houses and wharfs.
From the West veranda the ladies would sit with their crochet, reading Longfellow and sipping their afternoon teas from delicate willow pattern teacups brought in by the sailing ships and steamers from England.
They watched the fishing boats and lighter boats struggling out to the larger vessels to offload their salt and often times turtles which were also in great demand for their pretty shells that were used to make combs, hairbrushes and jewelry in the European markets.
Meanwhile the salt raker wives were gathering wood to light their fire wearing simple white dresses and handmade straw hats often brought to Salt Cay on sloops from the Caicos Islands where an abundance of Silver Top and White Top palm trees provided the raffia for the local women to weave shade hats.
This cycle of life continued until the mid 1900s when heavy competition from other countries closed the salt raking industry down and forced the men to find work on the large cargo ships carrying iron ore and other commodities round the world.
However sitting on a stone wall outside his salt raker cottage most every day we find 84 yr old ‘Prince Albert’ reflecting on days gone by when he would wake at the crack of dawn and walk out into the Salinas to rake one of the most precious commodities in the world.
Prince Albert is now one of the last salt raker’s standing!