Salt Beacon and Salt Ponds - Little Exuma
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
On the Queen's Highway near Williamstown is "the Salt Beacon". The beacon is a seemingly out-of place classical Tuscan column built in the first half of the nineteenth century to guide ships to the salt port. Exuma's naturally flat geography lent itself to salt raking. Natural salt ponds were discovered by John Darrell, a loyalist hunting whales in Bahamian waters, in 1670. Salt was big business and may well have been the first commercial operation on the island starting with migrant labour from other islands, notably Bermuda. Once the loyalists settled on Exuma, salt raking operations were expanded. Salt was used for preserving fish and meat and was a valuable commodity before the advent of refrigeration.
Salt is so cheap and plentiful now, it is easy to forget how vital it was through most of history. It was colloquially known as "white gold" during the 1700 and 1800s. (Further back, the Romans recognized its value and used it as a form of currency. In fact the root of the word "salary" is derived from it.) At the Exuma salt industry's peak in the mid 1800s there were as many as 60 ships and thousands of people involved and proceeds of the salt industry represented about a quarter of the Bahamian government's tax revenues. Salt raking involves flooding a natural pond. The sluice gate is then blocked up and the water evaporates leaving crystallized sea salt behind. The work itself was notoriously brutal. Not only were the flats blistering hot but the dried salt irritated workers' skin causing salt boils that were difficult to heal. A single worker, most of them slaves, could produce up to 70 bushels of salt in a day. At its peak the 3 salt ponds on Exuma were producing up to 300,000 bushels of salt a year. From the lookout you can just make out the ancient walls that divided the pond and helped with evaporation. (They are quite striking at low tide on a calm day.)
There is a lone cannon near the salt beacon, reportedly to defend against the many pirates that plied the Exumas at the time. That said, not sure that a single cannon could have done much more than send a warning shot. Perhaps there were other cannons that were recycled elsewhere. Historical records show that the salt fleet also traveled with navy ships for additional protection. The salt industry in Exuma continued into the early 1900s but collapsed after salt import tariffs were put in place in the United States, and shortly thereafter more desirable forms of food preservation like refrigeration were developed and salt production in other areas was modernized by the industrial revolution.
I am hoping that a local Exuman will at some point produce some "Exuma Salt Co" designer sea salt, maybe with a Tuscan column as a brand mark...would make a great souvenir. (Note: Since writing this in 2014 Exuma Salt is available in many stores including Mothers Bakery in Little Exuma and several stores in Georgetown. Along with Exuma Honey it is worth buying local and giving it a try!) From the lookout at The Salt Beacon there are great views out to the ocean and also to one of the salt ponds inland. It's a great photo stop.