Grains and Pinches

V.G. Kiernan

  • Salt and Civilisation by S.A.M. Adshead
    Macmillan, 417 pp, £45.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 333 53759 9

A ‘covenant of salt’ meant to the Hebrews an inviolable pledge, most likely because salt has served through ages as a preservative. Early Christians were taught to think of themselves as ‘the salt of the earth’. No other chemical has found its way into the common sayings of so many lands as sodium chloride has done. It has been an emblem of human relations and loyalties. A man should be ‘true to his salt’, or faithful to the superior who has provided him with a living. In Russia bread and salt, khleb-solya, has meant welcome or hospitality. Sowing of a defeated enemy’s fields with salt, to render them sterile, as at Carthage by the Romans, was a symbolic proclamation (it cannot have been more) of triumph.

In mythology we have figures like Lot and his family, turned to salt in order to furnish an explanation of rock-salt pillars near the Dead Sea. In lighter vein salt has been a synonym for buoyancy, vitality, ‘Attic wit’, in languages far and wide. In northern India the Persian namak which has largely displaced the Hindi lon, can mean not salt alone (my dictionary tells me) but, metaphorically, spirit, animation, sarcasm, beauty. It has given rise to a string of idiomatic expressions, one of them exactly equal to our ‘rubbing salt in a wound’.

Why human beings have found salt so indispensable is not obvious. They seem from early on to have convinced themselves of its being much more vital to them than it really is. We all know from Fenimore Cooper’s novels of salt-licks in the North American forests that deer would journey hundreds of miles to reach. Such animals appear, as Dr Adshead says, to have an organic need of a certain quantity of salt which they are not tempted to exceed, whereas human beings, requiring a yearly intake of about three pounds, have always taken more than this when they could, and nowadays take far more. They have been obeying culture instead of nature. Most of their food, like the monotonous rice of southern India – a great place for salt-licking – must have been tasteless and dull, and their lives not much better. In Spanish sinsabor, flavourless, means anything disagreeable. Most diets contain all the salt necessary; extra amounts have been a relish, a luxury. If any type of food can make eaters crave for more salt, one would expect it, Adshead remarks, to be a cereal diet: but in fact salt has been taken more plentifully with meat.

‘Commodity’ is a word that has narrowed its meaning since Shakespeare wrote the Bastard’s great speech about it in King John, where it meant greed, self-interest, the opening bars of capitalism. Adshead’s book belongs to a recently growing genus of works on the history of particular commodities. To be of most value a study of this kind should be a part of general history, joined to the rest of human evolution by many links. Salt is an ideal choice. It has always been in world-wide demand and has played a more significant part in man’s affairs than any dynasty. Adshead’s book is primarily economic history, but it cannot be accused of isolating salt from the rest of ‘life’s feast’. It synthesises many monographs, joins them to new materials and ideas, and performs its task so successfully that it can be hailed as an important contribution to world history as a whole. Its author has the great advantage of being an expert on Chinese economic history, the best starting-point because its salt records are the fullest anywhere and offer the best model for comparison of procedures in other countries. These are often defined in the book by the appropriate Chinese terms. ‘China is central to the history of salt.’

Division of the book into two parts, ‘Salt and Society’ and ‘Salt and the State’, does not always seem a happy plan; the component factors – government, capital, consumer – cannot easily be kept apart. Some overlapping and repetition results. In the main, however, the treatment is chronological – entirely so in Part One, which begins with a chapter on ‘Primitivity’ or prehistory, and ends with ‘Modernity’. Part Two is devoted to half a dozen administrative systems, from Venice to China, all of more or less modern date. Geographical coverage is nearly as complete as the time-span, although the author, now teaching in New Zealand, tells us nothing about Maoris or Pacific islanders and how they provided themselves with salt, at cannibal feasts, for example.

Words for salt, and place-names, are evidence of the spread of an ‘Aryan’ family of languages across Europe. Latin sal, Greek hals, are cousins; hal and gel, it appears, both indicate brine-springs or wells; and besides the Halleins and Hallstatts and Salzburgs, Adshead suggests that regions as large and far apart as Gallia and Galicia may also derive their names from salt deposits. ‘Aryan’ tongues spread over Iran and northern India as well, but did not carry with them the same root-word for salt. It may be conjectured that this root was taken over in Europe from a more ancient speech. At any rate, numerous salt-producing sites of very early times have been identified, two hundred or so in Britain. Most districts must have had to find their own supplies. If heavy goods could be transported at all, it was by water, and there is a statement by Strabo in the first century BC about Phoenician ships bringing salt to Cornwall to exchange for tin.

Alcohol must have come into the world by spontaneous fermentation; as Adshead says, ‘man’s earliest source of salt’ must have been natural evaporation on the edges of salt lakes or marshes. To obtain more of it, a variety of very early but not always very simple methods were devised; the basic one, destined to a long life, was boiling of brine, with wood for fuel. For this, cheap pottery had to be available. China took the lead, as in so many fields, particularly in the big western province of Szechwan. There brine-wells and wells of natural gas were found close together, and prompted the use of gas for fuel. One must wonder how many industrial accidents took place, and how many lives had to be sacrificed in the cause of progress. When ‘primitive’ times gave way to ‘ancient’, or Classical, consumption of salt world-wide increased, but technology changed less. More use was made of sea-water, in spite of its lower density of salt content compared with brine.

More elaborate government controls came in, and Adshead believes that at Rome salt, as well as grain, may have formed part of the annona or free distribution of food, so that the government instead of exploiting its subjects was organising a public service. This of course only benefited the Roman People in the shape of the demoralised proletariat of the metropolis. Links between salt policies and state-building in the early civilisations were many. In pre-colonial America, which was prolific of ways of obtaining salt, two alternative modes of management emerged, one that of centralised economies as in the Maya and Inca empires, the other allowing for more freedom of trade. But while many régimes have owned or drawn revenue from the sources of salt, this study emphasises that a fully-fledged ‘salt administration’ is something different, and belongs to a special category. It tends to be found in ‘the adolescence or senescence of central power’. Properly speaking, there is no case of it outside China before the 13th century AD, except possibly in Ptolemaic Egypt.

In China salt came very early under an indirect monopoly, managed by businessmen under government supervision and fiscal regulation. Growth of this official apparatus could assist in the rise of state power. But centralisation was reversed before the close of the two successive Han dynasties (206 BC-220 AD), and local sources of salt production were allowed to proliferate: this favoured ‘the victory of the aristocracy over the state’. Control reverted to great landowners and great merchants. Amid much controversy, Confucian influences favoured this transformation, because they (like conservatism in England) always preferred the rule of gentlemanly amateurs to that of professional experts.

China may have had the highest per capita consumption in the then world (five lbs a year?), but there was a long interval before a central salt administration was restored. Even then its staff, like that of sundry other departments with specific responsibilities, was drawn from the same pool of scholar-mandarins who ran the general administration. But they often continued for many years at the same work, which gave them time to learn a good deal about it. A remarkable degree of sophistication was reached; it was enshrined in handbooks and a technical vocabulary, and refreshed by continuing debate over policies. Adshead admires it, but his leaning is towards private enterprise. In his view the Ming, the last native Chinese dynasty, strengthened central planning at the price of corvée labour and production cramped by official supervision. After them, the Manchu conquerors preferred ‘privatisation’, with businessmen given their head and labour set free – whether or not better fed and treated we do not learn.

In Western Europe the early post-Classical era might be a Dark Age, but further east, from Byzantium to the Pacific, things were different. Even if Medieval China did not recover the full creative energy of earlier days, there was technical innovation, shown especially in the devising of a series of basins for evaporating brine by stages. When this method appeared in Europe, Adshead considers it not impossible that a mixture of independent invention and borrowing was at work, or what he calls ‘a stimulus diffusion’. It may have come via Islam; all the biggest western salines had been at one time or another in Muslim hands. Western Europe was in any case the world’s second main salt region, and both technology and state management were maturing new skills. Ways of refining coarse salt were being found. In the 16th century the most striking novelty was the boiling of Durham seabrine with cheap local coal for fuel.

Genoa, the city whose mountains always seem to be trying to kick it into the sea, pioneered a regular network of salt distribution among the Mediterranean countries. Venice carried it on, with more stress on state direction of individual enterprise. Control was exercised at the top by three boards, whose prime concern was with long-range transport of salt by sea. Here again Adshead thinks it not out of the question that the Venetians owed something to Chinese practice, which they could have heard of from Marco Polo and his relatives, or through the Arabs, the great middlemen of Asian maritime commerce. At any rate, between 1250 and 1650 the Venetian salt-supply was ‘a major institution of the state’. The bringing of salt to Venice was ‘increasingly confined to a ring of privileged merchants’, under license. When removed from the warehouse for sale in mainland Venetia, the imported salt paid a heavy impost. This revenue made its biggest contribution to the fisc early on, when it might amount to 30 per cent of the total, and again towards the end of its great period.

‘France’ was a miniature empire built up by conquest, with the northern region, the seat of the monarchy, for its base. This region was rewarded by having to bear a permanently disproportionate share of the cost. Adshead’s account of the famous salt gabelle is a good illustration. It was a monopoly entrusted to private speculators, the fermiers généraux who contracted to collect the duties on salt and tobacco and the customs dues. With his liking for private enterprise, Adshead regards it as ‘a model piece of privatisation: finance at its best and most rational’. One must feel some scepticism: tax-farming has nearly always been scandalously dishonest and oppressive.

Northern France (excluding Brittany) was the pays de Grande Gabelle: it had only one third of the population of France, but paid twothirds of the salt revenue. Its inhabitants were compelled to buy at least seven pounds of salt per head yearly, whether they wanted it or not, and defaulters could be sent to the galleys as slave labour, or broken on the wheel. With these weapons, the tax-farmers may not have needed to be particularly ‘rational’, any more than the legalised private monopolies of Britain today. Other provinces paid at a reduced rate, or not at all. In the early 16th century when an attempt was made to extend the grande gabelle to the south-west, armed revolt forced the government to abandon it. The Bourbon monarchy might be ‘absolute’, but it signally failed to unify France.

The other European ‘salt administration’ examined is that of the Habsburg Empire, where the Salzmonopol was more Uniform, and allowed no tax-free areas. It was of greatest importance in the years from 1500 to 1700 when the Archdukes of Austria were consolidating their hold over a diversity of lands and peoples. Their authority never became as fully bureaucratic as that of the French kings, their great rivals. It was exercised largely through the great semi-feudal estates of Danubia; the Habsburgs themselves were the supreme landlords, and their salt system was ‘basically a form of estate management’. Its yield helped to save the state on some critical occasions, above all at the time of the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683.

After about 1800 Europe was turning more and more away from sea-water to rock salt and brine-wells. By the early 19th century Cheshire could boast ‘the most dynamic salt industry in Europe’, with an expanding role in world trade. As with other minerals in England, predacious landowners were able to skim off a good share of the profits. One family concerned was that of the poetical Lord De Tabley whose melancholy strains impressed Tennyson – some of them deservingly. In all developed countries now there was increasing consumption of salt, largely in preserved foods, but still more in industrial processes. The earliest of these had been the separation of silver from ore with the help of mercury. This was part of Europe’s imperial expansion; and the first bulk export from the New World to Europe was salt, made in a lagoon on the Venezuelan coast seized from Spain in the 17th century by the Dutch. In another conquered realm, China under the Manchus, part of the salt revenue ‘functioned as an imperial privy purse’, and played an important part in the suppression of the big 18th-century rebellions.

Three of Adshead’s studies of ‘salt administrations’ are devoted to mixed Western and Eastern systems set up in India by the British, and in the Turkish empire and China, near the end of their old régimes, by foreign governments for the benefit of creditors: improved collection of salt and other duties would help foreign financiers to get their loans repaid. In 1922 it could be reckoned that only 4 per cent of all salt produced in China was escaping tax. Salt was helping also to subsidise railway-building and meet emergencies. Seldom, Adshead comments, can a great country have come to be so dependent on a single revenue item.

British India makes a fascinating, very complex story in this respect. In 1882-3 salt paid six million pounds out of a total of 26 received by the Treasury. Thereafter its share dwindled, and as soon as the British left the tax was abolished. Gandhi’s celebrated Salt March in 1930 had little practical effect, Adshead considers, and only his arrest saved him from an embarrassing fiasco. This misses the point; Gandhi did not expect to cripple the Raj financially, but to damage it morally by challenging it, under the eyes of a watching world, on the ground of injustice to the Indian poor – ground where it could only defend itself by brutal police charges. Gandhi was the winner. It seems very anomalous that India should be importing so much foreign salt (mostly not from Britain, after the late 19th century): but as Adshead explains, the ring of Calcutta merchants who did most of the importing could argue that India’s trade was benefiting, because the ships carrying its exports, like jute, were able to employ salt as ballast for the return journey, and freights were thereby lowered.

Adshead credits the British authorities, somewhat surprisingly, with a measure of paternalist protection of salt workers. But the whole question of salt labour in world history deserves another volume from him. Down to the end of the 18th century salt workers in Scotland, like coal-miners, were legally serfs, tied for life to their work. Health must often have suffered, as perhaps it has also with salteaters. However that may be, on the spiritual well-being of human societies the influence of salt ought to have been excellent, to judge by the frequent participation of ecclesiastical agencies in salt business. Temple rituals in China were often supported by salt funds. Marabouts or Muslim holy men in North Africa were energetic traders. Cistercian and other monasteries in Germany, the Habsburg Empire, Muscovy, have a prominent place in the record. Prestonpans near Edinburgh got its name from sea-workings owned by the priests.