The Harrowing Beauty Of La Grande Saline
It is one of St Barts’ more unexpected spots and it has painful memories for some of its inhabitants. Thirty years of prosperity can all too quickly erase memories of the hard and arduous life of the population of St Barts before the current new era.
Looking at La Grande-Saline you are obviously struck by its beauty. Its bright colors alone are enough to make it a talking point today. Although it is useless, under threat even and self-conscious, like everything which wants to avoid death, it seeks to charm, with a hint of posing.
Yet la Grande-Saline has not always been this respectable grand lady flaunting her magnificent scattered squares. Right up until the 1970s, many men - and especially women - experienced hard times there which are difficult to imagine today.
A shaky start
Under Swedish rule in the early 1800s, la Grande-Saline was just an area of swampland on whose surface salt would sometimes form which a company tried to harvest. In 1820, the Swedes organized themselves and developed it as a precarious business, which collapsed in 1872 because its salt prices could not compete with those of neighboring islands. La Grande-Saline was left undeveloped until St Barts was returned to France on 16 March 1878.
The production and sale of salt were revived and lasted in a rather precarious fashion until 1896. The French government then granted St Barts 60,000 francs initially to run the business, before buying it back and letting the inhabitants run it. A devastating cyclone in 1924 caused the business to collapse again. A few years later in the 1930s, La Grande-Saline was rehabilitated and William Beal took over the concession. The most determined men - or rather the most determined women - went back to work there again for a while...
The "Crystal Mountain"
In the early days you had to get up very early, sometimes with an empty stomach. Because they only worked for three months of the year, some people had to make the money earned during the season last for the nine other months of the year. The female salt marsh workers came from all over the island, often walking three, four or more kilometers barefoot in the dark.
Wearing a straw hat, plain dresses and with canvas sacks on their feet, they went out into the salt pans armed with a spade and a basket, although as often as not the work was done by hand. They ripped up slabs of salt and put them in a basket to drain then placed them in a little flat-bottomed boat before decanting them all onto a dike.
They then went back to harvesting the salt in this increasingly warm water which irritated, burned and gnawed at the skin, under an ever more oppressive and powerful sun. Just before the heat became unbearable and once the salt had thoroughly dried in the sun, they carried it on their heads, a bag at the time, to the big heap of salt called the "Crystal Mountain". Then at about eight or nine o'clock they went back uncomplainingly to all parts of the island.
The price of beauty
These inhuman working conditions eventually sounded the death knell for La Grande-Saline. Although a whole generation was not afraid of the exhausting work involved, the next generation did not want to be tied down to it. La Grande-Saline slowly wound down and stopped torturing men and women, before finally closing in 1972, when tourism took off on the island.
When you pass La Grande-Saline on your way to the beach, spare a thought for the women and men who suffered there and without whom the beauty of La Grande-Saline would not be so poignant.
For more information, read “Les Salines.. il était une fois”. BERRY, Kaytia, Lion’s Club, “Île de Saint-Barthélemy”, 2005.