Salt Island, BVI: Home to Salt Fit for Royalty
Salt Island is so-named for reasons quite obvious when viewing its fullness from the sky. This tiny (area: one square-mile) corner of the British Virgin Islands is home to two large and very special salt ponds.
What are Salt Ponds?
Salt ponds are, of course, quite prevalent throughout the West Indies. They form as land masses shift over the centuries. Wave action causes sand/sediment to build up, closing lagoons or bays off from the ocean. Salt continues to be fed to the ponds through underground seepage. As evaporation during dry periods cause pond levels to drop, salt is left behind.
In the case of the salt ponds on Salt Island, the geological phenomenon yields some of the saltiest salt in the Caribbean.
So says a 2006 study measuring the salt concentration of 17 salt ponds in the BVI’s.
If saltiest equals best when judging salt, then it’s no wonder that Salt Island salt has long curried favor among British royalty.
Salt Island Salt Harvest Tradition
Fewer than 100 people have ever lived on Salt Island at any time. In the mid-1800s, though, they’d all gather at the salt ponds each spring for the harvest. This was hugely important back then, of course, as there were no refrigerators.
Once the work was done, a party would ensue and salt taxes would be collected. One of every three bags of salt was paid over in accordance with the Government Salt Pond Ordinance of 1904.
One other special bag of salt, though, was also set aside from the Queen of England.
Her Majesty’s Pound of Salt
This one-pound bag of Salt Island salt was sent to the Queen each year as a symbolic form of “rent.” The tradition, which started in the 1800s, faded after the sinking of the Rhone. The Royal Navy mail ship sank near Salt Island in 1867. Queen Victoria suspended the salt rent as a thank you to the people of Salt Island for their assistance in rescuing Rhone survivors.
(Editor’s note: Salt Island is actually more famous today for the wreck of the Rhone than its salt. The shipwreck, easily among the top scuba diving adventures in the Caribbean, was featured in the 1977 film, The Deep.)
In 2015, though, the royal salt tradition was revived. BVI Governor John Duncan, though, presented a pouch of salt to Queen Elizabeth II not as rent, but as a gift from the people of the Virgin Islands.
Salt Island Today
While the twin ponds that give this saltiest British Virgin Island its name continue to produce, the spring harvest and parties are over. The island is now uninhabited. At the same time, climate change has shifted the optimal salt harvest time to late-June. I’ve read that Salt Island descendants trek back to the island then for a reunion of sorts. Sounds like the best time to be here to me.
Even if it means having to share whatever special salt I manage to collect with the Queen.
*Photo credit: Patrick Bennett.