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Salt: A World History

By Mike Kurlansky

ISBN: 0-8027-1373-4

–Review by Douglas Balzer

Salt, there is no doubt we need salt. Blood, sweat, and tears have the mineral salt in them. It is an essential mineral to life and good health. We generously shower our popcorn with it, and few realize we are consuming two hazardous compounds, sodium or natrium and chlorine or chloride, but combined they form sodium chloride or table salt which is one of the building blocks of life.

The vital role it plays in life goes beyond our physical chemistry, but it encompasses human history though few people realize it. Salt is historically the first international trade good and considered as such a precious commodity; it was an ancient form of currency. It was and is a means of preserving our food from spoiling; its value in our lives is priceless.

Now, Jesus compares his followers to this necessary mineral – “You are the salt of the earth.”

Jesus uses salt as a metaphor for his followers to create a semiotic image of the importance of our presence in the world. Contemplating the semiotics behind the metaphor, we often overestimate how much we understand about salt and the role it plays in the world. I invite you to examine the deep meaning of the semiotics about salt offered in this book. Jesus understood the value of salt in all areas of human activity from the physical need, the preservation of food, and the economic impact. I do not doubt in my mind the message Jesus is imaging for us as he spoke. So, please, read the following review, see if you connect the dots and come to the same conclusion about the semiotics of salt.

In his book Salt: A World History, Mike Kurlansky introduces us to this common mineral we take for granted in our contemporary world. Salts importance in our daily lives plays an essential role, though most people only see it as a seasoning, salt has played a significant role in shaping human civilization through many millennia causing the rise and fall of empires, as well as a resource to wage war over.

Mark Kurlansky enlightens and educates us by presenting the world history of salt. He takes us to ancient China where they learned to extract it from seawater to the Nile Delta where its preservation properties were used in the mummification process of corpses, to ancient Rome where control of the salt reserves was the bases for power and control.

The book has some valuable lessons about humanity and the power of this now common mineral that has influenced dramatic changes in world economies. Some of the content of the book will surprise you. Frankly, it may not excitingly change your life, but you will never look at the saltshaker again with the same simple affinity. You might be able to season your next dinner party or create a power semiotic sermon due to Salt: A World History.

Now, the first lesson we learn is the Celts were salt traders, and their success came from salt. It made them a wealthy ancient people. Part of what brought this to light was the discovery of a well-preserved corpse in a mountain salt mine near the Austrian border. The body was salted heavily, but what made the discovery unique was the colorful clothing, the estimate of it dating was to 400 B.C. The well-preserved corpse was later found to be an ancient Celt.

The Celts derived their name from the Greek word ‘hal,’ which means salt. Ancient historians amongst the Greek and Romans described the Celts as massive, terrifying men in bright fabrics. Unfortunately, the Druids who were the keepers of their culture did not keep written records, we know little about them, except they thrived on the salt trade through salt and salted good such as salted hams.

The Celt’s innovative methods for salt mining helped to expand the reach of their influence through immense spans of Europe. The Celts found the advantage of mining salt by using bronze tools rather than iron tools. The Celts understood bronze does not rust like iron when exposed to salt.

Eventually, in 50 B.C., we see a dramatic shift in the power of the salt trade move to the Romans under Julius Caesar. Despite the Celt’s success as innovators, shrewd traders, engineers, and fearsome warriors, their time is history ran its course. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Venice, and Genoa remained influential in the salt trade. Eventually, new trade routes developed to India and the New World.

Now, another lesson we learn from the book is one of the hidden reasons for the American revolutionary war. By strategically restricting salt trade and attacking American saltworks, Britain triggered the revolutionary war.

The American colonists had a self-reliance character, and the fishing industry relied on salt. They began to harvest the salt from the seawater gain independence from the British salt trade. The self-reliance of these innovative colonists cut into the salt trade, and they depended on British salt less and less. To counter the local salt trade, the British made “British salt” less expensive to take control of the salt trade. Taxes on salt continued to rise, and punitive tariffs were put into place to control the market further. It is another part of the puzzle that eventually leads to the revolutionary war in 1775. Britain completely cut off the export of salt to the colonies to weaken the revolutionary effort. It interestingly started with salt.

What we do not realize from the narrative of history the crucial role salt played in the early United States. Despite recognizing the colonist’s independence, the British initially tried to restrict the U.S. salt trade. It continued the conflict where the British sought to destroy all the newly created saltworks in the young nation. Innovations and cleverness on the part of the independent colonists were to build covert saltworks and canals to transport salt. When the war ended in 1815, the villages and towns near the salt works and the system of canals became hubs of prosperity and growth.

A third lesson we learn from the book is the extraction of brine (water with a high concentration of salt) caused damage to infrastructure, causing railroad tracks to buckle in some cases. It also contributed to foundations of houses to shift and sink. It resulted in a damage tax being imposed on the saltworks, but the result only empowered the big companies.

Northwest England in Cheshire, salt harvesting from brine springs had been part of the local economy long before the Roman conquest. Interestingly, centuries later, the particular kind of salt harvested here would be branded “Liverpool salt,” a delicacy. It created a boom and led to excessive extraction resulting in an adverse environmental impact, by 1880, it is estimated that about 90% of all British salt came from Cheshire county.

The environmental impact was most notable in the quality of the air that was consistently black from coal burning. Sinkholes of diverse sizes appeared, some swallowing up entire sections of towns. Meadows and pasturelands vanished from the landscape. Near the end of the 18th century, a lake more than 100 acres in size suddenly appeared due to the sink.

The sink, as it was referred to, damaged the railroad lines and the bridges were made unusable. Water mains, sewer lines, and gas pipes were often in need of repair. They are breaking due to the sink.

The leadership of Cheshire county in 1891 decided to create a flat tax meant to compensate for all the damage the salt industry had produced. The result was the tax cripple the small-scale producers, forcing them out of business, while the larger companies who could afford it were now able to dominate.

This same scene has played out in many areas where salt was the main harvest. Historic champions in the salt industry, like France and Britain, soon fell behind as more industrial-minded players moved into the world trade economy. Players like the United States, Germany, and China became the market leaders and remain as the market leaders today.

Mark Kurlansky creates a fantastic narrative about what might be a dull, ordinary, everyday seasoning we have radially available; we even take it for granted and spins it into a story worth telling. There are other lessons to learn about salt from in the text as well, such as Japan, the Great Wall, and Gandhi’s in the story of salt. I recommend reading it and applying the imagery to Jesus and the church. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Now, be salty.