Salt: An Addiction that Engineered the World – The Study of Salt through the History of the British Empire

Salt: An Addiction that Engineered the World – The Study of Salt through the History of the British Empire

Written by Georgiana Andra Liciu

for Prof. Wendy Thatcher

Salt is a spectacular food commodity that had an impact on culture, religion, politics, and science in every country in the world since before recorded history. The study of salt is socially relevant because without this mineral life on Earth would not exist. Indeed, all life emerged from salt water some three billion years ago and all organisms need salt to function and survive. Salt was so important for humans that a lot of words—salami, salary, salvation—find their roots traced back to it. Moreover, since its earliest known use as natron for the preservation of mummies in ancient Egypt around 2000 BC, this tiny mineral has incited the creation of cities like the city of Salzburg in Austria, the creation of roads—Via Salaria during the Roman Empire—and the creation of canals for ship transportations such as the Erie Canal in Huston, New York. Considering that only five percent of all cities in the world are located in the vicinity of a salt deposit, and that in the past centuries salt was used for gunpowder and for the preservation of meat and vegetables, it is no wonder that all great empires looked for the ‘white gold.’ Once they found it, they made a fortune out of it by using predatory tactics on the market. One such practice is the state monopoly of salt. The first state monopoly of salt was imposed in ancient China around 200 BC when the emperors decided to tax salt in order to fund the construction of the Great Wall of China. Because all people—poor or rich—used salt, these taxes were profitable and they were slowly adopted throughout the world. On the other hand, as it will be further explored through the history of the British rule, the taxation soon backfired and created revolutions and crises. This paper will focus on the influence of salt on the British Empire. Without salt, amongst other commodities and beneficial conditions, the British Empire would not have been the leading power of the world. From the British salt explorations in the colonies, to the American Revolution, to the salt tax, and Salt March that led to the independence of India, this paper will describe how salt affected British rule.*

The salt quest led Britain to the exploration of the New World and the acquiring of most of its colonies in the 17th and the 18th centuries. Before the discovery of the national salt reserves from Cheshire, Queen Elizabeth I was “concerned about England’s dependence on French salt” because “salt was strategic, like gunpowder, which was also made from salt” (Kurlansky 193-96). However, how was salt strategic? Other than its use for making gunpowder and supplying the British navy with salt and salt foods, England needed, in addition to a bigger number of ships and fishermen, a huge supply of salt in order to explore the new North American cod fish potential (Kurlansky 199). England was using fish from North America and, after further exploration, salt from the Caribbean in South America. However, it is not with the arrival of Europeans that salt production started in the Americas. On the contrary, in the past, “all the great centres of civilization [from South America, such as the Incan and Mayan civilizations] were founded in places with access to salt” (Kurlansky 203). Following these salt quests, the British Empire was relying so much on salt from the colonies in the Caribbean for the preservation of fish and the manufacturing of fur that “the leading cargo carried to North America—more tonnage than sugar, molasses, and rum—was salt” (Kurlansky 211). On the whole, the lack of salt reserves, paired with the essential uses of this commodity, led England to exploration and exploitation of new lands and thus shaped the history of humanity.

The discovery of rock salt in Cheshire County, North West England, in the 17th century, and the subsequent creation of a Liverpool salt monopoly in New England are factors that led to the American Revolution. While England was importing salt from South America into North America, the first settlers were trying to attract more people from the Old World by luring them to New England with the description of “a land of cod, where salt could be made” (Kurlansky 216). Even the renowned captain John Smith established saltworks in Jamestown in 1607 because he “understood the importance of salt to his dream of a British America” (Kurlansky 216). With time the number of settlers grew, causing the American colonists to try to secure salt at home in order to reduce their reliance on foreign salt and make manufacturing of other commodities more accessible in New England. To eclipse their efforts, the British made “Liverpool salt cheaper and more accessible than local salt”; thus, the domestic American production dropped off (Kurlansky 219). British salt producers used predatory practices to squeeze out the competition and establish their monopoly over this commodity. After dropping the American salt production, Britain did not supply the colonists with enough salt, and this hostility provided the environment to nurture thoughts of rebellion in New England. Instead of softening their misrule, the growing sentiment of rebellion in the colonies made the British “impose punitive tariffs, taxes and other measures designed to inhibit American trade” (Kurlansky 220). The merchant class started to align themselves with the political theorist and revolutionary Thomas Paine who said that “A continent obviously could not be ruled by an island,” and thus in 1765 the American Revolution started (Kurlansky 220). Despite the wish of fishermen and animal farmers for a fast revolution to have access to the salt trade anew, the movement lasted until 1783 when the colonies got their independence, and, by signing the Treaty of Paris formed the United States of America. In short, salt was used for establishing the British colony of New England and when used for repression it ultimately backfired in the American War of Independence.

The salt tax imposed by the East India Company contributed to the persecution of the population and pushed Mahatma Gandhi to start the movement of independence in India with his symbolic Salt March at Dandi. The British Raj, or rule in Hindi, started in 1858 and lasted until 1947. Before being a colony of the British Empire, “in the Mughal period salt was manufactured along the Bengal and Orissa coast [East coast of India] by a class of people known as malangìs … by soiling concentrated brine made by washing salt-rich soil with seawater” (Serajuddin 304). Other than Orissa, salt was also manufactured in Gujarat—the county where Dandi is located— at the Arabian Sea on the West coast of India (Kurlansky 335). At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the British started to monopolize the salt market though the same predatory practices that they previously used in New England. The East India Company made “it … illegal for salt to be manufactured by anyone other than the British government” and subsequently sold salt at their own fixed prices (Kurlansky 337). This monopoly created an inelastic demand for salt from which only the British could benefit at the expense of the impoverished population. If, before the British monopoly on salt, the malangìs were benefiting from the competition between manufacturers to earn a good pay, now they were not “getting enough for [their] labour to live on” (Serajuddin 317-8). Moreover, if the malangìs could not rely on their pay to survive, the consumer could barely afford salt since its price in that period quadrupled (Serajuddin 314). This became problematic because, according to Serajuddin, Indians need salt for their vegetable diet. Therefore, missing the actual mineral, “the very poor were driven to eat impure or bitter salt substitute extracted from vegetable ashes” (Serajuddin 315). It is due to this historical importance of salt that Gandhi chose to start his movement of independence in the Gujarat County by a salt satyagraha (satyagraha meaning the force of truth). He argued that salt “was an example of British misrule that touched the lives of all castes of Indians” (Kurlansky 346). Gandhi’s Salt March of 240 miles started from Sabarmati Ashram on March 12, 1930 and ended 25 days later on April 5 by the sea at Dandi. He left the ashram with 78 followers and reached the sea followed by thousands. According to Evan Andrew’s article “Remembering Gandhi’s Salt March,” arriving at the Arabian Sea, Gandhi bathed and then, at the brisk of the day, bent down and picked up a chunk of a thick crust of salt evaporated by the sun, and in doing so he said, “with this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” Therefore, with beautiful symbolism and non-violent revolt, Gandhi freed a salt deprived India from the tyranny of the British Empire.

In summary, salt seasoned the history of all countries in the world, from ancient times until today. Due to its diverse uses, salt contributed to the development of civilization and was essential for the great empires of the past. This paper focused on the influence of salt in the British Empire’s struggle for power throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and the ways in which this tiny mineral paved the relationships between England and its colonies. Firstly, the salt scarcity in England, paired with the dependence on foreign salt—mainly from their French competitor—influenced the great explorations in South America and the development of the cod- rich New England. Secondly, the predatory practices used by the British salt manufacturers destroyed the American salt market and left colonists with an insufficient salt supply. The salt monopolizing, amongst others factors, contributed to the growing tensions between the colonists and the British Empire, and led to the American Revolution. Lastly, salt was symbolically used, initially by Mahatma Gandhi and subsequently by all castes of Indians, for the peaceful revolution that brought India its independence in the 20th century. Salt helped the British Empire to gain power in the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, and to lose power through tyrannical practices during the second part of the 18th century and the 19th century. This research was enlightening because it showed how, in big history, something as seemingly unnoticeable in our daily routine engineered the map of the world. Salt is an essential mineral not only because it gives taste to food, but also because it spiced up the history of humanity.


* The information is a brief introductory summary of the Big History documentary and the talk of Mark Kurlansky which are cited in the Works Cited page at the end of this essay.


Works Cited

Andrews, Evan. “Remembering Gandhi’s Salt March.” 12 Mar. 2015, Accessed 9 Dec. 2016

An Intriguing History of Salt: Currency, Trade Routes, Finance, Empires, performed by Mark Kurlansky. Youtube, uploaded by The Film Archives, 7 Oct. 2015, Accessed 9 Dec. 2016.

Big History: The Superpower of Salt, directed by Gabriel Rotello and performed by Bryan Cranston, Youtube, uploaded by Popol Kuju, 3 Sept. 2015, Accessed 13 Nov. 2016.

Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2002.

Serajuddin, A. M. “The Salt Monopoly of the East India Company’s Government in Bengal.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 21, no. 3, 1978, pp. 304–322.

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