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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

The Salt of Summer

Part Two

Historical Information

Welcome to the history page! Today we will continue our riveting study of Ibiza's salt pans during medieval times. As you will remember from last week's instalment, the salt industry was considered a collective good, a 'summum bonum' as it were, whose proceeds should be employed for the benefit of the citizenry at large. At least that is the light in which the Catalan conquerors envisaged the situation. (Despite their continual warmongering they were really quite an idealistic bunch.) Hence, all salt-generated revenues went toward the creation and maintenance of a town hall (then called "university") as well as the upkeep of a small fighting corps to defend the island against marauding Moors and Turks.

Of course, the instituting of a political apparatus was self-serving for the conquerors as well. It legitimized their dominance over the area and provided a vehicle through which to implant and enforce legislation, especially since the warlords were not often present on Ibicenco soil. And too, the institutionalization of the island was an essential step in linking it to its new alma mater, the small but stalwart Catalan Empire.

Romantic that I am, I always tend to take a bleeding-heart stance on these matters, feeling that people should be helped in more immediate ways than simply living under the protective umbrella of statehood. However, even I will admit that in those wild days, government protection was as urgent a need as victuals, clothing and shelter.

Nor can it be denied that the conquistadors were extremely lenient in the exaction of payment from their serfs. In the early years there were several public annulments of debt in which all islanders, regardless of the amount owed, were absolved from their arrears. In an admirable show of generosity, accounts across the board were brought to zero, and everyone was given a fresh start. So, if pressed, I would have to say that Montgrí and his fellow knights did have the highest common good at heart.

This did not stop them, however, from taking a 10% commission on all salt-generated profits. And although the actual saltworks were located in one of Montgrí's 'quartons', the annuity produced was divided equally amongst the three knights - which was certainly fair play on Montgrí's part. They took it in turns to deal with the red tape, so that each year one of the knights (or his agent) was allotted the chore of going to the university to collect the amount due. He would then see to it that the shares were distributed among his colleagues. I burn to know if the service at the university was as leisurely then as it is today at the town halls; but somehow that particular detail of bureaucracy has escaped the record.

Harvest Time

Now that we have explored the ethical and political implications of feudal salt production, we will turn out attention to the common man's experience of it. Probably the best word to describe this would be gruelling.

Hellish, torturous and insufferable would also do, but lest I sound too over-blown I'll stick to gruelling. The task of salt harvesting was undertaken in the searing heat of summer - July, August and usually part of September. By this time the evaporation of seawater from the pans was at its maximum and each bed was lined with crystal residue. Men would come from all over the island to rake out the crystalized salt and transport it, on foot, to the shore where boats of many countries (especially the northlands, Holland and Genoa) waited to receive their cargoes.

A long queue of workers would carry the salt on top of their heads in tightly woven baskets. When freshly raked, the crystals still retained some of the seawater from the pans so that, despite protective towelling, this liquid would seep down into the labourer's eyes, causing extreme burning. Red-eyed and squinting they would bear up under their heavy loads, trudging doggedly down to the sea as the sun hammered into them. Remember that, as a mineral, salt has the same density as rock. The continuous muscular strain of balancing such weight could literally break a man's back - or, at the very least, stiffen his neck for life.

In addition to these hardships, the men did not have the luxury of returning home at the end of a long day's work. The labour teams (called vendès) hailed from the Four Corners of the island and would usually stay in local barracks until the season's work was done. The slowness of travel made it counter-productive for them to leave the pans. It was for this reason that, in the mid-18th century, a small church (the San Francisco Chapel, see our LiveIbiza Archive article Weekly Edition 007 of Saturday 14th April 2001) was built in the vicinity. At least the workers would not have to go without the comfort of spiritual ministration.

Loading the Cargo

With the passing of the centuries the salt-loading area has changed from place to place. In the 13th century it was located on the stretch of Playa d'en Bossa known as Sal Rossa. There was no quay to load up at, so the boats would drop anchor at some distance from the shore. Rowboats filled with salt would then shuttle out and back, stocking the boats batch by batch. By this method, it took several days to load just a single boat and required many rowers. These rowers often turned out to be slaves who, in antiquity, pretty much had the rowing market cornered. The strongest slaves, curiously called 'bags of bones', were chosen for this difficult task. In these cases, the slave's owner would receive the wages for his chattel's labour.

Sal Rossa was protected by a tower (still standing) to guard against the pirates who always lurked in the offing. The present-day tower dates back to the 16th century when it was rebuilt on the ruins of a previous one. The site was also endowed with cisterns of fresh rainwater where sailors could replenish their supplies.

The Modern Era

As time went by, ships got bigger and bigger, rendering the shuttle method rather futile. Finally, in the 19th century a loading dock was built at Es Cavallet. While the dock was a vast improvement over the old system, its placement was unfortunate. Exposure to whipping winds and high waves soon destroyed it.

The dock then was rebuilt at its present-day location of Sa Cova Llarga, better known as La Canal. A translation of the original name into English, "The Long Cove", confirms that the site was better protected against inclemency than Es Cavallet had been. Before long, islanders began referring to the site as La Canal ("the loading channel") because from afar on-lookers could see the stream of salt rushing down the chute into the boats. According to locals, this stream looked more like a cascade of frothy water than it did solid matter.

One final note is that the salt trade has brought more to Ibiza than just business. In the early days of antibiotics, penicillin was almost impossible to come by on the island. But, freighters putting in for salt always had a supply on board. The chronically ill, mostly suffers of tuberculosis, would go to La Canal to buy their rations of this health-restoring medicine.


Ibiza owes much to seafarers. Through a good stroke of timing, we will be afforded the chance to study how this collective sense of gratitude has expressed itself in local custom. The fast-approaching celebration of 'Our Lady of the Seas' will be our next topic. See you then,

Emily Kaufman