Ibiza History & Culture

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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Sant Francesc de Paula
Fiesta Day Celebrated 2nd April

Saints & Fiestas

Greetings to all! This week we are going to deviate from our scheduled itinerary, which, if you will remember, called for an interview with island historian, Joan Marí Cardona. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to speak with this distinguished scholar, an important fiesta slipped my notice, that of Sant Francesc de Paula. Now I've realised the oversight, I feel it is only fair to tell the story of this interesting place on the occasion of its patron saint's day, 2nd April. For his part, Don Joan has kindly agreed to defer his talk with LiveIbiza until next month.

What's in a Place Name?

Many people know Sant Francesc by its Spanish name, San Francisco; however, as we mentioned in an earlier instalment, under current law, all place names have been officially changed to their Catalan equivalents. Linguistic technicalities aside, what can we say about Sant Francesc in the present day? The truth is, not much. It is so small that it cannot be classed as a village, nor even as a hamlet. There are no houses, no streets, no square, only a bar and a small church. Most islanders think of it as "that place" you pass on the way to Salinas Beach. How, then, did this virtually non-existent .. er.. place... spring into being? Naturally, our answer can be found in history.

The Salt Pans

Throughout the whole of ancient, medieval and modern history, the area of which we speak was referred to simply as 'Las Salinas', meaning 'the salt pans'. These pans were naturally occurring flatlands into which a shallow layer of seawater would flow and be retained. The brine would slowly evaporate under the strong sun, leaving behind a crystal residue of salt.

Ever since Phoenician times and up to the present, the saltworks have been developed and exploited for commercial gain. Each of Ibiza's successive conquerors reformed and updated the operations so that, during all but the bleakest periods of her history, they have been the island's 'summum bonum'. Not only did the salt industry generate the majority of Ibiza's gross income (prior to the advent of tourism), it also provided seasonal employment for most of its able-bodied male population.

Harvest Time

Now that we have established the social and political implications of the salt industry, let us 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 evaporation 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 salt and transport it, on foot, to the pier where boats of many countries (especially the northlands, Holland and Genoa) waited to receive their cargoes.

Long queues of workers would snake down to the shore, carrying the salt on top of their heads in tightly-woven baskets. When freshly raked, the crystals retained some of the seawater for the pans, so that, despite protective towelling, this liquid would seep down into the labourer's eyes, causing burning and irritation. Red-eyed and squinting, they would bear up under their heavy loads, trudging along doggedly as the sun hammered down. Remember too that, as a mineral, salt has the same density as rock. The continuous strain of balancing such weight could literally break a man's back - or, at the very least, stiffen it 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 slowness of travel in the pre-motor era made it counterproductive for them to leave the site, for which reason most of the men would stay in local barracks until the season's work was done. This last element of plot provides us with the key to why a church was built in such a remote spot and why a town never developed around it.

The salt miner's chapel (i.e. San Francisco de Paula) was built sometime in the mid-18th century during a general wave of church construction. What makes this case exceptional is that the whole project was undertaken privately. Unlike all of the other churches of that time, the builders never requested episcopal backing for their project. No politics were involved, the prime concern being only that the workers should not go without spiritual ministration during the long season of salt harvesting.

Loading the Cargo

Once the salt was harvested, the loading process began. With the passing of the centuries, the loading area moved from place to place. In the 13th century it was located in the area of Playa den Bossa known as Sal Rossa. There was no quay, so the boats would drop anchor at some distance from the shore. Rowboats filled with salt would then shuttle back and forth, stocking the boats batch by batch. By this method, it took several days to load just a single boat, and many rowers were needed. These rowers often turned out to be slaves of exceptional strength, ironically referred to as 'sacks of bones' by the islanders of yore. In these cases, the slave's owner would receive the wages for his chattel's labour.

Sal Rossa was protected by a tower to guard against the pirates who always lurked in the offing. The present-day tower at this site dates back to the 16th century when it was rebuilt o the ruins of a previous one.

In the 19th century, a loading dock was built as Es Cavallet. While the dock was a vast improvement over the old system, its placement was unfortunate, and exposure to whipping winds and high waves soon destroyed it. The dock then was rebuilt at its current location of 'Sa Cova Llarga' ('The Long Cove'). The place name itself confirms that this site was better protected against inclemency, lying safely tucked into the shoreline. Before long, islanders began referring to the site as La Canal ("the loading channel") because, even from afar, onlookers 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.

Some Final Thoughts

Salt trade has brought more to Ibiza than just business and a place on the map. It has also brought health. In the early days of antibiotics, penicillin was almost impossible to come by on the island; however, freighters putting in for salt always carried a supply on board. The chronically ill, mostly sufferers of tuberculosis, would go to La Canal to buy their rations of this necessary medicine.

To this day, salt is still harvested at Las Salinas in the traditional way and can be purchased at any island shop for a fraction of the price of most 'health-food' sea salts. It is also exported in its unrefined state to Northern Europe, Scandinavia in particular, where it is used to salt icy roads. Closing Thank you for your rapt attention. It is much appreciated by us here at LiveIbiza. Next week we will turn our attention to another patron saint's day, the fiesta of Sant Vicent. Hope you'll join us.

The Church at San Francesc
Picture Copyright © Gary Hardy

Emily Kaufman