and welcome to the history page. We are again fiesta-less this week, a sad condition
by all counts, but one that allows us to roam freely into yesteryear, exploring
whatever byways take our fancy. This week seems as good a time as any to examine
the nature of island industry prior to tourism.
industry was, of course, the production of salt (see our Ibiza History Culture Archive
articles from Weekly Edition 018 of Saturday 30th June 2001 and Weekly Edition
019 of Saturday 7th July 2001), but there were also several others that figured
prominently. Two of these industries were timber and pitch tar, both offshoots
of the abundant woodland, and both used predominately in shipbuilding. I might
add that these industries were not confined to any specific period in history,
but were practised down through the ages until the modern day.
Like many Mediterranean islands, Ibiza was endowed with an ideal
combination of natural resources to make it a shipyard par excellence: the woodland
was dense and the coastline was dotted with sandy coves where vessels could be
beached and repaired, or built from scratch. Greek seafarers, in particular, were
so taken by the great indigenous wealth of Ibiza and Formentera's woodland that
they named the islands 'the Pitiuses', meaning 'pine-covered isles'. Considering
the well-travelled and expansive worldview of Greek civilization, this appellation
was no small epithet.
En Route Repairs
As practical as they were intelligent, Hellenic traders singled out the resource
they found most attractive about Ibiza: its cornucopia of shipbuilding materials.
The "Ulyssian" nature of ancient commerce made it imperative to have
outposts along the trade routes where repairs could be made and Ibiza lent itself
perfectly to this task. Not only was there timber for the taking, there was also
the possibility of obtaining pitch, a thick sticky substance made from the resinous
sap of pine trees and used in sealing ships.
method of repairing leaky hulls consisted of beaching and careening the vessels,
plugging the cracks with hemp fibres and sealing the wound with pitch. If the
damage was severe, rotten planks would be replaced by new ones and the fresh joints
then sealed with hemp and pitch. An interesting fact is that, not only was pitch
was one of antiquity's only water-proof substances, but it became even more impermeable
upon contact with sea water.
It seems probable that the Greeks introduced a special kind of oven to Ibiza for
the purposes of pitch production. I have made extensive use of Rafael Sainz's
interesting book, The Tales of Mel, for my information. He explains that the Greeks
were the first people to employ ovens in this endeavour. (The alternate method
was to boil down the sap in cauldrons). The Greeks, however, preferred to use
ovens and disseminated this technology among neighbouring lands. Sainz informs
us that, "The remains of some of (these original) tar ovens, similar to those
found in Ibiza . . . can still be seen on various Greek islands and along the
Adriatic coastline in the most wooded areas."
they never set up a permanent colony in Ibiza, it would appear from the foregoing
evidence that Greek seafarers stopped regularly in Ibiza and brought their shipbuilding
craft with them.
Tar, A Sticky Issue
Leaving the Greek question behind, the production of pitch came to be, in time,
one of Ibiza's most important industries. By the 13th century, the enterprise
was so highly regarded that frequent conflicts arose as to who the rightful exploiter
should be. One dispute involved the age-old feud between Church and State, in
this case the former being personified by the Archbishop of Tarragona, the island's
ecclesiastic authority, and the latter by the King of Majorca, the island's temporal
authority. Both entities asserted rightful ownership of the Ibicenco forest, with
its lucrative timber industry and derivatives, each party eager to lay claim to
the handsome profits these generated.
Actually, the marketing
of pitch was a very delicate issue. As Sainz points out, " . . . in times
when a well-sealed boat was a potential enemy that could attack, rob and destroy
at any moment," the government had to be extremely cautious to whom they
sold this precious stuff. He further informs us that, "According to documents
stored in ancient archives, tar produced in Ibiza was better than any other found
along the coastlines of the Mediterranean. The authorities therefore supervised
its production and commercialization, as it was a rare commodity which was frequently
Another indication of this industry's
importance to Ibiza's pre-tourism economy is the abundance of tar ovens found
on the island. To date, about thirty of them have been discovered throughout the
woodland and catalogued by local historians. Also revealing is the frequency of
place names that make reference to this activity. Sainz points out several: "Near
the village of San José there is a puig de sa Pega (Sticky Peak) and near
the village of San Antonio there is a puig de sa Tea (Pitch Peak). On the island
of Formentera can be found a torrent de sa Tea (Pitch Gully), out on the Barbary
Considerations of a Higher Order
Also included in The Tales of Mel is a wonderful account of the veneration
that the Ibicenco woodland evoked in the generations of yore. In chapter 20, Sainz
paints a colourful pen-portrait of a shipbuilder from Valencia who, during the
1940s, came to Ibiza for a visit. This master woodworker amazed the author and
his brother, still small lads at the time, with "the secrets of trees in
Ibiza", an arboreal ensemble which the naval craftsman zealously raised to
the status of "enchanted forest."
of these trees," he told the boys, "the Greeks baptized these idyllic
islands with the magical name of the Pitiuses: by this name they were known along
the shipping routes that run from the Orient to the Occident. And they were also
known as such in the travellers' tales of classical historians. They were singled
out, above all other known shores and islands as an extraordinary site, and well
worth seeing: not only because they are beautiful and possess all the qualities
and more to be regarded as a sacred place . . . (but) because of the shape and
quality of their trees, and because of the rapid and spontaneous re-growth which
made them an inexhaustible source of wood, so rich and cheap."
Traditionally in Ibiza trees were felled during the winter
months when their sap was at its lowest ebb. The dressed trunks were then hauled
to the sea and submerged for several weeks in the salt water. This process partially
petrified the wood, making it both more resilient and more durable for naval construction.
(As an interesting note, trunks thus fortified were also used as roof beams in
The saltiest water on the island,
and therefore the best for treating wood, was at ses Salines salt-works. Therefore,
whenever possible, the freshly cut timber would be brought to this site and cured
in the salt pans. Conveniently, at this time of year salt production was in a
dormant stage, eliminating any conflict of interest between the two industries.
Another plus is that coverage of the trunks was at a maximum because the pans
were still quite full before the rapid evaporation that would occur as the weather
When the time was right, the timber would
be removed from its salt-water cure, transported to the various shipyards around
the island and crafted into extraordinarily seaworthy vessels. The higher mysteries
of this process are described by Sainz's Valencian who explained that through
the ages shipbuilders used "the direction of the grain in the wood in such
as way that the orientation of the timber [would] help the elasticity of the good
Aleppo pine to provide the strength needed for navigation with sail and oar."
The craftsman carries on in a rather esoteric vein, revealing
that "The shapes and dimensions are embedded into the bodies of the trees
. . . Not one of them is straight, they are all leaning, or curved, or have other
rare tendencies, depending on winds: for initiates in naval construction they
are part of a kind of magical art, in which each piece fits perfectly into the
final puzzle, as if prefabricated by the hand of Neptune. These are sacred timbers
. . . the secret of (Ibiza's) forests."
Ibicenco woodland was, in fact, endowed with some magical essence that heightened
the quality of its timber, or whether it was simply the process of salt-curing
rendered them superior, is up to each reader to decide for himself. What can be
said is that, based on the investigations of ancient shipwrecks, there is reason
to believe that the art of shipbuilding - following the method just described
- was practised from at least the 8th and 7th centuries BC until the early 20th
Join us next week when we'll sail to Formentera
for the fiestas of Sant Francesc Javier.