Ibiza History Culture

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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

The Salt of Summer

Part One


Historical Information

Welcome to the history page. Last week we entered the portals of summer via the ancient rites of San Juan. Having passed into this blithe domain does not, however, mean that we are going to desist in our studies. Quite to the contrary, summer will provide us with abundant material for historical inquiry. Throughout the ages, it has always marked a high tide of important island events.

Lest we think our new-fangled selves unique, the 'peak season' is by no means a phenomenon peculiar to the tourist industry or to clubbing culture or to sun seekers. Because of the calmness of the Summer Sea, this season unfailingly signalled a time of intense activity, for, until the advent of air travel, the only means of accessing the island was by boat.

Summer, for example, was frequently punctuated by naval conquest. To site but two of the island's more outstanding battles, in the summer of 1114 Ibiza became the first objective of the Pisan-Catalan campaign, one of the lesser Crusades. The siege was launched on the Day of San Juan (June 24th) and ended on the Day of San Lorenzo (August 10th). A second military milestone, the Catalan Conquest, also took place at the height of summer on August 8th, 1235.

Moreover, summer was a heyday for pirates. The high seas were as smooth as silk and a humid haze often blurred the approach of ships. The archives are full of such 'summer assaults'. Summer was also the season in which Ibiza was hit by the worst bout of bubonic plague in its history. That was in the 'anno horriblis' 1652. And, of course, the landmark visit of the Archbishop of Tarragona, Manuel de Samaniego also occurred in summer, with the prelate arriving on 21 August 1726.

In addition to these singular events, summer was always (and is still), the high season for the harvest of salt. This timeless industry, though perhaps not as piquant as pirates, plagues and crusades, is the topic of our ruminations this week. Sorry to disappoint our action-loving readers, but take heart. As we weave our way through summer, we will touch down properly on all of the aforementioned leitmotifs. But for now, salt.

How Salt is Made

Let us first turn our attention to the actual process by which salt is obtained from the sea. It should be mentioned here that Ibiza's salt pans are a naturally occurring feature of the island, present from prehistoric times, and successively improved upon by a long train of inhabitants

The first step in production is to allow a controlled amount of seawater to enter the pans. The flow of seawater is regulated by two little mill houses, each containing a wooden wheel with flat spades at the ends of the spokes. One house is situated at the point of entry (Es Codolar) and the other at the point of exit (Es Cavallet). The water level has to be exactly right - not too high or the liquid will not evaporate; but not too low or it will evaporate too quickly leaving little salt residue.

Of equal importance is the degree of salinity. If it rains, the water will turn sweet and will not crystallize into salt. If there is a long dry spell the salinity becomes excessive, causing the salt to turn bitter. Thus the intake and outflow of water must be carefully regulated by the mill wheels.

From People to People

The mechanical knowledge I have just related was probably handed down to the Catalan settlers by the Moors who were experts at hydraulic technology. Due to the progressive deterioration of the Moorish Empire, however, by the time of the conquest it is generally assumed that the saltworks had dwindled to a very low level of production and/or had fallen into a state of abandonment.

One of the prime aspirations of the Conquistadors, therefore, was to rebuild the industry. They knew that salt production would prove to be an excellent means of generating income as well as providing gainful employment for the local population - just the ticket for a budding political entity.

Ownership and Administration

For these very reasons, 'Las Salinas' were considered a collective good and could hardly have been appropriated as private property - even by the conqueror himself. Hence, despite the fact that the salt flats fell within one of the quartóns which had been allotted to Montgrí (see our Ibiza History Culture Archive article Weekly Edition 008 of Saturday 21st April 2001), they were treated as an isolated district.

In a spirit of social altruism, the knight and his consorts donated all proceedings from the manufacture and sale of salt to the people of Ibiza, that is, to the university. This term merits some clarification here for it continually crops up and causes confusion. The expression 'university' was used from the time of the Conquest in 1235 up to 1714 and actually meant "town hall". Until recently, there has never been a university in Ibiza, as we understand the word.

Getting back to the point, all salt revenues (save 10% that Montgrí kept back for himself and his knights) went to the newly formed Town Hall. This funding was primarily employed in the defence of state, for no political entity can embark on a course of self-determination without some form of military provision. Due to the constant threat of pirates, a good part of the salt money was used to buy arms and to maintain a small corps of fighting men. There were also civil servants to be paid, stationery to be bought, and all the sundry expenditures that government agencies entail. Viewed in this light, it can be said that Las Salinas gave Ibiza the financial wherewithal to maintain at least a minimal level of statehood.


Next week we will carry on with our study of the salt flats, shifting our focus to the common man's point of view. See you next week,

Emily Kaufman