NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A History Worth Its Salt

April 2, 2002

Some historians revel in hanging their tales on various common pegs -- such as gout, or epidemics or tobacco. Now author Mark Kurlansky finds his world in a grain of salt in "Salt: A World History," published by Walker & Co.

He argues that salt has been the stuff of war, taxes and politics -- and has played a much larger role in history than is generally recognized.

Some examples:

  • Its ability to preserve meat and other foods eliminated the in-season only availability of food and allowed people to travel over long distances -- a capability which led to the formation of empires.
  • In the mid-17th century, the salt tax was France's leading source of state income and violations led to thousands of deaths and imprisonments -- and it wasn't abolished until 1946.
  • During the American Revolution, the British targeted and often destroyed the colonialists' salt works -- while the Continental Congress encouraged the "making of salt," and in 1777 New Jersey granted military exemptions to salt workers.
  • Imperial Britain's salt tax on India inspired Gandhi's 240-mile march to the Arabian Sea -- where he collected untaxed salt crusts from the beach and set in motion that sub-continent's freedom movement.

Salt even worked its way into the language. Rome's soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, hence "salary" and "worth his salt." The Latin for salt, "sal," the French "solde" (pay) and "soldier" are intimately related.

Source: Edward Rothstein, "Salt, History's Mover and Shaker," New York Times, March 30, 2002.


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