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Salt Island Past and Present

Salt Island, located between Peter and Cooper Islands in the Sir Francis Drake Channel in the BVI, is an island of rare beauty and history. At one time the island supported an industrious community of over 100 people and a thriving salt industry. For decades the occupants of the island would harvest the salt, which they would sell – on both the island, in local stores, and to the British Navy. Each year the residents would pay their token tithe to the queen – one sack of salt.

In the days before commercially packaged salt and refrigeration, people from throughout the BVI would join those living on Salt Island during “dry” spring when the water, in the two shallow salt water ponds located there, would evaporate leaving a hard outer layer of salt on the bot tom and edges of the pond. After an evening “Festival” the BVI Governor, a governmental agent, and a member of the Royal BVI police force would come to the island for the “breaking of the pond”. Quite a party would also follow the harvesting.

Clementine Helena Leonard Smith was born on May 9, 1911 and grew up on Salt Island with her parents. After elementary school in Tortola, Clementine returned to Salt Island to help with the daily work of the island – fishing, salting fish and meat, butchering and tending livestock, farming, and mining salt from the famous salt pond located there. In 1935, Clementine married Gerald Smith of Peter Island, a union that produced nine children. After Clementine’s children migrated to Tortola to receive their education, she turned her full attention to the burial ground where the deceased from the shipwreck of HMS Rhone are buried.

(Most sailors and divers from our area know about the great tragedy that occurred in 1867 on the rocks of Salt Island, when the Royal Mail Ship Rhone sank in a storm, taking 125 persons with her. Today the remains of the Rhone have become a fascinating underwater habitat for marine life and are a part of the national park system where they are rated the most popular wreck dive in the Caribbean by numerous dive publications.)

With much diligence Clementine maintained the areas around the beaches and salt ponds and entertained tourists about the life and the history of Salt Island, Cooper Island, Peter Island, and surrounding isles. Her efforts on Salt Island were recognized in 1985 when she received the title B.E.M – British Empire Member Medal for her outstanding works. The Frederick Pickering Memorial Foundation also recognized her in May 1996 for her social and cultural contribution on Salt Island. Clementine died in 1998 but she left a great heritage in BVI history. She is, quite naturally, buried in the very graveyard that she used to tend.

Following Clementine’s death, Norwell Durant became the only resident left on the island. Norwell, like his father and grandfather before him, collected salt from the salt lakes and tended to its export, a family tradition. Once a week his brother, who lived on Tortola, would come by boat and bring him food as well as take back the sacks of salt that he had harvested. Norwell died in 2004 and is buried next to his father and grandfather on the island. Their graves are mounds above ground that are covered by large stones and conch shells. On the two elder graves there is a struggling cactus that was carved by Norwell into the shape of a holy cross in honor of his elders.

No one lives on Salt Island today and the salt from her two ponds is not mined, but I often see charterers anchored there enjoying a picnic or volleyball on the beach. I hope after reading this they will know a little more about the lovely island that they are visiting.

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