From the air, the beach and road that run through Anguilla’s village of Sandy Ground looks like a striped ribbon dividing the sea from a giant, shallow salt pond. The bay holds a medley of boats and the brackish pond, home to egrets, ducks, yellow legs and a host of other wildlife, also holds a vital piece of Anguilla’s history and the early economic tie that bound it to the world.
Through many visits I’ve gleaned bits and pieces of the salt story but I wanted to know more—and I knew just who to ask. Belto Carty, age 91, has lived beside the pond nearly his entire life. I found him in his sign-less Delicate Bar, shelling pigeon peas with his daughter, Mariette. The door opens to the pond and through it a cast of characters flow in and out along with the breeze that sweeps the pond, collecting its earthy scent.
“Good afternoon, Belto,” I greeted.
“Afta-noon madam,” he replied.
“Belto, I want to know the story of harvesting the salt. Can you help me?”
“Dat a long time ago. I don rememba so much,” he said.
The man is as sharp as a tack, he couldn’t fool me, so I got him started by asking about the pump house, a group of wooden buildings down the road that still hold the machinery that ground collected salt for exportation.
“Well,” Belto began, “De pump house was where dey grin da salt. Dey put it in de bags an put dem on de ships.”
“What kind of ships?” I asked.
“Dey schooners. De ones wuz bilt right ‘ere. Dey sail to Trinidad, Sen Lucia, Sen Kitts, Barbados. All de islands.” Belto had sailed those engineless vessels laden with salt outbound from Anguilla, returning with produce, lumber, whatever the island needed.
“I thought the pump house was for pumping the water out,” I said.
“Dat too. Dey had de pumps dere an dey pump de wata out so de people could collect de salt.” Mariette explained that the sea water came into the pond through a canal. Once enough sea was inside, they closed the canal and allowed the water to evaporate and turn to brine. Eventually the excess water was pumped back to the sea.
Mariette demonstrated how people scooped the salt up with their hands placing it in baskets. It was transferred to large wooden trays called flats and when heaped full, skidded ashore. At the edge of the pond it was transferred to boxes that the salt workers carried on their heads to a spot where it was piled to dry. The pile would grow so large that ladders were used to add on more.
Belto continued, “Dey trow it out, heap it up in de sun until it get big, big. Dey take it from de heap when it got white, when it wash out from de rain. De rain make it white.”
The salt was then carried to the part of the pump house holding the grinders. Mariette added, “One lady goin’ in wit de boxes, one comin’ out. Work from mornin’ to night. Work all year when we have salt.”
They both grew silent, focusing on the pile of peas between them. I thanked them and began my exit when Mariette insisted, “You go see Mr. Emile. He know all about de salt. He run de bizness. You know de white house wid all de flowers? Dat his house. You aks him.”
The next morning I went to the house beside the pond. On the upstairs porch a man appeared and I introduced myself and my mission. He invited me up, extended his hand and said, “Call me Emile. Come in, please.”
The moment I cleared the doorway I knew I’d entered the home of an extraordinary man. Walls were lined with shelves of books; between them hung dozens of framed photographs and memorabilia. My eye caught a photo of Sir Emile Gumbs posed with Queen Elizabeth as he was being knighted in Anguilla.
“Please, have a seat,” he said as we entered the small living area. The house that had charmed me for years from the outside was even more enchanting inside. Arched doorways were crowned with double layers of gingerbread, and filigree ran around the room and up the seams connecting the roof. “This is the most beautiful West Indian house I’ve ever seen,” I said.
“My Grandfather had it built in 1909, the same year he had the Warspite built.” That grandfather, Captain Carty, ran the business of the salt pond, sailing the harvest to customers down island. From a file folder of papers next to him Emile produced several photos of the vessel, so famous for it’s grace and speed that it adorns the $10 Eastern Caribbean currency bill.
From another file folder he retrieved several age-worn photos of the working salt pond. One showed thirty people working in a straight line near the three foot dam, filling flats with salt. Those flats, fifteen feet long and wide, were heaped with crystals. In another image stood three mountains of salt, each fifty feet high. White clad workers, all bearing boxes of salt, looked like busy ants beside the pile.
Sir Emile took over the operation of the 130 square acre pond from his grandfather. At its peak, in 1967, they harvested a record of 71,000 barrels, each weighing 300 pounds. Their sole customer then was Trinidad where the salt was used in the oil refinery industry. “When we lost that contract,” he explained, “The business dried up.”
That, however, was not the end of the Carty and Gumbs’ family relationship with the pond. In the early 1990s, Emile’s son Laurie and his wife, Gabi, came up with the wild idea of turning the crumbling, dilapidated pump house structures into a bar and restaurant. They pulled it off, and for years it’s been one of the most popular hangouts on Anguilla. Inside, the old gear, some of it dating back 140 years, is proudly part of the décor. On the wall are old photos of the working pond. It’s like a museum that serves drinks.
Sir Emile Gumbs graciously answered my many questions and I could have asked more but I didn’t want to wear out my welcome so I thanked him several times and left. On the way back to my dinghy I realized that the story I’d been after about the salt of the sea had become a story about two very amazing men, both the salt of the earth.
There’s fanciful talk these days of filling in the pond for land reclamation or dredging it for a marina, but to Belto, it’s utter nonsense. “God gave us dat little sumting so dat we could make a dolla.” To learn more: www.pumphouse-anguilla.com/history.php