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Salt Island Past and Present

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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.)

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Salt Island's The Rhone - Photo: Armando Jenik Underwater Images
Diving The Rhone just off of Salt Island is considered a “Must Do” – Photo: Armando Jenik Underwater Images

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 May 14, 2002 (edited) 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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  1. Please correct the date of my Grandmother Clementine Smith’s death. She died May 14, 2002 and I was the co-author of her eulogy.

    Here is the link where I found the error.

    I appreciate the use of the rich history from the eulogy – regarding Salt Island and my family – to tell the world about the beauty of the people and habitat of Nature’s Little Secret, the British Virgin Islands. Keep on doing a great job of it.


    Anna A Rabsatt, granddaughter of Clementine Smith

    • To Anna A Rabsatt.
      Having visited Salt Island again in 2017 and then returning this year ( May end end 2018) and seeing the devastation caused by last years hurricane season that was so horribly evident, it stirred us to look through our photos from 2017.
      The photos we had of the graveyard and in particular that of James A Durante, showed it had been so beautifully decorated with flowers and shells but now it was no longer identifiable.
      The headstone was unearthed and the grave topping was washed away. It was such a sad sight that we,and our 2 young kids, wanted to help restore the grave of someone’s loved one. So,using our photos, we marked out precisely where the grave had been,reset the headstone and found and collected as many of the flowers and conch shells as we could to try to decorate it as it had been. We also made a start to clearing the debris from some of the other graves.
      We hope, in time, the other graves might also be repaired.
      We did this with respectful intentions and hope no offence has been caused.
      Salt Island has a special place in our hearts and we hope to return again one day.
      Tim, Lynette, Mackenzie and Sienna

  2. Lynette,

    It is heartwarming to note that you and your family enjoyed and hold dear this slice of paradise that is Salt Island. James A. Durante was my father, and he was born on Salt Island. On behalf of my family, thank you for your act of kindness and respect in restoring the headstone, flowers and conch shells which marked our loved one’s grave. It is our family’s intention to restore all of the graves, prepare markers for them, and maintain them beautifully.

    My family’s best wishes to you and your family. We would be delighted to meet you all on your next trip to the BVI!

    Anna Durante


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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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