As I leave Bonaire’s built-up area of Kralendijk behind me and pass the pink Flamingo Airport, the luxury homes of American and European celebrities, I am suddenly alone.
To the right there’s the bright blue sea, to the left the shimmering Pekel Lake. The salt mountains break the monotony of the horizon, in the same way as the pyramids of Giza do when seen from the Sahara. The view is breathtaking. “Weird” and “moon-like” are how I hear it described by two American tourists in the City Café later. Indeed.
There are only a few fallen palm trees along the coast and a temporary road marker pointing out directions to Paris, San Francisco and Melbourne. A flock of flying flamingos add a splash of color to this bleached white, light-saturated scene.
I do something I shouldn’t – something that many tourists do, I later discover. I drive into the open empty terrain just past the salt factory to see the salt mountains and lakes more closely. Salt extraction forms an important part of Bonaire’s history. In the days before refrigeration, the salt trade filled a major need for preserving food to store and transport. The salt caravans of Africa attest to its role in history and we even derive the word “salary” from the Roman word for salt, such was its importance in paying the soldiers of its empire.
In 1620, events during the Eighty Years’ War forced the Dutch Republic to look further afield for salt after Spain cut off supplies. They captured Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba in 1633, in retaliation for the Spanish taking St Maarten from them, and immediately began exploiting the island’s rich salt plans, as well as growing maize and cutting woods used in dyeing cloth. Native people, convicts from other colonies and a few African slaves were put to work under harsh conditions and the salt industry grew rapidly, absorbing more and more slaves. Squinting against the bright glare of the sun reflecting off the white pans in the blazing heat, I shudder to think what conditions must have been like for the men, women and children forced to work here.
The Dutch West India Company, then the Dutch multinational AKZO and finally US company Cargill have all worked the salt. Not much else has changed over the centuries. Seawater streams onto the shallow salt pans, the sun evaporates the water, the salt is left behind and can then be collected.
After I have rubbed my hands among raw salt crystals the size of ping-pong balls, I take my leave and drive further south. There I find the infamous slave huts: a physical reminder of the exploitation that was regarded as completely normal and legitimate for centuries, but now fills one with horror. The setting of the huts on the outermost point of the island is, ironically, superb but the isolation is palpable. There are only the wandering souls of the thousands of slaves who lived here and worked the saltpans to keep you company.
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